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1988: An appalling year in Iran’s terror campaign of the 1980s

Written By | Oct 15, 2019
1988, Iran's terror, 1988

Ayatollah Khomeini in his residence, Jamaran, 1988. Mohammad-Reza Tavassoli seen behind. Image and caption via Wikipedia entry on Ruhollah Khomeini, cropped to fit CDN’s format. (CC 4.0 license via

WASHINGTON: They are definitely the stars of Iranian politics. These mullahs are in their early forties and appear to still be young. As the theocratic Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said, neither the ruling power nor the opposition can distance themselves from the “crucial” 1980s era of the Islamic Republic. But what was so “crucial” about that time? Why do key figures involved in Iran’s terror campaign of the 1980s and the genocide of 1988 continue to dominate Iranian news?  Why does the population of Iran attach so much importance to them?

Continuing violence within Iran

In its latest report on Iran, published on August 2, Amnesty International detailed the continuing carnage in Iran.

“Human rights defenders seeking truth, justice and reparation for thousands of prisoners who were summarily executed or forcibly disappeared in the 1980s have faced new levels of retribution by the authorities. They include relatives of victims, who have become human rights defenders out of necessity, and younger human rights defenders who have taken to social media and other platforms to discuss the past atrocities.”

The report highlighted just the latest of many brutal acts of repression.

“The new crackdown has revived calls for an investigation into the murder of several thousand political prisoners in a wave of extrajudicial executions in the country in the summer of 1988.”

1980: The terror begins in the early years of the Islamic Republic.

After arriving in Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini had sworn, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, that he would withdraw from power in Iran to continue his studies at Qom. But two years after the fall of the Shah, the man who made this promise had already become unrecognizable. He quickly forgot his theological training in order to get rid of his allegedly too-liberal Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, and to reign over the country, ruling with an iron fist.

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The first signs of dissent during Khomeini’s reign appeared when he imposed on the Iranian Constitution the principle of Velayat-e Faghih, or the right to absolute power of a religious guide. Already having launched Iran’s terror crusade within the country, he spearheaded the bloody repression of the country’s Kurdish and Turkmen minorities, Khomeini’s agenda was also regarded as “a blow on the head or the veil over the head” for women.* It served to bar them from many key roles in government and society.

Electoral fraud and endless war

The first legislative and presidential elections were undermined by widespread electoral fraud. These illegal maneuvers left no room for the opposition — not even permitting them a single seat in the Assembly. Khomeini’s radical foreign policy resulted in two explosive and tragic events in his first years in power:

  • The hostage-taking of the US embassy in Tehran;
  • and the long war against Iraq.

The ayatollah considered the Iran-Iraq War “a divine gift.” Paying homage for that gift, he sent waves of thousands of children over the Iraqi minefields to detonate them.

In this context, the year 1981 began

Most opposition movements were silenced from the very beginning of Iran’s terror crusade. Only one continued to gather large crowds and challenge the policy of terror that had already become apparent. By then, about 50 members of the MEK, or Mujahedin-e Khalq, had already been murdered by the new regime’s henchmen. But this did not prevent them from launching a new call for a peaceful demonstration on June 20,  1981. Their aim was to claim the freedoms for which the monarchy had been overthrown.

Five hundred thousand people paraded through the streets of Tehran without violence that day. The old governor panicked over the demonstration. He replied to the demonstrators by giving the government forces the order to open fire. The government subsequently killed dozens of protesters on the spot before additional raids began across the country. Prisons overflowed with regime opponents. And the government did not allow these opponents to remain problems for long. According to survivors, government officials ordered them shot in groups of 400 per night. Adults, the young, the old, women — the government spared no one. The list of murdered individuals compiled by the opposition even includes 13-year-old girls.

These killings proved shocking enough to generate significant sympathy for the MEK movement.

1988: Real Genocide in Political Prisons

In 1988 Khomeini’s war machine was out of breath. “No one was fighting on the Iraqi front,” said General Saïd Ghassemi, one of the military commanders at the time. For eight long years, Khomeini ruthlessly waged this war. During that time he repeatedly claimed  he would continue the war against Iraq “to the last stone in the capital.” But ultimately, events forced Khomeini to surrender his war and his objectives. Too attached to power like many dictators, he failed to understand this withdrawal would cost him and his successors dearly in the coming years.

Without a war to justify everything from poverty to the assassination of its opponents, the theocracy was fully aware it could not avoid a social explosion. Khomeini then issued a fatwa to put an end to all the opponents in the prisons. That order covered even those already serving a prison sentence handed down by the mullahs’ courts. Khomeini’s logic was simple. Domestic unrest is manageable as long as there is no organized opposition that can lead a riot.

On the basis of this logic, during a few weeks in 1988m the Iranian government massacred more than 30,000 political prisoners, most of them members of the People’s Mujahidin. They were subsequently buried in mass graves. According to Hossein Montazeri, then Khomeini’s designated successor, massacre victims included pregnant women and teenage girls. It was political genocide, outright extermination that affected many families in Iran. But the government allowed no one to mourn. This latest horrific example of Iran’s terror cast an immense fear on all its citizens. And a dark silence fell over the country for many years after this massacre.

The new movement for justice

In 2016, the MEK was suddenly freed from a key overriding fear. Thousands of anti-government militants, threatened by another pending genocide, were taken from a camp in Iraq called Liberty and flown into exile abroad. After long years of suffering under Iran’s terror, and after many lives were lost infrequent attacks by Iranian-controlled militias and Iraqi forces, Iran’s chief political refugees were safely transferred to Albania with the help of the UNHCR and international diplomacy.

Relieved, the exiled leadership of the People’s Mujahedin in Iraq revived their previously dormant offensive against the Iranian government. They promptly launched a movement demanding justice for the victims of the 1988 genocide.

A renewed movement gathers force

This movement quickly spread to Iran. The movement was especially intent on reaching all the families who had lost members in the massacre. Amnesty International reported the existence of a key, previously unknown audio recording that revealed new, firsthand information about the gestation of the 1988 massacre.

“An audio recording, published in August 2016, of a meeting in 1988 in which leaders can be heard discussing and defending the details of their plans to carry out collective executions… has triggered an unprecedented chain of reactions from leaders who had to admit for the first time that collective executions in 1988 were planned at the highest levels of government.”

Many young people did not know about this era in their country’s history. Furthermore, they generally did not identify with the existing political power or its ramifications. But the unearthing of this audio tape proved firsthand the ongoing existence of Iran’s terror regime. Many of these newly enlightened and engaged young people joined the movement at that point. They joined forces calling for the Iranian people to bring the leaders of the Iranian dictatorship to justice.

The first unforgivable mistake of Khamenei

For a considerable period of time, the current leader of Tehran’s dictatorship, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had planned to manipulate the 2017 presidential election. His objective was to hand one of his closest associates, Mullah Ebrahim Raisi, the presidency of the Islamic Republic. But in this effort, the Supreme Leader’s first great mistake was underestimating the extent to which the movement for justice had already spread across the country.

As a member of the Tehran “death commission,” Ebrahim Raissi was among the main protagonists of the massacre of 1988. Khomeini trained him in the prison system to ensure the “good” unfolding of the fatwa that ordered the killing.

Read Also: Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia: An attempt to dodge a domestic nightmare?

Raissi’s candidacy raised a public outcry. One prominent protest slogan frequently appearing on walls an in social networks, sums up the public sentiment. “Neither executioner nor quack.” (The executioner was Raissi, while the quack Hassan Rohani, the incumbent president.)

Khamenei’s second unforgivable mistake

Khamenei’s second serious mistake was fundamental and followed upon the first. He simply failed to understand that the aforementioned and quite popular slogan signified the presence of a third protagonist in the pre-campaign elections. The regime structured the elections to resemble a competition between only two political factions. But the public and the Iranian Resistance entered the scene as a third force, undermining both factions.

Khamenei simply did not grasp the subtle but dangerous change in the mood of the street in time to counter it. For that reason, Khamenei failed to moderate his pressure against Hassan Rohani, which he applied with the intent to remove him from power. That failure pushed him to play his final card: Bringing up the 1988 massacre.

“The Iranian people do not want those who, in the last thirty-eight years [since the revolution, in 1979], have only known how to hang and put people in prison,” Rohani said on May 7 at an election campaign in Oroumieh (north-west ).

This served as a barely veiled reference to the killings of political prisoners.

Ironically, the sinister justice minister of the first Rohani government, Mostapha Pourmohammadi, was also involved in the killings. He even congratulated himself “for having executed the order of God” to preserve the regime in 1988. Moreover, he did not fail to remind Rohani that he himself occupied key positions in the security field throughout the previous 37 years. Thus, he was not innocent. But by playing on this register, Rohani wanted to remind the Supreme Leader of the risks he was taking away. That is, until the outbreak of a post-election insurgency, as occurred in 2009.

“The 1988 killer” goes viral in the capital and the big cities.

The movement continued to gain momentum during the April and May 2017 election campaign, and slogans against Raissi multiplied. Slogans referencing “the 1988 killer” effectively went viral in Tehran and in the other large urban areas of Iran. They reminded Iran’s beleaguered citizens once again of those terrible 1980s, the frightening, climactic years of Iran’s terror.

Perhaps uncharacteristically, Iran’s ruling theocracy was slow to catch on to this development. It was therefore very late when the theocracy’s dictator realized he had underestimated the growing movement for justice. He tried to turn the tide in his speech on the anniversary of Khomeini’s death on June 4, 2017, proclaiming “The ’80s were crucial years in the history of the Islamic Republic.”

Khamenei tried to justify the massacres by saying that his regime would have been overthrown in those years if Khomeini had not carried out extreme measures. But the average Iranian citizen already knew the truth.

The theocracy stages a propaganda counter-coup

Since then, demonizing the opposition to justify the repression of the 80s has become an official propaganda industry of Iran’s terror regime — lead by its ensconced theocratic dictator. This counter-attack against the truth now encompasses an entire official film library that tries to justify the 1988 massacre. It includes as well routine, scripted statements from a panoply of dignitaries and imams during Friday prayers across the country. Statements like the following July 21 prayer day pronouncement made to the Assembly of Experts by Ahmed Khatami, one of its members. Khatami himself is a close associate of Khamenei.

 “We must decorate all those who killed the People’s Mujahidin by order of Imam Khomeini.”

But the regime cannot get away from the shadows of the victims. In the composition of his new government, Rohani dismissed Pourmohammadi. But, the move was largely cosmetic. Rohani simply replaced Pourmohammadi with Alireza Ava’i, another member of the death commission involved in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Khuzestan province.

What the future may hold

Under these circumstances, demands for strength continue to grow both inside Iran and abroad. Victims’ families have appealed to the UN to investigate the actions of Iran’s theocracy and bring to justice those responsible for the country’s seemingly endless series of murders and massacres.

More recently, exhibitions commemorating the anniversary of the 1988 massacre were mounted in Paris, London, and Washington, D.C. Survivors and family members of missing persons were present during the opening of these exhibitions. Meanwhile, the walls of Tehran and major cities of the country echo with calls for justice for the victims of Iran’s terror throughout the murderous 1980s.

At long last, the truth seems to be catching up with Iran’s mullahs. They thought they’d managed to bury the collective memory of their crimes. But they buried the bodies of the victims. Not their memory.


*These terms refer to the suppression of women who don’t observe so-called “Islamic veiling.” 


— Headline image: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his residence, Jamaran, 1988. Mohammad-Reza Tavassoli seen behind.
Image and caption via Wikipedia entry on Ruhollah Khomeini, cropped to fit CDN’s format. (CC 4.0 license via



Hamid Enayat

Hamid Enayat is an independent Iranian political analyst and writer based in Europe.