Exactly two years have passed since Iran’s regime killed 1,500 unarmed civilians in response to the largest wave of protests since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. On the anniversary of Iran’s “bloody November” (aban-e khoonin), it is time that Britain took action against those who had a direct role in the killings by holding them to account.
The Iranian people took to the streets in more than 100 towns and cities, united by their slogan, “down with the dictator”. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who has ruled for more than 30 years, gave the order to open fire. As many as 1,500 unarmed civilians were killed in less than two weeks by security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – the clerical regime’s hardline enforcers.
To both facilitate and censor news of the bloodshed, the president at the time Hassan Rouhani – a so-called moderate – imposed an internet blackout aimed at disconnecting Iranians from the outside world and delaying the international response. Even by the Islamic Republic’s standards, the regime’s willingness to spill blood on Iranian streets in November 2019 was unprecedented. But Khamenei and the IRGC had rightly calculated that Europe’s keenness to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal, and its disdain for former US President Donald Trump, would prevent any meaningful response.
This calculation was made on the basis of a lack of consequences in response to the regime’s previous acts of unprovoked aggression. Between May and September 2019, the Islamic Republic attacked six commercial vessels – from countries including Japan and Norway – hijacked three oil tankers, including a UK-flagged vessel, and attacked Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, causing one of the biggest disruptions to oil supply in history. Europe and the UK even held back when the regime sought to orchestrate a terrorist plot on European soil, against a conference in Paris attended by British MPs, including the late Sir David Amess.
All these events took place under an Iranian leadership widely believed by the West to be “moderate”. With an unabashed hardline Islamist, Ebrahim Raisi, newly installed as president, Tehran is ratcheting up threats against the international community once more. Only a week before he was sworn in, the IRGC – the foundation of Raisi’s administration – launched a drone attack on commercial vessel MT Mercer Street off the coast of Oman, killing two Europeans, including a British national. This is just one of a series of provocative, unprovoked and destabilising attacks carried out by the regime. At the time, Britain and the US promised a “coordinated response”. Four months on, while Washington has taken some action against those responsible, Britain is yet to do so.
One year ago, the British government brought in a new, autonomous, Magnitsky-sanctions regime to target human-rights abusers and aggressors. These sanctions not only enable the enforcement of asset freezes and travel bans, but they also serve an important symbolic purpose in reinforcing Britain’s commitment to democratic values, while acting as a deterrent for potential human-rights abuses. Since coming into force, however, not a single Iranian regime official has been listed. In response to routine international attacks, appalling domestic repression and explicit support for UK-designated terrorist groups, the UK government should send a strong and clear message to Khamenei and his enforcers that actions have consequences. Thus, it must include the Iranian regime and IRGC officials in the next round of Magnitsky sanctions.
This should include individuals such as Saeed (Hamid) Aghajani, the commander of the IRGC drone unit that killed a British national in the Mercer Street attack, and Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, responsible for shooting down a Ukrainian airline in January 2020, killing all 176 passengers and crew. Magnitsky sanctions should also target intelligence officials – namely, Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori – who plotted to kidnap the Iranian-American women’s-rights activist Masih Alinejad from her New York home. This same network also planned to carry out kidnappings against British-Iranians on UK soil. While the Biden administration sanctioned the individuals earlier this year, the UK is yet to act.
On the anniversary of “bloody November”, it is also critical that Britain uses Magnitsky to hold to account those who had a direct role in killing 1,500 unarmed Iranian civilians, whether they are in high office or officials at grassroots level. Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, former minister of information and communications technology, should be included for his role in imposing an internet blackout during the protests, as should IRGC commander Salar Abnoush who described the Iranians on the streets as part of a “satanic coalition” while referring to peaceful civilian protests as a “full-fledged world war against the regime and Islamic Revolution, but one that fortunately died at birth.” Abnoush himself states that he was “on the scene” until the “final hours of involvement with the sedition” and in the IRGC’s monitoring room. Similarly Gholamreza Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Basij militia, which used lethal force against civilians, should be targeted under Magnitsky alongside Leila Vaseghi, governor of Qods City in Tehran, who has boasted about giving direct orders to security forces to shoot at unarmed protestors.
Imposing sanctions on such individuals would make it clear to the regime that this behaviour will not be tolerated. But it also sends an important message to the Iranian people, showing that they are not alone in their struggle for basic human rights.
The government’s “Global Britain” agenda envisions the country as a great power and force for good. This year’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy rightly listed Iran as a significant threat to the UK, British values and the international order. Deeds must follow words. The UK government must act on this assessment, ensuring that the Iranian regime understands there will be consequences for unprovoked acts of aggression and human-rights abuses. The Magnitsky-sanctions mechanism was designed for just such a purpose.