by Mohammad Ali Kadivar
In a historic letter to President Barack Obama, 55 Iranian political prisoners describe the effect of the crippling sanctions regime on the Iranian people and plead for a new approach to the nuclear issue. They write:
Mr. President! We believe it is time to replace sanctions with an effort to achieve a mutually acceptable resolution of the nuclear issue. To achieve such an end and given the chronic nature of the deep-rooted conflict, all sides concerned should strive for a dignified solution in which no party will be considered the loser. Such a solution should be based on genuinely addressing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program by the Iranian government on the one hand and acknowledging the legitimate rights of Iran to peaceful nuclear energy, in compliance with international legal standards, by the US and the West on the other.
For the last four years, Iran’s political prisoners have operated as a visible and influential actor in a severely repressed political atmosphere. They are now becoming an important voice in Iranian foreign policy by sending messages to politicians in Tehran and Washington.
The letter’s cosigners are politicians, journalists and democracy activists who were imprisoned during and after the government’s crackdown on the 2009 uprising against the fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The heavy-handed response suddenly increased the number of political prisoners in Iran to hundreds — at times even thousands. Many of them included prominent figures in Iran’s political and civil society.
In Iran, imprisonment operates as a conventional method of silencing political dissidents, but many of these prisoners continued their oppositional activities from the beginning of their sentences. What made this new round of prison activism more effective was the Iranian opposition movement’s strong Internet presence. When the Green Movement emerged in Iran, many analysts pointed to the activists’ innovative use of digital technology in initially organizing the electoral campaign and then publicizing information about protest events and regime atrocities.
The government’s crackdown attempted to stifle the public presence of Iran’s democracy movement, but the activists turned the Internet into an oppositional space. This included sharing updates about political prisoners’ situation and actions and spreading open letters smuggled from the prisons.
Sociologists refer to “abeyance structures” as spaces and communities through which social movements continue to exist in periods of repression and public inactivity. Ironically, prisons were a major abeyance structure for Iran’s Green Movement after the 2009 crackdown. During the years of the Green’s decline, Iranian prisoners sustained activity both through direct actions, such as hunger strikes, as well as adopting positions on issues through individual and collective open letters.
In addition to individual strikes against the abuse of prisoners’ rights, hunger strikes were also organized in solidarity with other prisoners and against regime atrocities conducted outside prison walls. In the most stunning example, 12 political prisoners went on hunger strike in 2011 after fellow prisoner Hoda Saber died after prison guards beat him while he was hunger striking against the tragic death of another activist on the outside, Haleh Sahabi. This collective action led to a burst of solidarity among Iranian dissidents inside Iran and among those in exile.
Prisoners also engaged in radical political positions in a country where political activists fear hosting meetings in their homes. In one of the boldest examples, political prisoner Abulfazl Ghadiani publicly accused Leader Ali Khamenei of despotism and compared him to Iran’s pre-revolutionary autocratic monarchs.
In other open letters, prisoners reflected on Iran’s political landscape and offered strategic analyses of Iranian politics and proposed courses of action. In discussions about boycotting or participating in the recent presidential election, Zia Nabavi, an exiled student sentenced to 10 years in prison, argued that Iran’s civil society needs active citizenry who won’t be easily discouraged by destructive authoritarian actions and will act with hope and rationality. He endorsed Hassan Rouhani in that letter and encouraged all democracy supporters to actively participate in the election. As with other letters by political prisoners, that letter became part of the pragmatic wave that resulted in Rouhani’s electoral victory.
During his campaign, Rouhani suggested his election could result in the release of political prisoners. That was one of the major demands that Rouhani’s supporters made during his electoral campaign and in celebrations of his victory. This will be one of the major tasks of the new president’s first term.
All these factors have provided political prisoners with a unique place in Iran’s political landscape. They are, after all, the people who have paid the highest price in fighting for freedom and equality for the Iranian people. A year before the election, Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, a prominent reformist sociologist, stated that political prisoners are even more important than reformist organizations. For all these reasons, the prisoners’ recent letter to President Obama contains significant ramifications for politicians in Washington and Tehran.
The message to Washington is clear. Regardless of whether the goal of sanctions or calls for military action is to empower the Iranian people, a suffering element of Iran’s democracy movement is stating that sanctions have been disempowering and should end.
Iran’s political prisoners are also teaching all of us an important lesson: one should not sacrifice the people’s wellbeing and interests for personal revenge. These prisoners had many reasons to ask for more sanctions on a government that has illegally imprisoned them for unjustifiable reasons, deprived them of their most basic rights and tortured them and their families. But they prioritized the Iranian peoples’ interests and asked both Iran and the US to engage in constructive diplomacy rather than blind hostility.
Let us hope that Iran’s leaders, especially Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, learn this lesson and facilitate the release of these prisoners while starting a new era in Iran’s foreign policy.
Photo Credit: Nima Fatemi