The Hanging Judge of Tehran

LAST MONTH, the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi was elected president of Iran on a very low turnout of voters. He had easily been defeated in 2017 by the outgoing President Hassan Rouhani who, like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami before him, had hoped to move the Islamic Republic in a more pragmatic direction.

In contrast, Raisi epitomised the views of the die-hard conservatives around the aged Supreme Leader, Ali Khameinei. Raisi made his views clear on Israel when he went to southern Lebanon in 2016 and visited Hezbollah’s military positions near the border. He commented: “The Zionist regime, because of its terrorist nature, strongly felt that ISIS should be established as a second centre of state terrorism in the region. The resistance front neutralised this plot promptly — and God willing, the first centre of terrorism will suffer the same fate.”

Last week, a drone attacked the Karaj Agricultural and Medical Division Centre near Tehran which is linked to the Iranian Atomic Energy Authority. Its mission was probably to destroy as many centrifuges as possible in the Centre, which could be used to enrich uranium isotopes beyond the 3.67% limit and open up the possibility of building a military nuclear device.

This attack followed the news that Russia was willing to sell Iran a Kanopus V satellite carrying a high-resolution camera which would enable the monitoring of Israeli military sites.

All this and Raisi’s gerrymandered election relates to the undeclared war between Israel and Iran which has been taking place for the last 30 years — ever since the end of the long conflict between the Islamic Republic and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1988. It was also the end of a period of quiet cooperation between the Ayatollahs’ Iran and the state of Israel.

In 1980, Menahem Begin and Ariel Sharon believed that Saddam’s military forces were the greater threat to Israel — and thereby clandestinely supplied Tehran with arms. The Iraqi army was several times bigger than Israel’s and it seemed poised to take over Iranian oil reserves. Indeed, Israel’s attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981 was said to have been carried out with the assistance of Iranian intelligence.

While Iran raged publicly about Israel as ‘the little Satan’, this subtly deflected attention away from Israel’s supply of arms to the Islamic Republic. Khomeini did little practically at that time to help Israel’s foes — in particular, the PLO in Lebanon. Indeed, he refused to allow the transfer of F14 Tomcat fighter aircraft to Lebanon. In return, Begin secured the release and exodus of large numbers of Iranian Jews who were bussed to Pakistan and flown to Austria.

The Israel-Iran alliance against the Arab states fell apart with the end of this war, and was replaced  by a growing alliance between Israel and the Arab states against Iran, symbolised by the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the Abraham Accords with the Gulf States last year.

Iran’s nuclear program goes back as far as 1957, when the Shah signed an agreement with the United States. Many Iranian nuclear scientists subsequently left their country with the advent of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and several Western countries withdrew their support.

After the fall of the USSR in 1991, an impoverished Russia began to supply Iran with sensitive nuclear technology and helped to build a nuclear reactor at Bushehr. China also supplied research reactors, laser enrichment equipment and different uranium compounds. In August 2006, a heavy water reactor, which could produce plutonium, a necessary component of any weapon, began operations at Arak. Was this a natural development towards a peaceful nuclear programme for the good of the country or the first step in acquiring a nuclear device?

The first revelations of clandestine nuclear plants in the early years of this century occurred with the election of the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust questioner and potential Israel annihilator, as president. While it brought a strong response from the West, in Israel, both the political echelon and the intelligence community felt that sanctions were not enough.

In 2002, Meir Dagan was appointed head of the Mossad. Since then, Iran has been plagued by computer viruses which made centrifuges spin out of control, mysterious fires at vital installations and a constant series of assassinations of scientists connected with the nuclear industry.

Last November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leader of the Iranian nuclear program and a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed when his convoy was sprayed with bullets in an ambush. Other assassinations such as that of Majid Shahriari, a specialist in neutron transport in nuclear reactions, have been carried out by passing motor cyclists planting magnetic bombs on cars carrying members of the scientific elite.

Such attacks are clearly not the work of amateurs and are designed not only to eliminate nuclear scientists but also to discourage their budding replacements.

Who has been responsible for these precision attacks? Although the public automatically associates such acts with Mossad, a more likely candidate is the Mujahedin-e Khalq (the PMOI or MEK). A far-Left group founded at Tehran University in 1965 to oppose the Shah’s draconian regime, the MEK combined socialism with Islamism. It helped to overthrow the Shah in 1979, but then found itself confronting Ayatollah Khomeini who was gradually tightening the grip of the Islamists in the country.  

In 1981, the prime minister and the secretary-general of the Islamic Republic party were killed by bombs which led to a ban on all opposition groups. A demonstration by the MEK in June 1981 was brutally suppressed by the Revolutionary Guards and many protesters arrested, tortured and executed.

For those still at large, members of the MEK left Iran and regrouped in France — from where they were expelled in 1986. They then went to Iraq where Saddam Hussein welcomed them with open arms. This last move cost the MEK a lot of support within Iran which was still fighting a war with Iraq.

After suffering the vicissitudes of exile and defeat, the MEK began to reinvent itself as a believer in democracy and a defender of human rights. Its attacks on Zionism disappeared and there was no mention of the evils of imperialism. In 2008, the UK lifted its designation of the MEK as a terrorist organisation, followed by the US in 2012. There have been unverified reports in the press that members of MEK are being trained by Israeli practitioners in Albania.

Iran, however, meanders between the reactionary — and the less reactionary. All important decisions are made by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khameinei, who has been in power since June 1989. He is now in his early eighties and not in the best of health. Ebrahim Raisi was elected in this flawed election as a safe pair of hands who will ensure the onward march of the Islamic Republic.

However, his hands are not only safe, they are also bloody. At the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini signed a fatwa to execute huge numbers of his leftist opponents who had remained in prison. Khomeini wanted to make certain that there would be no opposition to his regime after his demise. Raisi was handpicked for the task.

Ayatollah Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor, strongly opposed these mass killings. He was shunted aside in favour of the present Supreme Leader, Ali Khameinei. In August 2016, Montazeri’s son released a recording of his father’s protest from 1988 and was sentenced to 21 years imprisonment for “spreading propaganda against the system”.

Ebrahim Raisi was one of a four-man commission who sentenced thousands of prisoners to death, often without evidence and without the rudimentary belief in a due process of law. The prisoners were accused of “waging war against God”. Victims were often asked if they were believers and prayed daily.

Between July and October 1988, family visits to various prisons were suspended so that the slaughter could be carried out. Families were later informed that their relative had been executed. It is believed that Iran today is littered with mass graves.

While other groups such as the Communist Tudeh and the Kurdish Democratic Party suffered, it was the adherents of the MEK who were hanged in their thousands in 32 cities in Iran. It is probably for this central reason that the MEK may be involved in assassinations and sabotage in Iran today.

Khomeini said his fatwa was directed against “hypocrites”. Rafsanjani told the BBC in 1989 that the killings were akin to the execution of convicted war criminals after 1945. Raisi himself in May 2018 compared them to drug traffickers who had spent many years on death row before meeting their maker. He said that the killings were “one of the proud achievements of the system”.

The leaders of the Islamic republic further ensured that there were no Muslim rituals and no burial records. Mourning was forbidden and threats were directed at grieving families. A culture of silence prevailed.

Amnesty International stated its opinion in no uncertain terms: “That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for crimes against humanity, of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”

The written text on a clay cylinder attributed to Cyrus the Great over two millennia ago is regarded as the first charter of human rights in the world. Iran’s new president could not be more distant from Cyrus’s legacy. He is on a par with those who presided over the Stalinist show trials in the 1930s.

This lacklustre, brutal apparatchik, Raisi, is now positioned to succeed Khameinei as Supreme Leader. He has reached this lofty position because he was obedient to his masters and just followed orders. He was never a pragmatist.

The prospect for a denuclearised Iran, that does not pose a threat to Israel, seems to be vanishing fast. President Biden’s negotiators in Vienna, who are attempting to locate a way out of the Iranian nuclear quagmire, will find their job even harder.

Plus61j 2 July 2021

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