Ayatollah Massacre at the helm

Iran’s new president had a central role in killing Iranian political prisoners whose loved ones are now Canadians.

By: /
15 July, 2021
Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi after voting in presidential elections this June. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

On August 5, 2021, Ebrahim Raisi will be inaugurated in the Iranian parliament as the new president of the Islamic Republic. There is something cynical to the picking of this date for this purpose. Officially it stands to commemorate the anniversary of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1906, beginning of a long-lasting struggle for democracy and rule of law. But Raisi, his career, the regime he serves and the process through which he was elected president, could hardly be less in tune with the liberal ideals of the 1906 revolution.

The 1906 revolutionaries demanded an independent judiciary; Raisi has spent his entire career building a judiciary which is anything but independent. The Iranian constitutionalists have long fought for free and fair elections; Raisi was elected in the most unfree Iranian election in decades, the results of which were mostly preordained weeks before any voting took place. Raisi has little to do with August 5, 1906.

This August we will commemorate another anniversary much more directly tied to Raisi. On August 15, 1988, years before he was Iran’s president-elect, Raisi sat down with Grand Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri, one of the highest religious authorities for Shia Muslims and then deputy supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. The 27-year-old Raisi was Tehran’s deputy prosecutor and part of a four-person committee that had been called for a meeting with the Iranian regime’s second-highest official.

Speaking in his sweet-sounding Persian, with an accent that betrayed his origins in central Iran, Montazeri’s voice had a grave tone and a clear message. Facing Raisi and his fellow committee members, Montazeri said: “I believe you have committed the greatest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic. History will remember you as criminals.”

What crime was Montazeri referring to, and what was Raisi’s role in it?

The voice recording of that meeting was not leaked until almost three decades later, but gruesome details about the massacre of 1988 started coming out almost immediately. Thirty-three years later, thanks to the tireless work of the families of victims and a community of persistent activists, the contours of an undeniable crime against humanity are now clear.

In the final weeks of the summer of 1988, just as Iran concluded a devastating eight-year-war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, thousands of political prisoners in Iranian jails were secretly executed and buried in mass graves. They numbered anywhere between 5,000 to 30,000. They included teenagers and old people; men and women; Kurdish nationalists, Communists and proponents of the left-Islamist People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI.)

The PMOI had helped bring down the shah of Iran in 1979, but it had soon clashed with the Islamic Republic and its founding supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It allied with Saddam in the war and staged a failed invasion of Iran in July 1988. But the actions of PMOI leadership and the events of the war had little to do with the political prisoners in Iran. Most had been arrested on the basis of flimsy evidence, like being found with an opposition group’s newspaper. Thousands were members of groups like Iran’s Communist Party, known as the Tudeh, which had supported Khomeini up until 1983 and still supported the war effort against Iraq. Many were only months away from being freed.

The logic behind the massacre was brutal but simple: all opponents had to be eliminated for the Islamic Republic to survive. The genesis of the crime was a simple order by Khomeini himself, who asked the authorities to use haste in executing opponents.

“An unshakable principle of the Islamic regime is Islam’s decisiveness against enemies of God,” Khomeini wrote. “I hope that with your revolutionary anger and spite towards the enemies of Islam, you are able to gain the satisfaction of the Almighty God.”

Four main functionaries carried out this order. Hosseinali Nayeri, a judge, and Morteza Eshraqi, Tehran’s prosecutor, were named in Khomeini’s order. Khomeini had also asked for representatives from the Intelligence Ministry and the Prosecutor’s Office. This led to the inclusion of the last two members of what is remembered by many Iranians today as the Committee of Death: Mostafa Poormohammadi, a cleric who was later put in charge of Intelligence Ministry’s operations abroad and was later Hassan Rouhani’s Justice minister and Ebrahim Raisi.

“The Committee of Death toured the prisons and decided who would live or die based on a series of arbitrary questions.”

The Committee of Death toured the prisons and decided who would live or die based on a series of arbitrary questions. Supporters of opposition groups were sometimes simply asked if they still supported their group. An affirmative answer resulted in an execution order. Supporters of Marxist groups such as Tudeh were asked if they were still atheists. A “yes” meant death. Historian Ervand Abrahamian was among the first to shed light on this crime in his landmark 1999 volume, Tortured Confessions: Prisoners and Public Recantations in Modern Iran. Last year saw the publication of another groundbreaking book, by Nasser Mohajer: Voices of Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988, which offers an unprecedented series of eyewitness accounts.

Among the most poignant voices in that book is of Iranian-Canadian activist Anahita Rahmani, a familiar face among members of Toronto’s Iranian community. Anahita lost her husband in a 1983 political execution and comrades in the 1988 massacre. Other Canadians also lost loved ones during Iran’s wave of state-sanctioned murder in the 1980s. Iran murdered six members of Jafar Behkish’s family, including two brothers and a brother-in-law in 1988. He then spent decades trying to secure a measure of justice on their behalf.

Because of persistent advocacy by people like Rahmani and Behkish, Canada’s parliament recognized the massacre as a crime against humanity in 2013. An architect of the campaign was lawyer Kaveh Shahrooz. Speaking to Open Canada, Shahrooz said, “The families have been subjected to two injustices: the first was the murder of their loved ones, and the second was the denial by Iran’s regime.”

“The recognition was also strategically significant because it meant that Canada’s government would not be able to normalize relations with those implicated in these crimes without a political cost,” he added.

Iran’s use of its diplomatic representation in Canada to deny its 1988 crimes has a long pedigree. On December 22, 1988, Iran’s then-charge d’affairs in Ottawa, Mohammad Ali Moosavi, denied early reports by Amnesty International about the execution and claimed no killings had been done except those “in self-defense.”

Such denials are so much harder today, so regime officials have adopted different tactics. In his first-ever press conference, Raisi was asked about his role in the killings by Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig. He defended his role. Raisi didn’t shy away from his past while campaigning, either. His team published a memo titled “Raisi and executions of 1988,” which defended the “execution of these animals.” It’s almost as if Raisi is embracing a nickname that began circulating when he first ran for president four years ago: Ayatollah Massacre.

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How is it that none of the evidence of Raisi’s murderous past — to say nothing of his pubic defence of that past — has derailed his political career? 

First, regime officials don’t consider what Raisi did to be shameful. When the audio file of Montazeri condemning Raisi and other members of the Committee of Death was leaked in 2016, Mohammadreza Naqdi, then head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s paramilitary militia, the Basij, said the executions were “completely correct” and “in accordance with legal, jurisprudential, Islamic, international and domestic standards.” Ayatollah Montazeri’s son, Ahmad Montazeri, was sentenced to six years in prison for the “crime” of releasing the audio file. As a Shia cleric himself, Ahmad was prosecuted by Iran’s Special Court for Clergy — which was then headed by none other than Ebrahim Raisi.

Second, Raisi is indispensable to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today for the same reason he was indispensable to Ayatollah Khomeini and others who wanted political prisoners massacred in 1988: he’s a yes-man and boasts a large capacity for brutality. Raisi has few traditional political skills. He lacks charisma and an ability to grasp policy nuances. When he ran for president in 2017, an election that had a degree of meaningful competition (if only between the factions of the regime), he lost badly.

This time around, Khamenei wanted a pliant leader, and so the regime’s vetting body threw out the candidacy of all Raisi’s potential rivals, making this the most uncompetitive election since 1993.

Khamenei chose wisely. Raisi will do what he’s told, and he will do whatever is necessary to preserve the Islamic Republic. He showed this in the 1980s, when he helped build the judiciary that brought terror to all levels of the population: political prisoners were executed in droves and people could be jailed for the pettiest of reasons, like owning a VCR or a musical instrument, or for wearing a T-shirt. He showed again it during the 2009 Green Movement, an anti-regime protest movement that he helped suppress with deadly violence.

On a personal level, my family experienced this when my father, Iranian-Canadian writer and filmmaker Mostafa Azizi, was jailed in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison from 2014 to 2016 for the supposed crime of “insulting the supreme leader” and “collusion against the regime.” My family wrote to Raisi, then Iran’s prosecutor general, asking for mercy. No response ever came, though my father was eventually freed.

Iran may soon be entering a period of crisis. Strikes and protests against the regime have intensified in recent years. An online campaign this spring urged citizens not to vote in the presidential election, and indeed voter turnout was less than 50 per cent — the lowest since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. At 82, Khamenei knows the end of his rule is nearing. He wants the presidency to be in a safe pair of hands during the instability that is sure to ensue upon his death. In the Islamic Republic, those safe and loyal hands are inevitably drenched in blood.

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