President of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a not-for-profit, bi-partisan, educational and advocacy group that seeks to prevent Iran from fulfilling its ambition to obtain nuclear weapons. He previously served as a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of State and as an American delegate to the United Nations. Prior to the UN, David worked as an advisor for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
New Europe: On November 15, 2019, Iran was on the brink of what felt like a peaceful revolution. In the early hours of the morning, against a backdrop of soaring inflation rates and double-digit unemployment numbers, the Iranian regime had unexpectedly announced a 50% gasoline price hike.
By sunrise on November 16, hundreds of thousands of aggrieved Iranian citizens, many of them young and struggling to escape from the poverty imposed on them by the regime’s serial mismanagement, had taken to the streets with calls to oust the Islamic Republic’s old revolutionary guard. Comparisons were quickly drawn to the events which had led to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.
The regime responded in a characteristically punitive fashion. Internet access across the country was cut. The next morning, state media declared that more than 1,000 people had been arrested. Still, the protests continued to spread, ultimately occurring in almost three-quarters of all Iranian provinces.
Reports become hazy from the time security forces were called in to quash the movement. They were first spotted in Tehran trying to contain a crowd of striking shopkeepers. At the same time, in the city of Shiraz, word was spreading of individual protestors being shot at in minor skirmishes. Then, on November 18th in a marsh in the city of Mahshahr, between 40 and 100 people were gunned down in a single attack, by a large force of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Before the day was out, troops in other cities had taken to firing on crowds from rooftops and helicopters.
The New York Times estimates that as many as 450 protestors were murdered by security forces over the course of four days that November. Others put the death toll as high as 1,000 or even 1,500. It is hard to give a precise figure because the IRGC were quick to cover their tracks, reportedly carrying the dead and wounded out of hospitals to dispose of them discreetly.
If the regime was concerned about the international outcry that might follow such a brutal assault on its own people, they need not have worried. Policymakers across Europe and the UK were virtually silent in the weeks and months that followed the killings, despite numerous calls for support from protestors on the ground.
In the absence of a stern rebuke from most international powers, the regime quietly went about finishing the job of putting out the embers of dissent. Throughout December 2019, further reports emerged of continued crackdowns on protestors and widespread torture going on inside Iranian prisons.
On November 15, 2020, after a full year spent advocating for a formal investigation, a group of human rights advocates, and three human rights organisations (Justice for Iran, Iran Human Rights and ECPM – Together against the Death Penalty) officially launched an international people’s tribunal – The Aban Tribunal – to deliver a final judgement on the November atrocities. Convening in the Hague on February 10th, the tribunal will hear three full days’ worth of evidence about the atrocities before publishing its conclusions in April.
One hopes that the Tribunal’s deliberations will finally force world leaders to reckon with events they turned a blind eye to fifteen months ago. If ever there was a time for the truth to be brought to light, it would be now, in the first 100 days of a new US administration. With Joe Biden in the White House, Europe’s representatives can no longer legitimize their silence as some sort of principled opposition to Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
Ultimately, it is not enough that the Iranian regime should answer for the crimes it has committed. It must also be prevented from committing similar human rights offences in the future. If there is to be a new deal struck between Iran and international powers, it must be one that constrains the regime not only from acquiring nuclear weapons, but also from sowing discord abroad – through its sponsorship of terror organisations – and causing wanton suffering domestically.
Policymakers worldwide would do well to remember the events of November 2019 when imagining the shape and scope of future Iranian relations.