President Biden is facing growing calls to ban Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi from entering the U.S. ahead of next month’s United Nations General Assembly, further complicating the administration’s attempts to restart stalled nuclear talks with Tehran.
Iranian opposition groups in the U.S. and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say allowing the hard-line cleric who remains under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses to step foot on American soil to attend the gathering of world leaders in New York would further legitimize the Iranian regime and overlook decades of human rights abuses they say Mr. Raisi carried out before taking office.
The Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC), a group allied with the Iranian dissident group the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK, lined the National Mall over the weekend with thousands of photos of Iranians who were killed during the 1988 state-sponsored executions of political prisoners ordered by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and carried out by a three-judge panel on which they say Mr. Raisi served.
The group says Mr. Raisi, who was elected as Iran’s president last year, played a direct role in the murder of 30,000 political prisoners in the 1988 mass executions and more than 1,500 protesters during the 2019 uprising in Iran.
Amir Borjkhani, who spent nine years as a political prisoner inside Iran in the 1980s, said it was unthinkable that Mr. Raisi would soon set foot on the same U.S. soil where he has found refuge for the past 13 years.
“The very person who is now planning to come to the United States was a member of the death committee during the 1988 massacre,” Mr. Borjkhani said, adding that many of the photographs on display during the National Mall event were of his close friends.
“It brings shame on humanity and the international community to allow such criminals to continue to commit crimes and to accept him as a representative of the Iranian people,” he said.
Mr. Raisi has denied his role in sentencing political prisoners to death during the mass executions in the 1980s. Human rights groups and current and former U.N. officials have called for an official investigation into Mr. Raisi’s role in the killings.
In 2019, the Trump administration sanctioned Mr. Raisi, who was, at the time, the head of Iran’s judiciary, for his role in approving the execution of multiple minors between 2018 and 2019, despite human rights laws prohibiting the death penalty for people under the age of 18. The Treasury Department pointed out that, at the time, there were more than 90 children on death row.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, was among those calling for the Biden administration to draw a line in the sand and deny Raisi’s entry into the U.S. at the OIAC event over the weekend.
“I am here today to mourn, to honor, to respect [the victims of the Iranian regime], and to ban governments that promote violence and bloodshed from coming upon the soil of a nation in the shadow of the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol,” she said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Several other lawmakers began raising the alarm earlier this month after Iran confirmed Mr. Raisi’s intent to travel to New York.
In a letter to Mr. Biden, six senators called for Mr. Biden to deny Mr. Raisi’s visa request citing his brutal crackdown on political dissidents as well as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps plot to assassinate current and former senior U.S. officials.
“Raisi’s involvement in mass murder and the Iranian regime’s campaign to assassinate U.S. officials on American soil make allowing Raisi and his henchmen to enter our country an inexcusable threat to national security,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter was signed by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Ted Cruz of Texas.
The lawmakers said granting Mr. Raisi’s visa would “legitimize his repression,” adding that “it is a risk we cannot and should not take.”
The move to deny a world leader’s attendance at the U.N. summit, while not unprecedented, would undoubtedly spark a diplomatic firestorm and further complicate already fraught relations between Washington and Tehran amid the Biden administration’s push to re-enter the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran.
The administration has been mired in months of stalled negotiations over restoring the 2015 deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
President Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that had been lifted as part of the Obama-era accord.
Tehran has demanded that the administration remove sanctions as stipulated in the original deal in exchange for curbing its nuclear program, in addition to delisting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, from the U.S. foreign terrorism list, with the latter remaining a key sticking point with the administration.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle eye the administration’s attempts to restore the deal with skepticism, and have openly criticized the White House for keeping details of on-again, off-again negotiations with Tehran too close to the vest.
President Biden has remained unshaken by the pushback from lawmakers and has even held firm in his commitment to resurrecting the deal despite the Justice Department officially charging a member of the IRGC with plotting to kill former White House national security adviser John Bolton on U.S. soil.
Former Amb. Lincoln P. Bloomfield, who served as the U.S. special envoy for threat reduction under President George W. Bush before becoming the chairman emeritus of the Stimson Center, said permitting Mr. Raisi to enter the U.S. is a bridge too far.
“The U.N. has always been an open door for leaders around the world, not all of whom have perfect human rights records,” he said. “So we understand that there are going to be people there, we don’t approve of … But Raisi is different. He has blood on his hands from what has been described as one of the largest crimes against humanity since World War II. I think that puts him in a different category.”
“It wouldn’t be easy with the nuclear talks going on,” Amb. Bloomfield said of denying Mr. Raisi’s visa. “But, as President Biden has made clear, human rights are at the center of U.S. foreign policy. This is a good way to demonstrate that in every respect.”