Professor Mahallati Should Condemn ’88 Iran Massacres

Dr. Mansour Farhang, Professor of Politics at Bennington College|September 23, 2022

Editor’s note: Segments of this piece are reprinted from the author’s book review, “Nasser Mohajer, Voices of a Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988,” published on Oct. 27, 2020 in the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

The author served as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s first ambassador to the United Nations between 1979-80.

The clerics who run the authoritarian theocracy in Iran represent one of the predominant anti-Enlightenment regimes of the modern world. That is to say they seemingly reject the very idea of human rights and demand that citizens follow duties and obligations dictated by the self-appointed “viceroys of God” on earth. The hostility of these characters toward gender equality has a certain barbarity in common with what Margaret Atwood describes in The Handmaid’s Tale. When supporters or representatives of Iran’s theocracy face Western audiences, they become sophists in answering questions or rationalizing their position. 

An example of such behavior is illustrated in a recent Voice of America Persian News Network interview with the former Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Oberlin College Professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. The interviewer, Masih Alinejad, asked Mahallati about his response to the 1988 execution of an estimated 5,000 political prisoners in Iran, pointing out Mahallati’s position in the U.N. at the time of the massacre. Mahallati said he did not know about the executions — an unprecedented tragedy in Iranian history. Then, Alinejad asked Mahallati what he thought about the massacre now that he knew about it, to which Mahallati replied, “I strongly believe that killing one person is equal to killing the entire world.” 

This absurd and demagogic answer to a specific question reveals the shameless hypocrisy of Mahallati. Has there ever been a despot who admits to killing innocent people? All dictators consider their critics or opponents guilty. Mahallati, as an agent of Iran’s totalitarian theocracy, implicitly follows the same rule but uses the preposterous words quoted above to hide his position.

Mahallati denies knowing about the massacre when it happened. He maintains that “One is responsible based on the information they are aware of.” This is another example of his sophistry. The truth is that, shortly after the Iranian state started its criminal acts, Amnesty International and several news organizations, including the Associated Press, reported the crimes. The information was out there; Mahallati chose to continue the regime’s cover-up. 

In 1988, then Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a secret fatwa (a religious edict) ordering judicial authorities to execute political prisoners, resulting in between 4,500 and 5,000 killings. The inmates were men and women, young and old, who had been arrested over the previous 10 years for writing, speaking, or demonstrating against the regime. Some of them were teenagers at the time of their arrest. A tribunal that came to be known as the death commission carried out the order within three months.  Bodies of the victims were buried in mass graves, and their families were kept in the dark for the following three months. 

Since then, international human rights organizations have documented the massacre and described it as a crime against humanity. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have thoroughly documented and exposed the crimes.

Several exiled Iranian writers, artists, and political analysts have published articles and produced documentaries about these atrocities. Ervand Abrahamian’s Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran and Geoffrey Robertson’s The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran, 1988, published by Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation in 2011,  provided witness testimonies and official statements disclosing the crimes.

Some members of the death commission, including current Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, are still in positions of authority in Iran. Yet, mass media in the United States has hardly covered this unprecedented massacre.

In Voices of a Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988, author and scholar of modern Iranian history Nasser Mohajer gives a unique and creative portrayal of this tragic reality.

This new book provides a highly credible series of reflections, testimonies, eyewitness descriptions, and memories of the victims’ loved ones and friends during the massacre. It reveals how the death commission executed Khomeini’s sociopathic fatwa in such detail that the Iranian regime’s denial of its crimes becomes a nihilistic absurdity. It provides eyewitness accounts by inmates of what happened to prison victims and how executions were carried out in different cities.

The suffering of Iran’s prisoners in general, and those of the great massacre in particular, is most vividly illustrated by the activities and memoirs of the victims’ families and friends, for they played a central role in drawing international attention to the plight of political prisoners in Iran. “The vanguard of this resistance and struggle was made up of women: the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of those who braved tyranny, aspiring for a better future for their country,” Mohajer wrote. These activists made a significant contribution to the rise of the women’s movement in Iran, unprecedented in the Islamic world’s history.

The purpose of Voices of a Massacre, as Mohajer explains, is more than to expose the lies of Iran’s clerical rulers. Instead, it “seeks to embody what Primo Levi defines as the ‘Duty of Memory.’” That is to say, we need “to gain insight into the historical reality and portray the subtle details of the ‘policy of cruelty’ in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the author wrote. Lynn Novick, co-director with Ken Burns on the documentary The Vietnam War, bemoans the obvious lack of transparency. “It is a shortcoming and self-humiliating to say that they have lied constantly; there is no doubt that they have lied,” Novick said. “But what we really want to do is to show what has happened.”

Voices of a Massacre reveals the cruel nature of a theocracy that rejects the idea of human rights politically, socially, and in the private sphere of life. Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, whom we call upon to condemn these crimes against humanity, currently teaches Muslim Oral Culture: Persian Poetry in Translation, Music and Calligraphy at Oberlin College.

Dr. Mansour Farhang, Professor of Politics at Bennington College

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