Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

New "moderate" President Rouhani distracts from the dismal - and not improving - human rights situation in Iran

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To the naïve observer, it might look as if Iran's relations with the international community, and especially the West, are on the right track; a seemingly more moderate President, Hassan Rouhani, was elected and under his leadership an interim agreement regarding Iran's nuclear program was reached. Yet in the wake of this agreement and the larger "charm offensive" by Rouhani, some appear to be prematurely optimistic that a real change in Iran's problematic international and internal behaviour has already been established. However, a glance at Iran's horrific human rights record under President Rouhani, quickly reveals that the much-talked "moderation" and "democratization" at this point remain wishful thinking and that Iran has a long way to go before it meets basic international human rights standards.

While the nuclear deal with Iran has been discussed and criticised over and over, many analysts have rightfully suggested that the nuclear file cannot be completely separated from discussion of human rights and democratic reforms within Iran.

James Kirchick of the Foreign Policy Initiative noted that:

"the Administration's approach to Iran rests on the faulty assumption that a suitable agreement on the nuclear issue can ever be negotiated with a regime that murders peaceful protestors in broad daylight and hangs homosexuals from construction cranes. History shows that the best way to ensure the demilitarization of a nuclear program is through democratization... So fixated is the Administration on the chimera of a deal, all in the service of beating a hasty retreat from the region, that it's willing to throw the Iranian people under the bus."

Meanwhile, perhaps the most compelling advice regarding the coupling of international negotiations and human rights comes from Natan Sharansky, once a Prisoner of Zion in the USSR. He said, based on his own life experience, that in the early days Gorbachev too was seen as moderate and many voices called to give him the benefit of the doubt regarding the USSR's internal human rights record in light of the moderation of its international position:

"Such are the voices giving the benefit of the doubt to Hasan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, and branding those less trustful of the regime's intentions as shortsighted enemies of peace. They remind me of the voices I heard-that we all heard-in the first years of Mikhail Gorbachev's tenure in the 1980s as the new leader of the ailing Soviet Union."

Sharansky argues that this new seemingly moderate approach is misleading and served to protect and pursue the ultimate goals of the Iranian regime. Gorbachev's initial signs of openness were also misleading in the same way: "instituted not to reform the communist system, but to rescue it from collapse." Back then, the Reagan Administration, with the help of senators like Henry Jackson, put in place a policy of linking the sanctions relief with security, economic and human rights reform, and refused to make bad ballistic-missile deals or lifting sanctions without effective reforms. Sharansky highlights the similarity between the two cases:

"Yet here we are again. Today, the Iranian economy is on the verge of bankruptcy. Today Iranian dissidents are rotting in prison by the hundreds or thousands, while a restive populace continues to writhe under the tyrannous yoke of a regime that has abandoned none of its aggressive aims, none of its terrorist machinations, none of its genocidal intentions. Is the Free World, led by Washington, so fixated on a short-term deal with the latest media-hyped dictator as to miss altogether the real opportunity held out by the present moment?"

Similarly, the London-based Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy (IMED), has criticised the international policy-makers and global media for ignoring the ongoing human rights crisis in Iran. In a recent report Saba Farzan, Director of Political Studies at IMED, emphasised that:

"Parallel to its nuclear infrastructure, the Iranian dictatorship has created an infrastructure of human rights violations - an apparatus that relies on the politicised judiciary, paramilitary groups like the IRGC and the Basij, and propagandists whom the Islamic Republic calls journalists, but who are in fact employed to contribute to forced confessions and other forms of repression."

Farzan warns that:

"While the interim deal between the Iranian regime and the P5+1 means that new economic sanctions won't be imposed, now is not the time to pause on human rights sanctions. On the contrary, the financial punishment of Iranian human rights violators should be broadened and deepened to keep up pressure on the regime. This would signal to Iran's dictatorship that the international community isn't willing to throw human rights under the bus simply to strike an interim deal..."

According to Farzan

"Canada [...] has put this issue at the forefront of its Iran policy. Much can be learned for other countries from Canada's moral clarity in terms of diplomatic isolation as well as political and economic pressure against those who have deprived Iran's civil society of its democratic future."

Canadian MP and Human Rights advocate Irwin Cotler, who currently is co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran, also explained in a recent op-ed the importance of pursuing human rights in Iran. Regarding upcoming talks with Iran, he stated that:

"the United States and its allies must ensure that nuclear negotiations do not overshadow - let alone sanitize - the massive domestic repression in Iran."
Using historical precedents Cotler highlighted how "when the US negotiated an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975, it did not turn a blind eye to the USSR's human rights abuses... Negotiations with Iran should replicate this approach."

Rouhani and Iran's Human Rights Record

The list of Iran's human rights violations is exceptionally long; the authorities routinely carry out executions, torture and arbitrary detention of political opponents and journalists in Evin prison and Kahrizak detention facility. The regime also continually denies the right to peaceful assembly and represses women's and LGBIT rights. University students are often intimidated and attacked, as well as sacred shrines and places of worship of religious minorities.

Hundreds of executions take place in Iran each year, as Iran retains its dubious title as the world's leading executioner per capita. According to human rights organisations, in 2013 alone 588 individuals were executed without access to any of the internationally recognised safeguards.

Cotler notes that

"under the new ‘moderate' President, the rate of executions has actually increased, with some 100 Iranians executed in the first month after Rouhani's election, 30 executed during the week of his "charm offensive" at the United Nations - a fact that was largely ignored - and a recent wave of executions that, shockingly enough, has seen more than 45 prisoners executed since October 26."

Torture is also widespread and according to UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, all prisoners in Iran are subjected to physical torture (beating, whipping, and assault), while sexual torture (rape, molestation, and violence to genitals) and psychological and environmental torture, such as solitary confinement, are also very common.

This is also true for political prisoners, hundreds of whom are still detained in Iran. They include ethnic and religious minorities' leaders, human rights activists, students, journalists, bloggers, artists, trade unionists, members of the political opposition and leaders of Iranian civil society. This is still the case even after the release of nearly 100 political prisoners in the lead-up to Rouhani's appearance at the UN, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. For example, Amir Tataloo, a popular underground singer was arrested because the Iranian authorities found his songs inappropriate.

The most famous political prisoners are Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, the two Iranian opposition politicians who led the 2009 "Green Movement" protests against what they said was a rigged presidential election. Both have been under house arrest for the past three years, despite being elderly and in poor health. Among Rouhani's campaign promises of social changes was the release of political prisoners. Now, despite being elected with the support of their followers, Rouhani has yet to deliver. Mousavi's and Karrubi's conditions have not improved, and are unlikely to improve without the approval of the Supreme Leader, who as always calls the shots.

Cotler emphasises that "the system that criminalizes innocence must be reformed, and those that prosecute and persecute the innocent must be held to account."

So what has Rouhani "the moderate" done to improve this shameful state of affairs? He appointed Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi as Justice Minister. Pour-Mohammadi has been involved in major human rights violations, including the 1988 massacre of 5,000 political prisoners. Not exactly the kind of person you'd trust with administering justice. He also appointed Elham Aminzadeh as Vice President for Legal Affairs. Aminzadeh is considered a long-time apologist for Iran's human rights record.

As Cotler explains: "there is a complete absence of judicial independence and rule of law in Iran. Indeed, the entire legal system is designed to enable and enforce the regime's massive human rights violations." This continues under Rouhani's leadership.

Freedom of Speech, Expression and Religion remain non-existent

The arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of journalists and bloggers of course also highlights the repression of freedom of press and speech in Iran, which continues to be among the countries with the largest number of imprisoned journalists in the world. If and when these journalists are actually charged, the accusations are as vague and undemocratic as "propagating against the system" or "insulting the President." Internet activity is also censored and monitored and opposition websites and e-mail accounts are at times blocked.

This has not changed under Rouhani. In recent weeks, Bahar newspaper, a reformist daily, was forced to close as part of the ongoing pressure imposed on the Iranian press, its editor was arrested after publishing an article disapproved by the authorities.

"Moral police" enforce strict modesty and public behaviour in check as well. According to Human Rights Watch, two teenage girls of Afghani origin living leagally in Iran, Zohrah, 17, and her sister Hasina, 15, were stopped in Qom by a police officer for wearing makeup and bright shoes (Zohrah reportedly wore high-heeled platform sandals, while Hasina wore pink sneakers) when visiting a holy city. They were arrested on charges of not sufficiently complying with Iran's strict Islamic dress code for women.

The sisters were arrested and deported with their father and Zohrah's boyfriend within days. Since Hasina and Zohrah's parents were Afghan, none of the family held Iranian citizenship, despite the fact that Hasina was born in Iran, and Zohrah was still an infant when her family arrived from Afghanistan. Their deportation only took a few days to be processed from the moment of their arrest, in line with Iran's arbitrary approach to asylum seekers from conflict zones. According to a new report by Human Rights Watch, "Unwelcome Guests":

"Iran detains and deports hundreds of thousands of Afghans every year without any legal proceedings or the opportunity to seek asylum... Afghans facing deportation are typically bused to Afghanistan within a couple of days of being detained without any opportunity to prove that they have a legal right to live in Iran or to lodge an asylum claim."

Persecution of religious minorities is also a common practice in Iran. The Baha'i religious minority especially continues to be in a dire situation. According to UNESCO, the Baha'i "face widespread and entrenched discrimination" and they are also routinely imprisoned for practicing their faith, with members of the Baha'i leadership serving 20-year sentences, which for some would mean imprisonment for life. This is in complete contradiction to Rouhani's election promises of greater religious equality and non-discrimination. Yet to get a better sense of who is actually running the show, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini issued a fatwa last month in which he ordered Iranians to avoid all interaction with members of the Baha'i faith.

The discrimination and abuse is not limited to the Baha'i. Other minority groups, such as the Baloch, Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, and Christians, suffer a similar fate as their places of worship and education are closed down and their leaders imprisoned. Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, for example, was sentenced to eight years in jail for religious activities and is held in appalling conditions while his health deteriotrates.

While we are on the subject of Iranian violations of human rights involving Americans, let's not forget the ongoing incitement to genocide, practiced by the Iranian regime. Just to prove that regardless of Iran's external message, their intentions are still hostile. In September, just before Rouhani's "charm offensive" at the UN, he addressed a crowd at a parade in Tehran, in which Shahab-3 missiles, featuring messages such as "Death to the USA" and "Israel should cease to exist," were on public display. Charming indeed!

Even if Rouhani's style is less inflammatory than what we have unfortunately became accustomed to, the Supreme Leader's incitement and annihilationist rhetoric never ceased. Earlier this week, on December 16th, he tweeted his support and approval of Holocaust denier George Garaudy, on the anniversary date of his trial. Garaudy was found guilty of denying crimes against humanity after he published a book that contained Holocaust denial, which was banned by the French government.

External Dimensions

Another external violation of human rights by Iran is, of course, their constant fuelling of international and regional terror groups, most notably via their sponsorship of Hezbollah. By supporting terrorist activity they act as an agitator, aggressor and a regional destabilising force. Worse - they facilitate atrocities committed by so-called third parties. According to a US State Department report: "Iran had ‘increased its terrorist-related activity' over the past year. That includes the shipment of weapons, money and men to Bashar Assad..." Needless to say, these weapons are not used for defensive purposes, but rather against Syrian citizens.

Neglecting to tackle Iran's poor human rights record and its destabilising role in the region in the international nuclear talks might prove to be not only morally wrong, but also a bad foreign policy move by the US administration, as Lebanese journalist Hanin Ghaddar observed: "In the next six months, if a final deal does not lead to a major reconsideration of Hezbollah's arms and Iranian hegemony in the region, the U.S. will lose its allies, encourage more extremism and sectarian conflict, and more significantly, leave a region where everyone blames the U.S. for its abandonment and failure."

One of the most powerful pleas for an international focus on the human rights crisis in Iran even as the nuclear talks continue came from Dokhi Fassihian, an international human rights expert writing in Al-Monitor, who wrote that " The global community, which has documented human rights abuses in Iran since the early 1980s, bears a unique responsibility to act with the same sense of unity and urgency to alter the Iranian government's strategic calculus on human rights as it has on the nuclear issue. Iranians voted for human rights reform because they understand that sustainable peace and security in their country and in their region is rooted, not in nuclear rights or in short-term nuclear concessions by the regime that rules them, but from their own ability to hold their leaders accountable in the long-term."

Similarly, Cotler concluded: "In the end, the fact that Rouhani's rhetoric is less incendiary than that of his predecessor is welcome, but it should not in itself be cause for complacency, let alone celebration. Neither should any openness - or perceived openness - on the nuclear file overshadow Iran's continuing violations of human rights. Rouhani's deeds - not his words - will be the test of his commitment to a free Iran."

He's right. It is the responsibility of the international community to support the cause of human rights and democratization in Iran, and not to be fooled by the superficial appearance of "moderation", when it only masks the atrocious abuses of an unchanged regime.


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