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The new Libyan crisis and Turkey’s presence in Tripolitania

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It seemed that the Mediterranean region had been forgotten during the Cold War, where instead the Limes from Szczecin to Trieste was central – and it was a technical mistake – two cities that Churchill mentioned in his famous speech on the “Iron Curtain” of March 5, 1946 in Fulton.

In all likelihood, however, it was George Orwell that in 1945coined the specific expression “Cold War”, in an essay entitled You and the Atom Bomb.

  Also the presence of the Soviet naval Eskadra – slightly belated compared to the initial U.S. Fifth Fleet – was mainly linked to the protection of peripheral maritime areas from Syria to Eastern Mediterranean and the Dodecanese, not to mention the Soviet pressure on Turkey, a powerful NATO country on the USSR border.

 The Cold War crisis and the “fall of the Berlin Wall”, however, have brought the Mediterranean back to the core of many countries’ strategic doctrines.

 The Mediterranean is the natural end of the Chinese project of the New Silk Road.It is also the point of contact between Europe and the Arab world, i.e. with all the souls of the Arab world, which is the only area – along with China – that has collectively expanded its rayonnement after the end of the Cold War. The Mediterranean region is also the axis of the new economic and strategic Israeli expansion. Finally, it should also be recalled that it is the unavoidable channel of connection with Africa, which will be at the core of the already easily predictable geoeconomy of the near future.

We should also note the new U.S. posture towards the Pacific to encircle China and hence the relative decrease in the U.S. pressure on the Mediterranean region.

With its childish, but irrelevant Libyan policy, Italy has already been removed from the list of old and new powers that are currently redesigning the Mediterranean region.

Nowadays, those who give the cards in the Mediterranean are Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, as well as obviously the Russian Federation and China. When the cats are away, the mice will play.

 Even the oil and gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean region change many of the current economic and political games and trigger new alliances.

Greece, for example, has officially and recently announced it cannot rule out the use of force in a possible conflict with Turkey. Just think that they are two NATO countries

As shown in a note drawn up jointly by Turkey and the Libyan GNA, what is at stake here are the 24 new blocks for oil and gas exploration existing in a region that would deprive Greece of some Dodecanese areas and would almost completely close the sea of Athens, thus making it a strategic object in Turkey’s hands.

Furthermore, the agreement between Turkey and Libya, as well as the sending of Idlib’s jihadists and other units of the Turkish Armed Forces, started on January 2, 2020, when the Turkish Parliamentary Assembly approved the sending of troops to support al-Sarraj’s government, connected to Turkey by a wide network of relations including those made available to the Muslim Brotherhood.

 Certainly, the GNA’s Operation “Volcano of Rage” is correlated to a strong rearmament, on the part of Russia and Syria, of Khalifa Haftar’s LNA, which, for the time being, must limit the damage and avoid the spreading of al-Sarraj’s Libyan Turks.

As we will see later on, the withdrawal of Haftar’s air forces from al-Watiya was already being negotiated between the two sides. According to the Libyan broadcaster Libya24,however, there is already a pact between Erdogan and Putin to guarantee only to Turkey the Al-Watiya base, which would become – also with Russia’s agreement – a base shared by Turkey and the U.S. AFRICOM. In exchange for it, Russia would obtain the Qartabiyah air base near Sirte, as well as a naval base, again in Sirte, to give Russia the only thing it really wants to obtain from its Libyan adventure, i.e. a base in the central Mediterranean region.

 It is even said that Erdogan harshly ordered Haftar – through a “Russian mediator” – to cease fighting and withdraw from his previous positions south of Tripoli.

In view of having a base shared with al-Sarraj’s Navy, the ideal base for Turkey is certainly Abu Sitta. Nothing to do with the usual complaining by Italy, always waiting for an agreement that will never seriously come with Tripoli’s Navy.

 In Abu Sitta, in fact, an Italian military ship is at anchor, which coordinates – with 70 soldiers – the work of the Libyan Coast Guard to fight against illegal migration.

Who will be heard more in Tripoli, the Italian government or Turkey’s new neo-Ottoman imperialism? The answer is very easy.

 The retreat of Haftar’s LNA seems justified above all by the need to protect the units most exposed to the Turkish Bayrackar TB2 drones. It is likely, however, that the LNA of Cyrenaica wants to disengage from direct contact with the enemy and then reorganize south of Tarhouna, where many Russian, Emirates and Jordanian advisors operate.

 In recent months, Turkey has brought 9,600 mercenaries to Libya and other 3,300 ones are training in Syrian camps.

 The GNA’s army itself, which had been sidelined by the advance of Khalifa Haftar’s LNA forces, also reconquered Bani Walid, south-east of Tripoli, where the Tripoline militias entered the city without firing a shot, thanks to the local authorities’ cooperation.

The military actions on the ground followed one another in rapid succession: on May 18, the GNA also conquered the above stated military base of Al Watiya, the former inevitable strength of Haftar’s LNA.

Currently a proxy war is being fought in Libya: Turkey and Qatar against Egypt, UAEs and Saudi Arabia, who want everything but Turkish hegemony over Libya. And vice versa.

  The foolish pride of the “great” Europeans has allowed the permanent and stable crisis of the Libyan territory, after a hammering and manipulative series of trivial defamation operations against Gaddafi and his greatest ally, namely Italy. Do you believe that all the rhetoric – often even well-founded – against some of Italy’s Heads of government was unbiased and gratuitous, whatever mistakes they may have made?

 There is also the hypothesis, which is now even more than a hypothesis, that Turkey would like to build military infrastructure together with NATO in Southern Libya, which would be the real game changer of the current balance of forces on the territory.

Certainly Italy, too, will participate in this operation, within the framework of the Atlantic Alliance, but only to play second fiddle compared to Turkey, which has no interest in having Italy as a partner, neither economically nor militarily, and certainly not in Libya.

 Incidentally, the failed meeting of Prime Minister Conte with Haftar and al-Sarraj – later held only with the LNA General – at the beginning of January 2020, was a masterpiece of ineptitude, which definitively marginalized our diplomacy and deprived Italy of a real influence ability, under the banner of the “equivalence” between the two fronts.

 Probably Conte only wanted to take credit for the truce actually arranged by Russia and Turkey.

The truce designed by Putin and Erdogan both in Idlib and, later, in Libya, conceals a strategic plan of considerable importance: the splitting up of Syria and then of Libya into regular and clear zones of influence, excluding the United States and its European and Western allies that will have no room in Syria nor even less in Libya.

 Putin will obviously use Haftar’s LNA until it suits him. Later he will probably leave it to its fate and possibly deal with other new powerful regional African players: Algeria, which is moving in a strongly anti-Turkish direction; Sudan, where Turkey already has a military base on the island of Sawakin; Morocco, where one of the main local parties, the Justice and Development Party, is strongly connected to Erdogan and his AKP.

 Libya, however, must be considered within the framework of a set of political, economic and military relations that are now very broad and concern the interconnection between Libya and Africa, including sub-Saharan Africa.

 Haftar’s forces, however, had already left Bani Walid, again without firing a shot. The way mines were laid by Haftar’s LNA makes us think that the agreement had been reached well before military moves.

Furthermore, the GNA and Turkey also reconquered the city of Tarhouna, 95 kilometers from Tripoli, which had been one of the poles of Haftar’s relentless and overwhelming advance.

ObviouslyTripoli’s GNA now wants to reconquer the whole Sirte region, but above all the city bearing the same name, the real junction for controlling communications and trade between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

 Meanwhile, the governments of Tripoli and Tobruk have already agreed to resume their negotiations under the aegis of the United Nations, especially to make the best use of IRINI, the naval mission led by Admiral Fabio Agostini, aimed at controlling the passage of weapons in the Mediterranean to the Libyan coast.

 An activity that will not be very successful, considering that loads of M60 tanks coming from Turkish arsenals have already arrived by sea to Misrata. The mission is being prepared by land from Tripoli to Sirte.

The closure of Haftar’s room for manoeuvre towards the East and the coast up to Tunis is another card now played only by Turkey.

Hence what does Turkey want from al-Sarraj’s Libya? First and foremost a primary economic and strategic role in the future Libyan reconstruction. Secondly the autonomous drilling of the above stated oil maritime areas in the Eastern Mediterranean region, disputed between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.

The GNA has long authorized the Turkish Petroleum Company to carry out exploration in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

 Turkey’s main point of reference is Qatar.

For example, the Vice-Commander of the Turkish Armed Forces is also the President of the Qatari Military Academy, but the Turkish Security Forces and Intelligence Services play a significant role in the Emirate, by closely cooperating and, sometimes, replacing the small but efficient Qatari Forces.

 The Turkish operation in Northern Syria had very strong support from the Emirate, which regarded the Turkish mission in Syria “Source of Peace” as a wide and effective attempt of the Ikhwan to expand into the Sunni area of Syria.

Also al-Sisi, however, soon entered this Libyan game. On June 6 last, he announced an Egyptian Plan called the “Cairo Initiative”, aimed at reaching a ceasefire starting from June 8.

 Al-Sisi’s initiative is obviously designed to regaining control of the situation in Libya, after Khalifa Haftar’s evident defeat, in open conflict and competition with Turkey and possibly against the aims of Qatar and probably of France itself, whose Intelligence Services’Brigade Action greatly supported Haftar’s LNA and continues to do so.

Particularly against the Italian oil and strategic interests.

 The idea underlying Al Sisi’ strategy, but also Russia’s, is that Libya should be pacified and rebuilt following the current political-military fault lines, without waiting for an impossible future reunification.

 The young Libyans who were trained by the Italian Intelligence Services in a place of Central Italy in 2011 often repeated that, if a strong national government were not quickly achieved, the territorial, tribal and criminal gangs and faction would disrupt the Libyan political and economic system definitively and irreparably.

 Moreover, the very recent Egyptian plan suggests – in agreement with al-Sarraj’s himself – the removal of all foreign mercenaries present in all factions and then the creation of a “Presidential Council” elected by all the Libyan people equally representing the three historical regions, namely Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan, under the U.N. control, and also including women, young people and old tribal leaders.

 A vague, complex, cumbersome and currently impracticable project which, however, shows that Egypt wants to wait for better times to do what it has always wanted to do: to gain influence over the part of Libya bordering on Egypt and differently regulate both the migration of Egyptian workers to the Libyan oil wells, and the oil issue itself, both with al-Sarraj and with those who will reconquer Cyrenaica if Haftar failed again.

 Italy does not even give a sign. Yet the oil, migration, economic and even traditional interests should make any Italian government think that Italy, too, should take part – and possibly play a great role – in the project for splitting up Libya.

It should pursue again the Italian national interest and stop using its Armed Forces as a sort of Red Cross or Civil Protection, as well as avoid believing, or pretending to believe blindly and optimistically in the “magnificent and progressive fortunes” of international Conferences. It should also think that Libya is not only the memory of a pre-Fascist colonial past, but the axis of our inevitable and huge interests in the Maghreb region and throughout Africa.

 How many Socialist Democrats volunteered in Libya in the 1910s, on the wave of Pascoli’s famous speech “The Great Proletarian nation is on the Move”!

 How the Libyan issue can be solved, in one way or another, without placing it into a broader context, remains a sorrowful mystery – but now only for Italy.

 For Italy, Libya is obviously its oil. ENI has seven extraction-processing areas available but, according to 2019 data, Italy receives 7 million oil tons from Tripoli (and Sirte), equivalent to 12.1% of its total energy imports.

For Italy, Libya is only the starting point and often criminal regimentation of many migrants. Here the core of the issue is the real understanding of this phenomenon.

  The Libyan-Italian Memorandum of Understanding on Migration (LIMUM) was signed last February and later extended for additional three years.

 The LIMUM envisages the Italian support to the Libyan authorities, which can stop the boats and ships leaving from the Libyan coast and then make migrants return to their shelters on Libyan territory.

It is legislation contrary to EU law and just one of the many attempts to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Hence what can be done? To find an agreement between all EU countries, which are now very happy to palm off all the irregular migrants from Libya to Italy, so as to create-irrespective of the real presence of al-Sarraj’s GNA that would have many fewer problems to solve – a series of civil and organized control-selection-permanence camps to stop and identify part of the sub-Saharan migration, in the necessary time cycles.

No agreements are reached with the countries of the region. They are all too happy to get rid of a share of “human overproduction” – as Konrad Lorenz called it – and they will never accept to have to keep a “dangerous crowd” who, at the most, will only be used as blackmail for Westerners who, in the end, will receive it anyway.

Hence migration control camps out of the reach of al-Sarraj’s government and the major tribes operating as intermediaries of illegal migration.

With a view to defending them, a NATO-based Control Force will be created, albeit with Rules of Engagement that do not seem to be drafted written – as has sometimes happened – by inexperienced people.

It will be necessary, however, to choose a local champion that – together with the Italian Armed Forces, now getting out of their internationalist and pacifist dream or nightmare – will make us pursue our real interests in Libya, regardless of its being one or many, which is now not so much important for Italy.

Obviously, with a view to protecting the Italianoil, we will need not only the intelligent work of ENI, which knows very well how to move on its own in those circumstances, but also a control unit involving both the Intelligence Services and Special Corps, as already provided for by Law No. 198 of December 11, 2015.

 A control unit that must “do politics”, i.e. choose, pay, direct and train a fairly significant group of local militants to oppose – also with weapons – the interests of other countries, possibly even allies, operating in that system.

 All the Special Forces operate in crisis theatres permanently and with offensive and intrusive operations.

Certainly also Italy has done so, albeit in areas where there was a wide network of protection and coverage by NATO and other allied countries.

 Now time has come to take action on our own.

 CIA’ Special Activities Division has its own Special Operation Group (SGO), which operates in underground actions in major crisis theatres, with extensive legal rules and regulations.

After all, as Tocqueville said, “America is a country of lawyers”.

 The French Commandement des Operations Speciales (COS) operates permanently, and especially in Africa, together with the Brigade (or Service) Action of the Direction Générale de la Securité Extérieure (DGSE).

 The SA is largely autonomous in the collection of all types of intelligence and choice of operations.

 The British E Squadron operates with the Secret Intelligence Service and is made up of elements coming from the SAS and the SBS. In short, it will be necessary to pull our claws out – with both secret and overt operations – to conquer the part of Libya we need to organize and pursue our interests. Without believing too blindly in the “magnificent and progressive fortunes” that, unlike his cousin Terenzio Mamiani, Giacomo Leopardi challenged and derided.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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