Instead of A Visa for Iran's President, Seek Accountability | Opinion

When I served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, I was always cognizant of the role that new policies and resolutions had in establishing precedent. When I personally championed a policy, I was often motivated by the belief that it would communicate the U.S. government's readiness to take further action to combat terrorism and the rogue states that support it. I also understood that at times, such messaging might be at odds with political considerations, but the latter can never take precedence over principles like democracy and human rights.

A case in point is the debate over the announced visit of Ebrahim Raisi, the current president of Iran, to New York to address the UN General Assembly later this month.

In the summer of 1988, the Iranian regime carried out a massacre of political prisoners. A group of the massacre's survivors and family members of its victims recently filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York. The subject of that filing is Raisi, who in 1988 served as one of four members on Tehran's "death commission," which oversaw interrogations and executions in Evin and Gohardasht prisons.

Those prisons produced the largest share of the massacre's overall death toll, which is estimated at 30,000 people. Roughly 90 percent of those victims were members or supporters of the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (also known as the MEK). That group remains the driving force behind a "justice-seeking movement" advocating for the sanction, arrest, and prosecution of the massacre's perpetrators, regardless of their official government position.

Those efforts are starting to bear fruit. In July, a Swedish court sentenced a former Iranian prison official to life in prison for his role in the massacre. By issuing this ruling, the Swedish judiciary helped the international community take an important step toward accountability for an obvious crime against humanity and a genocide that has long been overlooked.

Instead of being allowed to use the UN General Assembly as a podium to spew hatred and to justify Tehran's egregious human rights abuses at home and malign activities abroad, Raisi must be held similarly accountable for the crimes against humanity that he oversaw. Anything less would be an affront to the very principles and values at the foundation of the UN.

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi
TEHRAN, IRAN - JUNE 03: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a speech on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's death at his grave outside Tehran, on June 03, 2022 In Tehran, Iran. Meghdad Madadi ATPImages/Getty Images

The United States bears substantial responsibility here. The government would have to issue Raisi a visa before he could visit the UN headquarters in New York. The decision to host a man who put to death thousands of political prisoners would send the wrong message both to Iran's clerical regime and to its people.

I urge the Biden administration to stop Raisi's prospective visit to the U.S. regardless of the current negotiations over reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The administration previously predicted that the negotiations would conclude in one way or another by the end of 2021. That deadline was pushed to January or February of this year, before Tehran imposed an indefinite pause to the proceedings in March, without facing any consequences.

In both cases, Raisi promoted belligerent rhetoric toward the U.S. and its allies, then sent his representatives back to Vienna with even stronger demands and ultimatums. The regime's insistence upon irrelevant points, like the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, was indicative of Raisi's ultra-hardline ideology and the global threat it poses.

The past year has seen notable spikes in the rate of executions inside Iran as well as in the rate of terrorist incidents that can be traced back to Tehran.

As former attorney general Michael Mukasey noted on August 25, "according to a complaint filed by the Justice Department, it was in October 2021—two months after Raisi took office—that the Iranian government solicited people to murder former national security advisor John Bolton and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo.... Based on the structure of the Iranian government, that plot likely would have had the approval of Raisi as chair of the Supreme National Security Council."

Holding Tehran accountable for its malign behavior is the most appropriate approach. The clerical regime must understand that it will face consequences for terrorism or crimes against humanity, and that its culpability is clearly established, as Raisi's case in the SDNY will certainly do. Nothing must stand on the way of enforcing the rule of law and holding bad actors to account.

Judge Ted Poe represented the Second district of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2005 to 2019 and is the former chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.