Sotoudeh’s Case is Iran’s Own Goal

Nasrin Sotoudeh (Facebook)

by Eldar Mamedov

Last week, the European Parliament joined the international outcry over the sentencing of Iranian human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh to a long prison term by voting overwhelmingly for a resolution calling for her release.

The European Parliament is particularly sensitive to the fate of Sotoudeh. It awarded her the Sakharov Prize in 2012, the EU’s highest human rights award, in recognition of her outstanding work in this area. It is only politically and morally consistent for the Parliament to express public dismay over her persecution.

The resolution was quite comprehensive in its scope, encompassing also the cases of environmentalists, trade unionists, women’s rights activists, EU-Iranian dual nationals, and others deemed to be wrongfully imprisoned following trials alleged to have lacked due process. European MPs criticized the sentences as “state-sponsored smear campaigns against the imprisoned individuals” based on “vaguely-defined national security and espionage charges.”

The resolution also acknowledges some positive steps taken recently in Iran, such as amendments to the drug trafficking law, which already reduced the imposition of capital punishment. It also calls on Iran to reform Article 48 of the Criminal Procedure Law to “ensure that all defendants have the right to be represented by a lawyer of their choice, and to a fair trial in line with Iran’s commitments to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” to which Iran is a party.

There are some flaws in the text too. No conversation on the topic is complete without acknowledging the devastating effects of U.S. economic sanctions, imposed in violation of the UN Security Council-endorsed resolution on the nuclear pact with Iran, on Iranian human rights. The UN recognizes access to medicines, for example, as a fundamental element of the right to health, yet it is severely impaired by U.S. pressure on banks worldwide to cut ties with Iranian entities. Since the EU opposes these sanctions, and indeed enacted a special trading mechanism to bypass them, it should have condemned them for exacerbating the human rights situation in Iran.

The document would have also benefited from somewhat more nuance on the criticisms of Iran’s treatment of different ethnic and religious minorities. It states that “members of Baha’i, Azeri, Kurdish, Arab and Baloch communities, Sunni Muslims and Christians face discrimination in employment, education, freedom of worship and political activities.” Although there is some evidence supporting this claim, not all listed forms of discrimination are applicable to all of these groups. The Baha’i certainly suffer from widespread discrimination. But it’s difficult to argue that Azeris’ freedom of worship and employment possibilities are somehow restricted considering that they are Shia Muslims and numerous members of Iran’s elite, including the Supreme Leader, are of Azeri origin.

As to the Christians, it is the converts from Islam who face discrimination in Iran. Often, they happen to be evangelical Protestants, their cases picked up by well-endowed and aggressive evangelical groups outside Iran.

Persecuting people for conversion violates their freedom of religion and belief. However, the Christian experience in Iran is broader than that: the rights of the country’s ancient Armenian and Assyrian communities are reasonably well protected both in law and practice, especially by regional standards. Consider Tehran’s warm welcome to the prime minister of Armenia during his recent visit to the country, including extensive mingling with local Armenians.

Despite these flaws, the resolution is fair-minded overall and judges the situation in Iran on its own merits. It is not infected, for example, by the lobbying of exiled pro-regime-change groups, such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq. Among other names, it mentions Farhad Meysami, a jailed male activist of women’s rights, who publicly refused to be instrumentalized by the U.S. government in its campaign against Iran.

Nor can it be argued that the resolution unfairly singles out Iran in a region where some countries’ human rights records are arguably worse. In fact, over the last years, the European Parliament adopted more condemnatory resolutions on Saudi Arabia and Bahrain than this one on Iran.

The resolution comes at a time when Iran—subjected to “maximum pressure” from the United States, with the help of its regional allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates—needs all the friends it can get, including in Europe.  In this sense, the imprisonment of Nasrin Sotoudeh is a perfect own goal. The hardliners in the judiciary who are responsible for this and other human rights abuses may not see it this way. Indeed, the severity of Sotoudeh’s punishment may be intended to send a message that they are firmly in control, as opposed to the moderate administration of President Hassan Rouhani. And Rouhani’s room for maneuver to take on the hardliners shrank since the escalation of Trump’s campaign against the country. Besides, Rouhani still hopes he can become the next supreme leader, or at least have a say over who will become one. He can’t afford to alienate the hardliners too much.

In Europe, the reactions to Sotoudeh’s sentencing were understandably of shock and disbelief, especially among those European politicians who invested political capital in engaging Iran. By contrast, it gave a perfect excuse to the opponents of dialogue to argue for a closer alignment with Trump´s policies on Iran. If Iran truly wants a closer relationship with Europe, it shouldn’t give ammunition to European opponents of engagement. Releasing wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders would be a critically important step in that direction.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. The sanctions the Ayatollahs place on Iran is far worse than anything else.

  2. Difficult for me, in all my ignorance and lack of adequate context, to find fault with the thrust of this commentary. Iran has its shortcomings, as do all states and individuals.

    Hmmm–“The resolution was quite comprehensive in its scope….” How about a parallel comprehensive resolution devoted to Palestine? Surely such a resolution could identify and call attention to even one Palestinian woman, man (I nominate Marwan Barghouti, whose sham/kangaroo-court “trial” and conviction of many decades ago could surely be parsed and eviscerated by any objective and competent lawyer or panel), or child prisoner in a Ziomonster cell of incarceration for his or her steadfast resistance to the most pernicious and long-inflicted crimes against humanity ever perpetrated. Surely the resolution could address the collectively punished entire population of Gaza, imprisoned, besieged/locked down, lacking the barest vestige of human rights, dignity, the daily needs of life, the justice too long denied them….

  3. Many thanks for this balanced and informative analysis. If article length had not been a concern, you could have condemned the hypocrisy of European leaders joining Trump against Venezuela’s legitimately elected government. My comparison is quite relevant, because Venezuela’s tolerance of well-meaning NGOs is sadly responsible in part for its crushing instability today. (Think Chilean labor unions crippling Allende, 1973 or Iran’s doomed prime minister Mossadegh tolerating hostile free press, 1952-3.)

    According to a famous Persian proverb, in a ferocious fire dry and wet burn together. Similarly, while Iran is held knife to throat by the global serial invader, let’s not naively expect innocent activists to be exempt from disproportionate silencing. Today Iran is, needless to say, extremely careful not to fall in a “humanitarian” or “pro-democracy” whirlwind that could with the best of intentions end up devastating the lives of 1000s more like Sotoudeh, as we’re witnessing in Venezuela.

    I’m sorry if I sound callous, but cruelty in the world starts with NATO military giants and just solutions will have to start with loosening their grip. Countries like Iran, Syria, Turkey and Russia will have more incentive to behave with restraint internally when they can feel safe from the kind of aggression now targeting Venezuela in the name of goodwill.

    If the EU really means well, why did it turn a blind eye to the torture dungeons some of its member states provided for CIA interrogations of renditioned terror suspects? As far as I’m concerned, you shouldn’t have to be a celebrity “human rights lawyer” to deserve trumpeted declarations of support.

  4. Let’s start fixing the problem at home first regarding human’s rights! First let’s talk about Abu-Gharaib and the tortures that were filmed for the public to see by putting them on the MSM screens daily very proudly!
    Everyone in EU & US is talking about the immigrants and on and on but no one talks about the root cause of it! The ME and NA were attacked militarily for the past 2 decades “as GWB called it attacking the hornets nest” displacing millions of poor people! The people on streets are smart and they know how to get back at their enemies and that is to migrating into enemies lands! Here we are today!
    As long as we have not captured people like GWB, D Cheney, D Rumsfeld, Abrams’ and many other neocons and bring them to justice in ICI nothing will change!
    Humanity needs one good example to be restored. Positive and meaningful actions will make people to think twice about their cruel actions and their consequences! Believe me the smaller countries with their horrible justice systems will get the message and MS. Sotodeh won’t be in this predicament today!

  5. Rob Hughes

    They promised the government of Imam Ali and delivered Thuggishness and Injustice.

    They ought to be ashamed.

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