New EU Sanctions on Iran Must Lead to Broader Reckoning on Human Rights

By Hamideh Taati, Originally published in, 15th April 2021

On Monday, the European Union imposed new sanctions on eight figures in the Iranian regime’s security establishment, including the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The announcement of those sanctions explained that Hossein Salami “bears responsibility for serious human rights violations” on account of his participation in planning sessions that led to the use of deadly force against a nationwide protest in November 2019.

Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), welcomed the EU’s decision and “reiterated the need to designate the entire IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence, prosecute and expel their agents and mercenaries, and revoke mercenaries’ citizenship and refugee status in Europe. Based on the experience of the past 40 years, Mrs. Rajavi said, these agents are not political refugees or ordinary citizens, but operatives and spies of the terrorist Quds Force and the clerical regime’s Intelligence Ministry.”

The severity of the crackdown on the November 2019 uprising was apparent from the very beginning. Even before the protests had been fully repressed, Amnesty International reported that the IRGC had opened fire on peaceful activists and had been shooting to kill. Within weeks, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reported that the death toll from those shootings was above 1,500 – a figure that was later confirmed by Reuters, based on three sources inside the regime’s Interior Ministry.

Publicly, Tehran has been trying to dismiss these accounts, albeit unconvincingly. The Interior Ministry’s Security Deputy recently tried to revive a talking point that acknowledged fatal clashes between protesters and security forces but put the overall death toll at less than 250 while also denying responsibility for a portion of them. But that talking point first emerged more than six months after the killings took place, and the regime did not explain why it took so long to calculate such a small number of casualties.
The new sanctions demonstrate that the EU is unwilling to take the regime’s narratives seriously where human rights are concerned. Although these sanctions are very important, the European Union should target the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani as the highest authorities involved in oppressing the Iranian people in November 2019 uprising.

The EU may have concluded that relief from nuclear-related sanctions will be a political non-starter for as long as Tehran continues to enjoy impunity in matters of human rights.
Suppose the EU leaders continue their efforts of preventing the recurrence of the regime’s crimes against humanity. In that case, Tehran’s only way forward is to either halt its abuses or carry on in full awareness of the potentially dire consequences for its political and economic future.

Those consequences are potentially made more serious because prior crackdowns on dissent have shown signs of being ineffective. The regime’s decision to kill hundreds of protesters in November 2019 was undoubtedly a response to that uprising being the second of its kind in less than two years. The previous nationwide protest movement, in January 2018, was suppressed more gradually. However, dozens of participants were still shot dead, and several were fatally tortured upon their arrest.

Even before the second uprising broke out, countless smaller-scale protests were identified as exhibiting the same slogans and demands for regime change across countless localities. Many of these took place in the immediate aftermath of Tehran’s failed attempt at the organized Resistance movement by way of a terrorist attack in the heart of Europe. The plot for that attack was thwarted in the summer of 2018.

When the would-be perpetrators of that attack went on trial last November, prosecutors made it clear that they had been acting on orders from high within the regime’s leadership. The same is most certainly true of those who fired upon crowds of protesters in 2019. As important as it is for the IRGC’s top commander to face sanctions and for the terrorist plot’s mastermind, Assadollah Assadi, to serve out his 20-year prison sentence, the EU cannot lose sight of the fact that these are only part of the solution to the regime’s terrorism abroad and domestic human rights violations, which go hand in hand.

The trial of the regime’s diplomat-terrorist Assadollah Assadi in Belgium showed that the regime’s domestic human rights abuses are the flipside of its terrorism abroad.

The EU should put pressure on the regime by imposing sanctions that aim higher in the regime’s establishment, as well as with investigations that could lead to charges in criminal court for the likes of Khamenei, Rouhani, the regime’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the entire IRGC’s terrorist apparatus, and the head of the regime’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, who attained his position in 2019 despite widespread recognition that he had played a leading role in the massacre of 30,000 Iranian political prisoners in 1988.

The EU countries should take these steps to prevent the regime from spreading terrorism abroad and continue human rights violations in Iran. They should make any negotiations, particularly the nuclear negotiations with the regime, contingent on the immediate halt of human rights violations and export of terrorism.

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