I am writing in response to the Feb. 17, 2023 Review story about the recent Amnesty International report regarding the role Iranian diplomats played in allegedly covering up mass executions in Iran in 1988, including the role of Professor of Religion Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, who was Iran's ambassador to the U.N. at the time.
The new Amnesty International report and the organization's 2018 report on the same topic — Iran: Blood-Soaked Secrets — advocate rightly for the fundamental importance of holding individuals who participated in the 1988 prison killings accountable, including those who had direct knowledge of them and then denied that they had occurred. Though the true death toll is not known, approximately 4,000 Iranian political prisoners were given sham trials and then executed on the secret orders of Iran's then supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Amnesty International is correct that a cover-up of those horrendous crimes against humanity continues to this day. That's indicated, for example, by the Iranian government's continued denial and through evidence that indicates Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's current president, was directly involved.
While it is important that justice be pursued in cases where there is evidence of wrongdoing, it is also important to refrain from falsely accusing individuals where there is no such evidence. I believe that is the case with Professor Mahallati.
To understand the full context of the killings, it's important to distinguish between what was generally known inside Iran from what was reported outside the country in news sources and by Amnesty International. There were numerous reports of the killings outside Iran, a significant amount of which were from sources linked to the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, an opposition group that fought on the side of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War.
However, inside Iran, there was no general knowledge of the scope of the killings until March 1989, when confidential letters written by Ayatollah Montazeri were transmitted to the office of Abolhassan Banisadr, the exiled former president of Iran who sought refuge in Paris, and broadcast by the BBC on March 25. This was broadly reported back to Iran. According to BBC journalist Baqer Moin's book Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, Montazeri's letters "provided an unprecedented revelation of an affair that had been shrouded in secrecy." Montazeri, who was second in Iran's hierarchical command structure, had opposed the killings among the small group surrounding Khomeini that was aware of them. That full disclosure of the killings inside Iran occurred during March 1989, after Ambassador Mahallati was called back to Iran, arrested, imprisoned, and dismissed from his position at the U.N.
All of this suggests, to me, that it is unlikely he could have had direct knowledge of the killings through communications from his government, as the killings were simply not known widely within Iran's government when they occurred.
It is well documented that Ambassador Mahallati played a prominent role in ending the Iran-Iraq War. While he did work to weaken U.N. resolutions that were critical of Iran, he also called for the executions to be investigated in person inside Iran by a U.N. representative. There is substantial evidence that the ambassador's actions at the U.N. angered hardline elements in the Iranian government, leading to his subsequent imprisonment and dismissal from his U.N. position.
In my view, based on available evidence, Oberlin College's investigative finding that there is no evidence Professor Mahallati engaged in wrongdoing as Iran's ambassador to the U.N. is valid. It's also important to note that the new Amnesty International report confirms there is no evidence that Ambassador Mahallati was briefed by Iran's government about the killings. That, to me, indicates that there is no evidence he had direct knowledge of these horrific crimes against humanity.