Hardly anyone outside Iran doubts the difference between the present protests unfolding in Iran and the previous ones in the country. The closest in the way of comparison is the 2009 uprising. In the present instance, what started as protests for “bread” quickly spread across 141 cities of Iran and engulfed all of its 31 provinces.
According to a classified report obtained by Iranian opposition, People Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) from sources in the regime, 35 percent of those arrested during the uprising were students. Earlier, IRGC brigadier Hossein Zolfaghari, security deputy Minister of Interior, confirmed that more than 90 percent of the detainees are youth under the age of 25.
End of the reformist bogey
What were supposed to be protests against economic hardships imposed by close to four decades of theocratic rule in Iran soon turned into a movement demanding the end of the regime. One of the slogans that stood out, among a barrage of many, exposed the false notion of the existence of “moderates” within the regime. It bellowed, “The reformist-conservative game is over,” and “Death to [Hassan] Rouhani.” There have never been such so-called “reformists” in Iran and the citizens have pushed past all illusions of reform.
In clear contrast to the 2009 uprising, the protesters received considerable international support this time. It is for the first time in the past 40 years that Iran’s human rights dossier finally landed on UN Security Council’s desk. The United States’ Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, tried hard to push for the session and the world stood by Iranian citizens this time.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has always followed a method in dealing with demonstrations in Iran. Its so-called plainclothes agents usually take photos and videos of dissidents during the protests and after the demonstrations reach their homes to harass them.
This tactics has a dual propose of crushing the morale of the demonstrators, especially students, as well as arresting those people they consider to be the “leaders” of the protests. In the early days of the uprising, Tehran’s prosecutor Abbas Jadari Dowlatabadi admitted to having arrested some “leaders of recent riots.”
Torture and deaths in custody
The official news website of the Iranian regime’s parliament (Majlis) quoted Mahmoud Sadeghi of Tehran as saying: “Different security and intelligence forces detained the protesters, making it difficult to know the exact number of detainees.” He added that “some 3,700 people were arrested in the days of protests”.
Human rights group Amnesty International (AI) once again sounded the alarm on the treatment of protesters held by the IRGC in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and inother cities. According to AI: “The Iranian authorities must immediately investigate reports that at least five people have died in custody following a crackdown on anti-establishment protests, and take all necessary steps to protect detainees from torture and prevent any further deaths.”
Both figures, 3,700 detainees and five alleged deaths by suicide upon the AI activists arrival in prisons, are nowhere close to the truth, based on the manner in which the Iranian regime deals with political prisoners. In a recent report obtained by MEK network in Iran, the actual number of detainees is much higher than the official account.
The report sets the number at around 8,000 detainees so far. Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa said: “The shroud of secrecy and lack of transparency over what happened to these detainees is alarming. Instead of rushing to judgment that they committed suicide, the authorities must immediately launch an independent, impartial and transparent investigation, including independent autopsies.”
Hardly anyone believes figures provided by the Iranian regime on any matter are accurate. Why then should we believe it on such a highly sensitive issue: actual number of detainees taken into custody by the IRGC? The gruesome news coming out of Kahrizak Detention Center following the 2009 uprisings is still fresh in the minds of many.
A more or less similar scenario was put together by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and its partner in crime, the IRGC. Many of the detainees were subject to unheard of torture even by the regime’s standards. Members of IRGC Security and Intelligence Unite routinely raped the prisoners indiscriminately as an effective torture tool to break the prisoners. Some prisoners went missing and nobody has heard anything about them till date.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rushed in quickly to repair the damage that the Kahrizak detention center expose had left on his regime in 2009. He ordered the arrest of some low level prison guards but saved the key players and his protégé, Saeed Mortazavi, then Tehran’s notorious prosecutor. He is the same person who tortured and killed Zahra Kazmei, Iranian-Canadian photojournalist in Evin Prison in 2003.
Unfortunately, crimes against humanity come to light long after they are committed by their perpetrators. Examples are not hard to find. Although there have been many such crimes committed in Iran, the most shocking was the 1988 massacre of political prisoners by Khamenei and his cronies. Some of these perpetrators are still holding high positions. In one summer alone 30,000 very young men and women were killed and buried in mass graves.
Time for action
Time has come for the international community to act and act decisively. The theocratic regime in power in Iran has proven time and again that it will not change its behavior on its own. They have never cared about international condemnation of their actions. Some concert steps the international community can take to help the protesters at this stage could include imposing more targeted sanctions on the regime and its security apparatus.
The EU bloc may participate actively in blacklisting the IRGC; conditioning all economic relations with the regime on transparent and visible improvement of human rights situation; press the regime to allow human rights inspectors such as Ms. Asma Jahangir to freely visit Iran and meet with political prisoners.
This time the world cannot afford to let the Iranian regime get away. The stakes are too high since the regime does not just crack down heavily on its own citizenry but is the source of trouble in the region.
Reza Shafiee is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). He tweets @shafiee_shafiee.