Declaring a State of War Against Iranian Dissidents

Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi in 2014 (Mostafameraji via Wikimedia Commons)

by Shadi Sadr

Once again, we are at a state of war, and we have an unfinished job of exterminating the dissidents, all at once. 

This is the essence of a recently broadcast Mosalas magazine interview with Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, Iran’s former Minister of Justice. It has had a chilling effect on Iranian activists, particularly those in prison, at a time when the nation is worried about how far the current tensions between Iran and the United States will escalate. 

The interview was released on the 31st anniversary of the mass extrajudicial execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. The Islamic Republic justified the killings by categorizing those prisoners, who were already serving their prison sentences, as wartime “enemies of the state.” The massacre, which historian Ervand Abrahamian has likened to “a medieval inquisition,” was deemed by then-Deputy Supreme Leader Hussein-Ali Montazeri as “the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the revolution.” Pour-Mohammadi served as the Intelligence Ministry’s representative on the “Death Committee” that oversaw the killings. His involvement has been confirmed by a recording of the perpetrators speaking with Montazeri.

In his interview, Pour-Mohammadi states that “we still haven’t settled scores,” strongly suggesting that the Iranian government views the 1988 carnage as an unfinished project. Now that the Iranian government claims the country to be once again in a state of war with “regime change led by the CIA, Israel, and Saudi Arabia,” one can only wonder if they are willing to repeat their actions from 1988.

The Iranian government has declared this “state of war” at a time when the space for Iranian activists is drastically shrinking. Iranian authorities have handed out heavy prison sentences for human rights lawyers like Nasrin Sotoudeh (33years) and Amir Salar Davoudi (over 29 years). Mojgan Keshavarz, Yasaman Aryani, and Monireh Arabshahi, who were arrested for defying compulsory hijab laws, were each sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Revolutionary Court in Tehran last month. Several workers’ activists, including the prominent union leader Esmail Bakhshi—who had been subjected to severe torture and forced televised confessions—are in custody awaiting their sentences. Kurdish singer and prisoner of conscience Peyman Mirzazadeh was recently flogged 100 times in prison as part of his punishment for “drinking alcohol” and “insulting Islamic sanctities.”

Pour-Mohammadi—who is now an adviser to Iran’s newly appointed chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, another member of the “Death Committee”—is sending a signal to those who are in prison because of their beliefs or activism that in the current situation, the authorities do not have to abide by any law, even the law of war. Comparing the prisoners with villagers in his recent interview, Pour-Mohammadi said: “when you attack an enemy, some nearby villages would be destroyed… You should not be questioned for not respecting the laws for such collateral damages.”

The 1988 massacre, which amounted to crimes against humanity—including mass extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances—occurred during the final months of the Iran-Iraq War. Iranian officials used the war as a pretext to abruptly and secretly execute more than 5000 of imprisoned political activists (mainly the followers of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, along with members of other leftist organizations) and bury them in unmarked individual and mass graves across the country. According to an Amnesty International report, most of the prisoners killed were young people, serving lengthy prison sentences imposed on them due to their political opinions and peaceful activities and in an absolute absence of due process. Many were imprisoned on charges that included distributing opposition literature, taking part in demonstrations, collecting donations for prisoners’ families, or associating with those who were politically active. Others had been held for years without trial or had completed their sentences and were due to be released, whereas some who had completed their sentences were held until they were “sufficiently repentant.”

The authorities’ threats are unlikely to break the resistance of today’s young population, who are deeply affected by high rates of unemployment and prevailing corruption, the lack of basic rights and freedoms, and a wide range of gender, ethnic, and religious discriminations. However, the phantom “war” is surrounding them, more so than ever. Regardless of whether the current tension with the U.S. will eventually lead to a real war, the Islamic Republic’s use of the threat as a justification for waging an internal war against dissidents, to “settle” what Pour-Mohammadi says was left unfinished by the 1988 massacres, is a real and growing danger.

Shadi Sadr is an Iranian human rights lawyer and Executive of the UK-based NGO, Justice for Iran. She has won several awards, including Human Rights Tulip and Alexander Prize of Law School of Santa Clara University, and has co-authored Crime and Impunity: Sexual Torture of Women in Islamic Republic Prisons. Sadr has served as a judge in several People’s Tribunals, such as the 2015 International People’s Tribunal (IPT) 1965, the 2017 People’s Tribunal on Myanmar, and the 2018-19 Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China.

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  1. Angry spirit. Who cares. Let him stay angry. That is all he knows. Live by the sword, and die by the sword.

  2. Yes, it has been a greater injustice but wondering how the justice is expected to come from UK with a history of greater massacres around the world without any sign of regret.

  3. John Bolton and Secretary Pompeo will be competing to get their ring to marry Ms. Sadr for her villainization of Iran. There are lots of conjectures here that Ms. Sadr as judge and jury surmised- as an example she states that the execution of 1988 amounted to crimes against humanity. This happened in the backdrop of Sadam using nerve agents against the Iranians and Kurds and the Mojaheden group acting as their deep accomplices, facilators and executioners. When Iran was being invaded by a foreign forces, its people being massacred by chemical weapons and the triggers being pulled by the Mojaheden khalq-including civil terrorism and assassinations in the country, what does a government do when they have other Mojaheden in custody- unfrotunately the Ritz Carlton had not yet been built? When we dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the objective was collective punishment. Any association with Japan meant death. We killed to the tune of 350,000 civilians whose only crime was that they were Japanese. The executed Mojaheden made the conscious decision to join the group and were punished, maybe many more than they might have deserved, but the Iranian government did not go around and kill all the university professors like Pol Pot because they were educated, or subjugate their people to concentration camps with random executions as with France in Algeria after WWII, or our invasion of Iraq and killing of 300,000 of its people- most of them with no association with any one or any activity. There was a cause and effect, ours- which is on going- was crimes against the human species. So if there is so much animosity about 5,000 killed with association, imagine Ms. Sadr’s deepest sorrow and rage for the 300,000 Iraqis. But she gladly takes money that support her position from people she should really be criticizing, including Saudi contributions to Harvard, to forget the big picture and focus on convenient enemies. See article: ‘Secretive, Dubious Partnerships’: Harvard Quietly Keeps Strong Saudi Connections By Shera S. Avi-Yonah.

    To her point of deep corruption in Iran, if one looks at autocratic countries the corruption starts at the top and everything is about the family at the apex. The corruption is institutionalized and centralized. The Iranian corruption, is spread across the pyramid. During the king of Iran’s time, corruption also started at the top. So the level of corruption might have changed but the form is different and perhaps more painful for people like Ms. Sadr.

  4. Jack Spade

    The Iranian government has been morally and legally in the wrong in this case.

    The Islamic Republic broke her own laws and executed prisoners who had been finishing their sentences under the Laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    Furthermore, those executed were not only MEK but included alleged members of Peykar and other Communistic-oriented anti-government political groups.

    Those executions are not supported by any of the moral teachings of Islam; they went against the Traditions of the Prophet as well as of Imam Ali.

    At a minimum, the government should exhume and return the remains of those prisoners to their families and pay out their blood money.

    At a maximum, Islamic Republic should issueca public apology and publicly rehabilitate the dead.

  5. I certainly don’t have any idea or data on what happened with MEK in Iranian jails post Iran Iraq war in 1988. But I believe today Iran like any other country has every right to capture and prosecute MEK and other foreign supported terrorist sleeping cell groups, that have continued to harm Iranian civilians, scientists and law enforcement officials. MEK is no different than American made supported Al Qaeda or ISIS. US is on record for waterboarding,assassinating , jailing without a light of court her enemies.
    Pulling a 30 year old case to demonize current Iranian government is not helping Iranians in their current fight against the west for their independence.
    Iranian pro democracy writers should first fight for Iran’s full independence and sovereignty to be settled before knocking down the system that’s currently protecting their integrity. There could be no democracy coming anywhere without full independence and sovereignty over any system. Isn’t this really what has happened to US after it’s supposedly checked and balanced system was highjack by a foreign interest group.

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