The leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, pictured in 1979. (Photo by Asadollah Chahriari/Keystone/Getty Images)
"In looking to the future, Ayatollah Khomeini has spoken of his hopes to show the world what a genuine Islamic government can do on behalf of its people", wrote Princeton University professor Richard Falk at the dawn of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979. He was one of the many Western intellectuals who, in a mix of misconception and naiveté, supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime. These deaf Western secularists succumbed to the charm of the Iranian clerics who have just celebrated the 40th anniversary of their regime. It is useful to remind the public that Khomeini orchestrated his Islamic revolution from Neauphle-le-Château, a village 20 miles outside Paris.
"It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems", the French philosopher Michel Foucault remarked at the time about the Iranian revolutionaries who brought down Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Many American officials and academics also fell into this Iranian Revolution trap. Andrew Young, the US ambassador to the United Nations under the Carter Administration, said that Khomeini was a "saint" and compared his revolution in the name of Islam to the US civil rights movement. The American ambassador to Tehran, William Sullivan, compared the new Iranian ruler to Gandhi, while President Carter's advisor, James Bill, wrote admirably that Khomeini was a man of "impeccable integrity and honesty". The result, as US President Donald Trump tweeted recently, has been "40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure".
We are now witnessing, again, "The West's betrayal of Iranian dissidents". Iran last year arrested more than 7,000 people in a crackdown on dissidents, protesters, students, journalists, lawyers, women's rights activists and unionists, according to Amnesty International. The human rights group called the crackdown "a shameless campaign of repression". According to new documents leaked to the media monitoring group Reporters Without Borders, the Iranian regime imprisoned or executed at least 860 journalists in the three decades between the Islamic revolution in 1979 and 2009.
"The file is a register of all the arrests, imprisonments and executions carried out by the Iranian authorities in the Tehran area over three decades", Reporters Without Borders wrote. The documents added to record of the 61,900 political prisoners who had been held since the 1980s, as well as evidence of a massacre in 1988 in which 4,000 political prisoners were executed on the orders of Khomeini. According to human rights campaigner Geoffrey Robertson:
"Revolutionary guards descended on the prisons and a 'death committee' (an Islamic judge, a revolutionary prosecutor and an intelligence ministry official) took a minute or so to identify each prisoner, declare them mohareb [enemy of God] and direct them to the gallows erected in the prison auditorium, where they were hanged six at a time".
Why has Europe never tried to hold Iran accountable for these mass murders, which are believed to have been ordered by Khomeini on a death list denounced by Reporters Without Borders?
The Iranian regime, which holds the world record of per capita executions, persecuted not only journalists. A Wikileaks dispatch revealed that the Islamic Republic of Iran has executed between 4,000 and 6,000 gays and lesbians since the 1979 revolution. Amnesty International estimates that 5,000 gays and lesbians have been executed there since 1979. The most recent Iranian gay man was hanged a few weeks ago. Alireza Nader of "New Iran," based in Washington, D.C., told Fox News, "The E.U. only seems to care about the nuclear agreement and trade ties. It pretends that the regime is legitimate and that Iranians have no alternatives to living under tyranny".
Last December, in another violent crackdown, Iran arrested more than 100 Christians. Many of the detainees were Muslims who converted to Christianity, and were accused of "proselytising". Iran is also number 9 on the Open Doors' world blacklist of countries persecuting Christians. Why has Europe, which so often claims to cherish religious freedom, never protested against Iran's persecution of its Christian minority?
In 2018 alone in Iran, at least 112 female human rights defenders were arrested or held in detention. One woman, who was arrested after waving her hijab to protest Iran's repressive clothing laws, said she did it for her 8-year-old daughter. "I was telling myself: 'Viana should not grow up in the same conditions in this country that you grew up in,'" Azam Jangravi recounted in an interview with Reuters. Bret Stephens wrote in The New York Times.
"Liberals and progressives should not find it difficult to join conservatives in championing the rights of women in Iran, particularly women removing their headscarves in public and courageously facing the consequences... Nor should it be difficult for liberals and conservatives alike to call attention to the plight of Iran's political prisoners, much as both sides were once moved to action by the plight of political prisoners in the Soviet Union or China or South Africa".
Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be taking place. According to Mariam Memarsadeghi:
"Iranians who yearn for democracy and an open, prosperous society at peace with the world are met with overwhelming indifference from the West's media and political leaders, not to mention its universities, unions, civic groups, churches, and celebrities—the very people and institutions that historically have lent their empathy, solidarity, and concrete assistance to the cause of freedom across the world."
Forty years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa demanding the head of Salman Rushdie, the British-Indian novelist who authored "The Satanic Verses". Iranian leaders recently repeated their support for that unprecedented deadly ruling. "Imam Khomeini's verdict regarding Salman Rushdie is based on divine verses and just like divine verses, it is solid and irrevocable", the official account of Iran's supreme leader Khamenei recently tweeted. Iranian journalist Amir Taheri wrote about the fatwa in 1990:
"The fact that the Ayatollah had executed thousands of people, including many writers and poets since his seizure of power in Tehran had provoked only mild rebuke from Western governments and public opinion... With the fatwa against Rushdie, we thought the whole world would mobilise against the ayatollah, turning his regime into an international pariah. Nothing of the kind happened".
Since then, freedom of expression has been under attack everywhere, not just in the Islamic world but also Europe. Iranian poets are executed by the regime for "waging war on God". Forty years after the fatwa, "No young artist of Rushdie's range and gifts would dare write a modern version of The Satanic Verses today, and if he or she did, no editor would dare publish it", the British journalist Nick Cohen wrote. Worst of all, now Europe's highest court has effectively adopted Khomeini's idea of blasphemy. The European Court of Human Rights recently decided that an Austrian woman's conviction for calling the Prophet of Islam "a pedophile" did not breach her freedom of speech. The sharia style of "blasphemy" has now become a potent weapon to stifle and suppress free speech.
In 1979, Western leaders met in Guadalupe for a summit. French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, US President Jimmy Carter, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany and Prime Minister James Callahan of Great Britain decided to support Khomeini instead of the Shah of Iran. In 2019, Western leaders met for another summit on Iran. A few days ago, foreign ministers from 60 nations gathered in Warsaw, but this time the United States tried to assemble a coalition to pressure Iran. The most visible scene at the summit was the absence of foreign ministers of the three major European powers, Germany, UK and France, the same countries that in 1979 abandoned their allies in Iran in favor of Khomeini. Europe's spineless leaders choose again appeasement and indulgence in their relations with Iran.
"The time has come for our European partners to stop undermining U.S. Sanctions", U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said at the annual Munich Security Conference. He received absolutely no reaction. When Pence told the audience he was bringing greetings from President Trump, not a single person clapped. Europe has clearly chosen appeasement, rather than confrontation, with Iran.
On January 31, the foreign ministries of France, Germany and the United Kingdom shamefully announced a deal to help European companies that wish to continue trading with Iran to avoid US sanctions. It is the "Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges", or Instex. The EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, said that "the instrument launched today will provide economic operators with the necessary framework to pursue legitimate trade with Iran".
European officials, however, are not only working on trade. While Iranian death squads are targeting dissidents on Europe's soil, they are openly legitimizing Iran's regime. Last summer, an Iranian attempt to bomb an opposition group near Paris was foiled, and last October, Denmark recalled its ambassador to Tehran after another Iranian assassination attempt was prevented. As reported by the German newspaper Bild, the German Foreign Ministry recently sent officials to Iran's Embassy in Berlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic. In addition, Germany's former Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, traveled with a German economic delegation to Tehran to boost the trade between the two countries. Again according to Bild, Gabriel met parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani (who has called the existence of the Holocaust an "open question") and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the official in charge of Iran's support for Middle East terror groups.
"The Iranian regime openly advocates another Holocaust and it seeks the means to achieve it", US President Mike Pence said at the Munich Security Conference last week. A few days earlier, a senior Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander, Yadollah Javani, threatened to "raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground". Last November, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani called Israel a "cancerous tumor". With its silence, the West is trying its best to downplay these deadly threats.
After the Iranian regime executed one of its citizens for homosexuality this month, US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, wrote on his Twitter feed, "Many of our European allies have embassies in Tehran. This barbaric act must not go unanswered. Speak up". Sadly, Europe has chosen not speak up. As Bloomberg's Eli Lake has written, Iran does not need our appeasement; it needs "a new revolution".
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.