How Diplomacy with Iran will Improve Iran’s Human Rights Situation

The possible diplomacy of a moderate president like Rouhani can be a catalyst for human rights and systematic change, but it cannot be done in a vacuum.

I ranian President Hassan Rouhani, newly-elected and riding on a wave of “Twitter diplomacy” and a groundbreaking Washington Post op-ed, will be in the U.S. today for his first appearance at the UN General Assembly week in New York. Rouhani’s call for ‘constructive engagement’ between the U.S. and Iran is the first in many years by an official of either country, and questions are necessarily being raised about Iran’s intentions, largely revolving around its nuclear program. While crippling economic sanctions may be behind this push, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to engage Iran on neutral territory – the United Nations – and activists can embrace this as an opportunity for a stable Iran that can actually benefit the human rights situation.

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearances were marked by outrageous speeches and statements, among them infamous claims that there are “no gays in Iran,” Holocaust denials, and that the U.S. government was directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In some ways, his statements were not too far removed from the establishment left – the anti-imperialist group Code Pink infuriated activists in 2009 when members of the group met with Ahmadinejad following his fraudulent re-election, the aftermath of which saw mass imprisonment, executions, and the violent suppression of street protests. Thousands turned out at the UNGA that year to protest Ahmadinejad in the streets of New York, and groups like UANI called for upscale U.S. hotel chains to deny his entourage entry. They did eventually find accommodations at the Intercontinental, which itself was subject to spontaneous night protests during his stay.

While UANI and others are again calling for the Iranian delegation to be denied accommodations, most of the news regarding Rouhani’s visit focuses on possible talks with western officials, including U.S. President Obama, and speculating on the cause and meaning of the Iranian president’s increasing outreach. “Sanctions are working” appears to be one of the prevailing narratives. The IRGC, in control over an increasing portion of Iran’s faltering economy, is seeing its interests in serious jeopardy, and even western companies are struggling to hide their deals with Iran, often done through subsidiaries or through third parties or in free trade zones. Pressure may additionally be coming from wealthy expats who still maintain economic interests inside the country and are now finding it nearly impossible to move their assets. And no matter how indifferent Khamenei’s government may be to the civil and political rights of Iranians, even the Supreme Leader is almost certainly being pressured by nationalists and the less ideologically inclined in his government who can no longer find the rhetoric to explain away the suffering of cancer patients and diabetics who cannot get medicine inside the country. Iranians are, speaking broadly, proud of their country’s history and heritage, and rightfully so.

A strong underground civil society depends on security of one’s person, and people are less likely to risk organizing when they can’t eat, pay their bills, or safely take a plane trip.

Even Khamenei may be only able to blame the west so much before he had to yield to the realities of a weakened state and failing economy. Limiting the power of the IRGC (for they are his – as Rahbar-e Enghelab, Guardian of the Revolution, the Supreme Leader is the head of the IRGC – literally, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, or Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami) will never be an option, but it is prudent for Khamenei to allow, even encourage, the new moderate president to make use of all avenues available (even if they are denied to the Iranian people) to ease the pressure of sanctions.

So what if sanctions are behind this new attempt at engagement? Is this not the point of sanctions? If the west truly wants to ensure Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes, it behooves western officials to engage Rouhani. If the real purpose of sanctions is to effect a change in Iran’s stance with respect to its nuclear program, and not just to wreak havoc on the country, President Obama should agree to meet with his Iranian counterpart as equals.

If the purpose of these sanctions  is to to cripple and starve the Iranian people into a revolt against Khamenei, it isn’t going to happen. The popular uprising of 2009 is over, its leaders imprisoned or executed, and its figureheads ill and under house arrest, at least for the foreseeable future. The Iranian people are finding it harder to pay for basic goods (foodstuffs and medicines), have no jobs, and are more likely to unite under their flag than revolt if sanctions continue and the west saber-rattles and threatens proxy wars.

Regarding Syria, it is entirely possible the Iranian government was thoroughly spooked at the prospect of a U.S.-led war on their only regional ally. It is known that Iranian troops (IRGC and Basij) are on the ground in Syria. But it is also possible that Iran wants out of Syria, either because it sees Assad’s inevitable fall, or because Iranian non-combatants have also been killed, including two documentary journalists whose presence has since been used as flimsy evidence by those pushing for war on both countries.

And if avoiding war is another reason for diplomacy, why is wanting to avoid a war cause for suspicion?

With some semblance of diplomatic relations, the west could both publicly and privately pressure Iran to end its execution program, especially when its own citizens are at risk.

The success of engagement is hard to gauge. Neither the U.S. and Iran are irrational actors, and one or two meetings will not heal a rift that has been fermenting since 1979. There are both state and non-state actors on both sides with a stake in the continued divide. Just this week David E. Sanger in the New York Times made the outrageous claim that Iran is only “a few weeks and a few screwdriver turns” away from not reaching nuclear weapons capabilities, but “building a weapon.” Whatever interests Sanger is serving with this claim, there are plenty who benefit from its publication. On the other side, even while Rouhani was condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, various IRGC leaders made their usual outlandish threats, with Commander Jafari warning of a “face-crushing response” if the U.S. attacked Syria. There is as of yet no way to know just how much of his asserted authority to negotiate Rouhani actually has, or when Khamenei will change his mind. In the waning years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, his once famously-warm relationship with Khamenei first stagnated and then quickly descended into open hostility.

Hassan Rouhani does not have authority to release political prisoners, though some, including human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, were released last week. But Sotoudeh herself said that, if more prisoners are not released, it will be evident that hers was “a move made for appearances” before Rouhani’s venture abroad.

Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran will also not convince Khamenei to open the cages, but they may make it possible for Iranians to do it themselves. If the government cannot respond to every condemnation of human rights violations with allegations of propaganda and charges of conspiring with foreign governments, as it does now, Iranian activists will have some small measure of protection from which they can continue to demand greater accountability from their government. A strong underground civil society depends on security of one’s person, and people are less likely to risk organizing when they can’t eat, pay their bills, or safely take a plane trip. Women are currently barred or limited in 77 academic majors in 36 Iranian universities, but is there not a stronger incentive for them to unite and demand readmission if there are jobs awaiting them upon graduation? Likewise the education rights of Baha’i students, who have largely been barred from education for almost 40 years.

Brain drain, in fact, has left in Iran a class of young men with no foreseeable future. Often mocked as being in it for the Sandis (a fruit-flavored drink provided by the government during government-sponsored rallies and events), it is likely not difficult for an otherwise bereft young man (or woman) to pledge ideological fealty and join up. In fact the Basij make an effort to recruit in universities (which Supreme Leader Khamenei has determined to make more Islamic), and even in high schools. Even a cursory study of Iranian state propaganda reveals that the Basij (and others) are bussed in for the important state-sanctioned days of bread and circuses: Quds Day in the summer, Revolution Day on February 11, Student Day in December, and Sacred Defense Week – the annual display of phallic weaponry and buzzing gadgets commemorating Iran’s victory over Saddam Hussain at the end of a bloody eight-year war that robbed a generation. Casualties from the Iran-Iraq war are realistically estimated at between 600-700,000 military and at least another 100,000 civilians.

There were, at last estimate, 150,000 active members of the IRGC and as many as one million Basij. Though technically a volunteer paramilitary group, membership is highly incentivized for young, ideological, poor men who may see in it the opportunity to get an education, travel, and for future career advancement, all at a time when the Iranian economy is in shambles and the best and brightest – if they are not imprisoned or ‘starred’ students (banned from university for political reasons) – get out. The Basij are the ones leveraged against their fellow students in university protests, and terrorized the population at large during the 2009 post-election protests.

It is against this backdrop that the internal political wrangling between the less ideological and more pragmatic forces (President Hassan Rouhani, reformist Mohammad Khatami, and even some clerics) and what is called the hardline, or Principalist, faction will become evident.

In the end, the demands must come from the Iranian people. The lack of relations between Iran and the west mean their voices are currently replaced largely by some of those on the outside who demand regime change on their behalf.

Drug abuse and addiction is a rampant and debilitating problem among a population that sees little hope of a future. Iran’s drug addiction rates are reportedly the highest in the world, and the government has understandably taken measures to control the flow of opiates and other drugs into its porous borders from Afghanistan. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) funds and continually lauds Iran’s drug control measures, without reporting that it includes the executions of hundreds of transient, impoverished, and immigrant prisoners every year. In fact, Iran executes, in whole numbers, more people than any other country in the world except China. This includes children, despite Iran’s being a signatory to both the ICCPR, which prohibits executions for all but the most serious offenses in countries where it is still practiced, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which expressly prohibits sentencing juveniles to death (the U.S., by the way, has not ratified the CRC, and allowed the execution of children until 2005).

With some semblance of diplomatic relations, the west could both publicly and privately pressure Iran to end its execution program, especially when its own citizens are at risk. Iran does not currently recognize dual nationality, such as that of Zahra Bahrami, a Dutch-Iranian who was first sentenced for political crimes, and then drug offenses, and executed in January 2011. The death sentence of Saeed Malekpour, a programmer with Canadian permanent residency, was commuted last month, but he still faces life in prison for a very flimsy association with a pornography website. Another Canadian-Iranian, dual citizen Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, was sentenced to death for espionage and is still under threat of execution.

In the end, the demands must come from the Iranian people. The lack of relations between Iran and the west mean their voices are currently replaced largely by some of those on the outside who demand regime change on their behalf. The stifling of Iranian voices by hardline factions inside the country is compounded by western-backed interests, including the MEK. The MEK, or People’s Mujaheddin of Iran, propagate myths about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, may be implicated in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, and can generally be found wherever the drums of war are beating. They have successfully sued for removal from the EU terror list and bought their way off the U.S. one. There are other nefarious voices who allege to be former IRGC or regime officials who advocate for a hostilities with Iran. They are never actually challenged on their facts because Iranians inside Iran are rarely part of the geopolitical discourse. When the media does focus on Iranians inside Iran, it’s usually prisoners like Sakineh Ashtiani, who became the focus of worldwide attention in 2010 as part of a campaign to save her from being stoned to death. Ashtiani and her lawyer Javid Houtan Kian faced real danger, but the media attention to her impending execution by stoning is emblematic of the coverage given to Iranian human rights violations. When it is mentioned, it is often as propaganda by groups and media to portray Iranians themselves as backwards and barbaric, in need of a U.S. humanitarian intervention.

Never are the thousands of refugees who fled to Turkey and Iraq in the aftermath of the 2009 election interviewed or profiled; but they are the ones who are the future of Iran, who can push for first reform and then the end of the entire Islamic system. Khamenei will not be Iran’s Supreme Leader forever. It has been postulated that he is grooming his son Mojtaba to succeed him, but Iranians can take advantage of the current climate to render this possibility improbable, if the potential thaw in relations between the west and Iran becomes more substantive. Mojtaba is not well-known and has little or no authority of his own, certainly not that of an Islamic jurist.

The possible diplomacy of a moderate president like Rouhani can be a catalyst for human rights and systematic change, but it cannot be done in a vacuum. The way the Arab Spring has unfolded so far should be a warning that without a backbone of a strong civil society, a sudden or radical change in regime could see the possibility of a free Iran greatly diminished rather than enhanced.  And a strong civil society is only possible in a country where millions of young people have access to jobs, education, and the possibility of a bright future, where earthquake victims can get supplies to rebuild, and cancer patients can get the medication they need to have a fighting chance.

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Joanne Michele is the President of Safeworld USA as well as the Middle East Correspondent and Advocacy and Research Coordinator for The Safeworld International Foundation. Since 2009 she has been an independent researcher on Iran issues, primarily those affecting women, political prisoners, and refugees.
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