Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
“Dad, my sentence is death,” Mohammad Mehdi Karami informed his father in a phone call from prison last month. Then, last Saturday, the 21-year-old karate champion was executed by the Iranian regime. Karami, an Iranian Kurd, was hanged on the same day as Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, a volunteer children’s coach who was just 20. Both were accused of killing a member of the Basij paramilitary force. In the phone call, the younger Karami reportedly told his father he was tortured into making a false confession. All 16 accused in that case have denied the charges.
Their deaths add to the growing number of young protesters killed since Iranians took to the streets almost four months ago in women-led demonstrations sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Amini, also an Iranian Kurd, died in police custody after she was detained by the morality policy for improperly wearing the hijab, the Muslim veil that Iran’s clerical rulers obligate every woman to wear.
The death count, and the relentless heartbreak, are all but certain to continue. That’s because the regime’s most powerful domestic weapon – its ability to kill protesters in order to frighten and intimidate them – is not producing its intended results. Despite mounting deaths, Iranians fed up with repression are not giving up.
Iran’s young protesters are showing a level of courage that is nearly unfathomable. It is up to them whether or not to continue their struggle, demanding “azadi, azadi!” – “freedom!” in Farsi.
Those watching in awe from outside Iran have other decisions to make – how will they respond as the regime kills its young? The reaction so far has been utterly inadequate.
The Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization warns of a “serious risk of mass execution of protesters.” Already it estimates security forces have killed 481 people, including 64 children – and it believes 109 protesters face the risk of execution at this moment.
The executions occur after protesters are charged and allegedly tortured into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit, as Karami told his father on the phone that day. Human rights groups say that the proceedings have been shams, show trials, without any semblance of due process.
Hours after their executions, two other young protesters sentenced to death – Mohammed Broghani, just 19-years-old, and Mohammed Ghobadlu, 22 – were moved out of their cells into solitary confinement, raising concerns that their execution might be imminent. Their supporters spent the night rallying around the prison, hoping to stop the possible executions. As of this writing, they remain alive.
The first known person to be executed in connection with the protests was 23-year-old Mohsen Shekari, in early December. A viral video purportedly showing his mother getting the news of his death is excruciating.
A few days later, Iran hanged 23-year-old Majidreza Rahnavard from a construction crane in a public square in the city of Mashhad. He had been convicted of “enmity against God,” in another show trial that found him guilty of stabbing two Basijis. A little over three weeks after his arrest, he was executed before a crowd, his lifeless body suspended from a cable visible in photographs posted by the regime. His court-assigned lawyer had offered no defense.
Almost no one expected the demonstrations to continue this long. The risks seemed to outweigh the probability of success. “Let’s be honest,” I wrote in October, the protests have been inspiring, “but also terrifying to watch.” We knew the regime would respond with brutality, and so it has.
The beatings, the shootings, the executions, have not put an end to the protests. On the contrary, the latest executions have reignited protests at universities. Young people seem determined to risk it all for a chance at a different life. In many ways, the calls for an end to the theocracy seem unstoppable.
For the rest of the world, there’s even more moral clarity over the issue of supporting protesters now that Iran has started providing Russia with the weaponry it is using to destroy Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure.
As Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky told the US Congress, with Iran, “Russia found an ally in [its] genocidal policy… one terrorist has found the other.” Iran claims it only sold Russia drones before the war.
Stern condemnation of Iran’s executions from western powers poured in almost immediately, and protesters took to the streets in some world capitals. That solidarity is important, but it’s hardly enough. The world can do more.
Germany, one of Tehran’s top trading partners, recently announced it is suspending export credits and investment guarantees for Iran trade. It had already declared that the situation did not permit “business as usual with Iran.” The world’s responsible governments should curtail trade and quietly persuade other top trading partners, such as the United Arab Emirates India and Turkey, to review their commercial relations.
It’s also very clear that efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – should be declared over. Biden has already admitted the deal “is dead,” even as he refuses to make the acknowledgment official. The JCPOA won’t be resuscitated, and even if that were possible, it would bring massive funding to a regime that is not just killing its own people and sowing unrest in its region but is also aiding in the destruction of another country in its partnership with Russia.
The European Union should waste no time acting on a Dutch proposal to label the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC, a terrorist organization, as the US has already done. Tehran rejects the label, but evidence of the IRGC’s activities is ample, with its intervention in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
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On the diplomatic front, western nations, led by the United States, should raise the profile of Iran’s misdeeds. Take the case to top diplomatic forums. Force a vote of condemnation at the UN Security Council, where Russia will undoubtedly veto it, and perhaps China will as well. Let us see the despots stand side by side.
And, if Iran doesn’t relent, target visas of Iranians enjoying their travels in the West. If Iran continues killing its young students, then perhaps the children of Iranian officials and regime allies should know that their ability to study in American and European universities could soon end.
This is the Iranian people’s fight, as it should be. It’s their country. Their lives. But the rest of the world must do more than issue statements and express disapproval. As long as the Iranian people are risking it all to fight for their freedom against a regime that has inflicted so much harm in so many places, they deserve more support than they have received.