A number of months after Iran experienced deadly nationwide protests in response to a hike in gasoline prices, international human rights organizations, the United States, and even Iran’s parliamentarians are now holding the perpetrators of the harsh crackdown on protestors accountable.
According to Amnesty International, Iranian authorities made false statements about the protests to avoid accountability. Protestors were called “rioters” or “suspicious agents” and enemies of the state who intended to oust the Iranian government.
The United States imposed new sanctions against Iran on May 20 for violating Iranian citizenship rights. They were imposed after Amnesty International said it had reason to believe that the shooting order on protesters came from Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli.
The scale of the November 2019 protests, extending to 100 cities and towns, has pushed even Iran’s Parliament to demand answers from the Iranian government. Ali Motahari, an outspoken parliamentarian, also identified Fazli as the main culprit in the violent crackdown on protestors.
However, member of Parliament Mohammad Javad Kolivand said the Interior Ministry was not the main culprit in the crackdown but that other ministries and state bodies were involved in managing the protests, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Intelligence. In a publicized response, Fazli claimed that his actions prevented attacks on public property, food storage sites and security offices. According to the minister, more than 140 government sites were attacked during the protests. He added that the Interior Ministry was asked to respond to the so-called riots, but the decision for this rested with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).
However, the SNSC is not willing to take responsibility for the crackdown and there is evidence suggesting that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ordered security agencies to end the protests once they had reached the capital Tehran on November 17. On December 3, Iranian state television acknowledged that the country’s security forces had shot at the protesters. Earlier on November 20, President Hassan Rouhani claimed victory over the unrest. An individual sanctioned by the United States, Brigadier Hossein Ashtari, claimed that the “sedition” was silenced within 48-72 hours.
Reports released six months after the protests indicate that Iran still has not disclosed the real death toll, the perpetrators of the violence continue to enjoy impunity, and the Iranian government refuses to acknowledge the role of the IRGC and intelligence apparatuses in the crackdown on protesters. Qasim Mirzai Niko, another parliamentarian, revealed that elective bodies including the Parliament came under heavy security surveillance to deter parliamentarians from discussing the number killed during the crackdown.
A recently released Amnesty report says 220 deaths occurred in two days, based on a shoot-to-kill policy adopted by the Iranian government. In all but four cases, victims were shot dead by Iran’s security forces. In a final count, Amnesty International says more than 300 were killed including children and students, while other reports suggest 15,000 were killed. Amnesty has demanded justice for the victims of the Iranian killing spree.
In Mahshahr Port, Khuzestan province, the worst crackdown occurred when an exchange of gunfire happened between protestors and security forces. In Karaj, protestors were fired at from rooftops.
In response, the US sanctioned Fazli, who was in effect Iran’s acting commander in chief during the protests in November 2019. According to Iran’s Minister of Information, Mohammad Javad Jahromi, Fazli was responsible for disconnecting the internet. Some 80 million Iranians had no access to the internet for a week while the protests were silenced.
Washington’s latest sanctions target Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), 12 senior officials, and three state institutions including prisons and detention centers. Still, Tehran is defiant over its actions. The Guardian Council has rejected the sanctions, while a group of parliamentarians supported Fazli by thanking him for his efforts in quelling the riots.
But the bitter wrangling in Iran over who should take responsibility for the harsh crackdown on protesters is ongoing. In a tweet, Motahari said Fazli’s answers to questions in Parliament concerning his actions during the protests were unconvincing despite facing an impeachment threat.
Fazli rejects the point that a large number of parliamentarians want him to be impeached. He has said that he will take action against Motahari if he is unable to provide evidence of his misconduct during the protests in November 2019. Iran’s “hardliners” in Parliament warned Motahari about questioning the actions of Fazli during the protests.
Motahari believes Fazli should have opened up communication channels with the protestors for at least a month instead of launching a crackdown immediately.
Given these realities, the latest US sanctions are not enough to alter Tehran’s lethal behavior. But the sanctions along with reports by international human right organizations increase the pressure on Iran. These reports shed light on the heavy-handed approach of Iran’s security forces during the protests, while the new US sanctions signal a strong desire by Washington to ramp up its battle with Tehran.