Have human rights been overshadowed by the feverish politics of nuclear negotiations?
Sanctions imposed in 2011 have broken the back of the government. Iranians who suffered from mismanagement before are now devastated. What remains of the middle class is on its way toward extinction.
The human rights crisis in Iran claims a victim every minute. The gallows are still standing. Prisons are worse than before. The right to life is worthless. The concept of judicial protection is meaningless. Government agents have destroyed privacy. Universities are controlled by a political ideology. Freedom of expression — freedom after expression — is null and void. Minors are legally accountable for their actions. Girls as young as nine years old and boys as young as 15 are fair game for court bailiffs, and, under Iran’s Islamic penal code, they can be handed down harsh and humiliating punishments. Trials are unfair. An accused person’s right to legal defense is constantly under threat. Lawyers lack professional security. And the media are on unstable ground.
Security agencies are always ready for anyone who has political beliefs that differ from those of the corrupt authorities. Minorities, whether religious, ethnic or sexual, are being burned in the fires of injustice and discrimination. The Achilles’ heel of regime’s bigwigs is human rights, as it is in all absolutist governments. They do not hide the fact that their lives depend on the injustice imposed on the country’s citizens. If they were held accountable, they would melt like waxworks.
On Monday March 30, the official website of Ayatollah Khamenei published an interview by former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, a pediatrician and the Supreme Leader’s advisor for international affair. In the interview, he expressed anxiety that the Islamic Republic could be held to account for violations against human rights.
“If they think they have been successful in forcing us to retreat when it comes to the nuclear issues, they will then use the same pressures when it comes to missiles,” said Velayati. “Little by little, they will introduce the issue of human rights. They asked, for example, ‘why don’t you give freedoms to the Baha’is?’ Giving Baha’is freedom means giving them the right to spy for the Zionist Regime. The connection between Baha’ism and the Zionist Regime is not a secret to anybody. Baha’ism has its headquarters in the occupied territories. Or they ask: why do we exercise sharia law? And so on.”
Distorting the Present by Distorting History
The pediatrician-turned-demagogue offers an example that lacks any historical credibility. By narrowing down all human rights violations to the violation of the rights of the Baha’is, he avoids saying anything about the sufferings of the Shi’a majority, or about the systematic and widespread violation of the rights of the country’s Sunnis. He falsifies history without fear of being exposed. He knows very well that the violation of human rights in Iran is so horrible that no Iranian professors of history, law or religion would dare to stand up to him and ask him on what historical evidence he bases his claims. Did the Baha’is build their places of worship after the formation of Israel or before it? History is an honest witness. Baha’i holy places were built long before Israel came into being. Who in Iran can offer a truthful historical narrative in response to the demagoguery of Velayati, and the words published on the Supreme Leader’s website? Who will dare to tell him that the pervasive violations of human rights plagues all Iranians, from every class and with all kinds of beliefs — save his own of course? The Baha’is are not alone. It is the whole nation that burns in the wrathful fire lit by these ignorant, self-important members of the elite.
It is not likely that prayers said upon the arrival of the new Iranian year will be answered. Nor will they make these gentlemen choose the righteous path. What may happen is a shift in international politics, which is working with all its might to control the Iranian nuclear program — based on the national interests of the great powers, of course. China, Russia, the US and others agree on its necessity. If there are any differences, they are about the methods used, not the objective.
Caught in a Pincer
In this environment, the bewilderment of Iranian human rights activists is indescribable. They are caught in a pincer move, between two sharp edges that press on the neck of humanity of all Iranians. We cannot escape one sharp point without being pushed into the other.
Aside from the bewilderment caused by the political mistakes of the leaders of the Islamic Republic, perplexed human rights activists also believe that sanctions damage the livelihood and the economic rights of the people more than they hurt the absolutist regime under which they live. So the removal of sanctions would be welcomed by both the absolutist regime and by the majority of suffering people — as well as by human rights activists, who believe that being able to make a living, the right to education, medical care, and the ability to enjoy life are the most basic of human rights.
As a result, human rights activists are trapped in a historical and perhaps even a philosophical dilemma. Sanctions damage people’s livelihoods and violate their human rights. Activists know that the majority of Iranian people are suffering economically, so they cannot claim that the lifting of sanctions is insignificant: it has become what people demand and has even taken on the aura of nationalism.
But, at the same time, activists cannot ignore the sorry state of human rights in Iran and the ongoing reports of violations. They cannot run away from human ideals, which run in their blood.
At the same time, there is a heightened fear that if the Iranian government reaches an agreement with world powers, the situation could become worse. The worry is that a government that violates human rights could gain more self-confidence from outcomes of the nuclear deal — both the aspects made known to the public and those that remain hidden from view. The government could even have an easier time committing crimes, killing more people and inflicting more extensive injustice than ever before. It is feared that the government, with its record, will become even less responsive to international human rights organizations, organizations that hold even the United States and Israel to account.
The fear is that when sanctions are lifted and the funds are released, there will be an increase in large scale thefts; that wealthy insiders will either fight one another or collude to plunder the bounty, and divide the unearned wealth among themselves. As a result, Iran will remain chained to an import economy that discourages domestic production. The poor will become poorer and these gentlemen and their partners will have even more to gorge themselves on. The regime will have a free hand without any interference from the middle class, which will remain absent.
Empty Dinner Tables and the Negotiating Table
For Iranian human rights activists, this trap is a serious one. In public, they are unable to cover up their perplexity, no matter what they present or how they present it. This is not even about bad and worse. By human rights standards, when a large part of any population is forced to sit around empty tables, sanctions are indefensible — even if it allows an autocratic regime to sit behind the negotiating table.
For human rights activists trapped in this unexpected historical dilemma, the biggest worry is that human right violations will fade to the background, and be lost under the cover of a nuclear agreement with the world’s powers. Arbitrary arrests; brutal punishments; ignored cries for justice from those who are wronged; the failure to honor international obligations; the ever-narrowing space in which the accused can be adequately defended; an inquisitorial system that supports and provides for a hodgepodge of security agencies; laws that promote violence against women and children; restrictions on the press, professional associations, political parties and civil society — these, and many other violations are regular features of the current landscape.
It is no surprised we are perplexed, baffled and bewildered. We must be patient and wait for the curtain to rise before we can decide what methods we must change to can save ourselves from this trap. We must wait, and then find new tools to challenge the Islamic Republic’s systematic and pervasive violation of human rights —tools that will take into account the new realities of Iran and the world.
An entrapped fox cannot be impatient.