(Washington, D.C.) — As Iranians head to the polls Friday, the literary and free expression group PEN America urged the Biden-Harris administration to emphasize the country’s dire human rights situation as it responds to the outcome of the vote.

“Iran’s election is a show, aimed to imbue the government with a veneer of legitimacy and obscure a preordained outcome that is designed to perpetuate authoritarian rule,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “In responding to the result, it is critical that the Biden-Harris administration not play into this charade. The administration should fully acknowledge the insuperable impediments that the Iranian regime has erected to prevent the Iranian people from asserting their will at the ballot box. This also represents a critical moment to reflect on Iran’s egregious human rights abuses and to forthrightly call out the track record of incoming leaders with respect to individual rights and freedoms. This strangled election represents a key opportunity for the international community to ensure that the perceived legitimacy of Iran’s government hinges on respect for international human rights norms and standards.” 

Friday’s election is expected to be one of the least competitive elections in Iran’s modern history, though the Islamic Republic’s elections have consistently fallen short of international standards. In May, Iran’s Guardian Council disqualified all but seven of the race’s 590 registered candidates, including prominent moderates and reformists; prohibited all 40 women who had registered from running; and excluded other candidates on political and religious grounds. Millions of Iranians reportedly plan to boycott the vote. With expression and political dissent tightly controlled by the Guardian Council, it is all but assured that Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric and head of Iran’s judiciary, will claim victory, despite his egregious human rights record. 

In 2020, PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index found that Iran imprisoned the fourth-highest number of writers and public intellectuals in the world—with 19 jailed across the country. During the same period, Iran had the highest execution rate per capita in the world with 267 executions, including the execution of prisoners of conscience. Political prisoners are left in obscure and perilous conditions, with indefinite detentions; denial of legal counsel; short, closed trials; torture; and forced confessions.

Ebrahim Raisi approaches Iran’s presidency with a brutal legacy of human rights abuse: 

  • In 1988, Raisi served on a commission that sentenced thousands of political prisoners to death. 
  • In 2009, Raisi was involved in a post-election crackdown as first deputy chief justice that left over a hundred protesters dead and 6,000 more detained. 
  • Since 2019, Raisi has intensified the judiciary’s persecution of free expression as chief justice, overseeing the mass imprisonment of journalists, activists, and other public intellectuals.
  • In November 2019, Iran’s state security focus killed between 300-1500 protesters with near-total impunity. 
  • In 2020, Raisi oversaw the execution of prisoners of conscience, including Navid Afkari, Mostafa Salehi, and Ruhollah Zam.

“When a notorious human rights abuser takes power in a country, that history must not be disregarded, even as other governments engage them diplomatically,” PEN America’s Nossel said. “The U.S. administration should make clear that in order for Ebrahim Raisi to be regarded as a legitimate interlocutor, he must demonstrate that he is now willing to comply with the domestic and international laws by which he is obligated to govern. Anything short of that would call into question our ongoing engagement with a leader who has caused the suffering of countless Iranian families and who comes to office without popular or electoral legitimacy. The Biden-Harris administration should press Raisi to take concrete steps to that end immediately upon taking office.”

The Biden-Harris administration must urge Iran’s government to:

  • Release, reverse the sentences of, and/or unconditionally drop all charges against those imprisoned for their expression or peaceful activism, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, and Narges Mohammadi, all members of the Iranian Writers Association, including Arash Ganji, Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and Milad Jannat, and others among the 19 writers and intellectuals listed in PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database, giving priority to prisoners in need of medical attention or those at heightened risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Allow the independent and unhindered operation of the Iranian Writers Association, the Iranian Bar Association, and their members;
  • Ensure that the internet, messaging apps, and all other communication channels remain open;
  • Establish an immediate moratorium on executions; and 
  • Allow the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, to visit the country and provide him unrestricted access to all Iranian prisons and civil society.

In May, PEN America and partners sent a letter to the Biden administration prompted by Iran’s accelerating suppression of dissent, urging the inclusion of human rights concerns at the center of U.S. foreign policy towards Iran.