Iran’s malign behavior will not change

Recently released satellite images indicate that the Iranian regime is building new facilities near the fortified Fordow nuclear site. While the regime has made no public statements explaining that work, it previously acknowledged efforts to similarly fortify nuclear facilities at Natanz. 

There is also evidence of ongoing work at other facilities that are not so widely known or have not even been declared to inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In October, the main coalition of Iranian opposition groups known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) announced the discovery of a military site that is controlled by the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, which is primarily responsible for weaponizing Iran’s nuclear program. 

The US administration should pay due attention to these reminders and recognize their significance. It is widely anticipated that Joe Biden, if inaugurated, will adopt a softer policy than his predecessor, but a potential presidential transition does not need to result in the US whipsawing from “maximum pressure” back to a conciliatory strategy. A softer approach would embolden the regime.

On Thursday, the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani declared that he had “no doubt” about a pending return to the status quo under Biden. This, Rouhani said, would result in the prompt suspension of economic sanctions as the US arranged to return to the seven-party nuclear agreement from which the US withdrew in 2018.

And the nuclear issue is not the only outstanding issue with the West. There is a 32-year-old crime against humanity case for which no Iranian official has ever been held accountable. During three months in 1988, an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were brutally executed. 

The 1988 massacre was highlighted just days before the release of new images from Fordow, when a letter was made public by a group of United Nations human rights experts. In their report, the top experts demanded relevant information from the Iranian regime and also acknowledged the troubling failure of international bodies to address the crime.

The massacre was not investigated by the General Assembly, Security Council, or Human Rights Commission. "The failure of these bodies to act," the UN experts recently noted, "had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran and emboldened Iran to continue to conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date.”

Currently, major perpetrators of the 1988 massacre remain in positions of extraordinary influence within Iran’s political and economic systems. Among them are the current head of the judiciary and the current Minister of Justice. It is no surprise, therefore, that evidence points to escalating repression of dissent in the Islamic Republic, especially in the face of the popular unrest that has defined the past few years.

Dozens of peaceful protesters were killed at the beginning of 2018 when the country found itself in the midst of a nationwide uprising. But this death toll was dwarfed in November 2019 when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) opened fire on crowds of citizens participating in a larger uprising. Approximately 1,500 people were brutally massacred, making the crackdown by far the clearest acknowledgement that authorities remain committed to the strategies that were on prominent display in the 1980s.

No matter who is inaugurated on January 20, 2021, American and European policies can help to safeguard the Iranian people against even worse repression of their fundamental rights. At the same time, appropriately assertive policies are still needed in order to pressure the regime into abandoning activities that could lead to it obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Then comes the concern regarding Iran’s role as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, a threat much more immediate and closer to home since its agents or proxies could strike virtually anywhere in the world, at any time.

Concern over Iranian terrorism was particularly validated in 2018, when multiple Iranian terror plots were thwarted including one that would have seen explosives being set off just outside Paris, at a gathering of tens of thousands of Iranians organized by the NCRI. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of NCRI, was the keynote speaker, joining an impressive array of hundreds of international figures and lawmakers calling for democratic change in Iran.  Four co-conspirators in that plot, including a senior Iranian diplomat, are currently on trial in Belgium, in a case that should influence Western policies.

The past 40 years have shown that the Iranian regime's behavior will only get worse. There is only one conclusion: sustained pressure on the Iranian regime is necessary and tragically under-emphasized.

Photo credit: Khamenei.irCreative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.