What Do Iranian Human Rights Activists Want from the West?

Supporters of Nasrin Sotoudeh protest at The Hague in 2012 (PersianDutchNetwork via Wikimedia Commons)

by Nader Hashemi

What do Iranian human rights activists want from the international community, the West in particular? What guidelines should be followed that can better support their heroic efforts? As someone who has written on the topic and spent considerable time studying the topic, reading their statements, and interviewing some prominent voices, I would like to address this subject. The focus here is on Iranian human rights/pro-democracy activists living within Iran today, not those who are active abroad.

The ethical framework that I adopt is rather simple. It is based on the premise that before prescribing solutions to problems that affect other people, one should first exercise a degree of humility. Do not assume a priori that you know the answers or have the best strategy. If you are serious about human rights activism, it is a moral imperative to consult with those most directly affected by human rights abuses; to listen to those voices who have organic connections to their own societies, and who are on the frontline of the struggle. Their advice should inform your human rights/pro-democracy advocacy.

The State of Human Rights in Iran Today

Amnesty International called the year 2018 “a year of shame for Iran” in the area of human rights. “The staggering scale of arrests, imprisonments and flogging sentences reveal the extreme lengths the authorities have gone to in order to suppress peaceful dissent.” Teachers, factory workers, students, and women’s rights activists were particularly affected by this crackdown. Embodying this state of repression, earlier this year, the famous Iranian human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was sentenced to 38 years in jail and 146 lashes. Since the release of this Amnesty report, a subsequent UN report last month by Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, confirms an expansion of political repression across society.

This situation has produced a sense of deep despair, despondency, and apathy among the forces for democracy and human rights. Many Iranians believe that they are caught between a rock and a hard place – between an increasingly repressive authoritarian regime that seeks to snuff out all dissent and the policies of Donald Trump and John Bolton that seem determined to collapse the Iranian economy and launch another Middle Eastern war.

International Context of Human Rights in Iran

President Trump’s new hardline policy toward the Islamic Republic is embodied in the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and the re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions. Threats, tough talk, and hardball politics have characterized this new U.S. approach toward Iran.

The effects of this new policy on Iran have been predictable. The Iranian economy has suffered a major blow, inflation has skyrocketed, and the Iranian rial has lost nearly 80 percent of its value. The IMF predicts that Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent in 2019 (it contracted by 3.9 percent in 2018).

The Iranian middle and lower classes – not the Islamic Republic Guard Corps or the ruling elites – have been most affected by renewed sanctions. The focus of activity within Iran, among a sizeable youth population that yearns for political change, is perforce not on mobilizing to resist the policies of the Islamic Republic but rather on economic survival and emigration.

Iranian hardliners are benefiting financially and ideologically from Trump’s new hawkish Iran policy. Financially, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard has expanded its smuggling networks to profit significantly from U.S. sanctions, as it no longer needs to compete in a free market. This development also allows the Revolutionary Guard to expand its patron-clientele networks to increase its influence among a beleaguered and desperate population.

Ideologically, Iranian hardliners, led by the Supreme Leader, have also benefited. They are invoking themes of Iranian nationalism and foreign threats. They repeatedly tell Iranian society: the West cannot be trusted to live up to a signed agreement; they are an implacable foe who must be forever resisted and diplomacy is futile.

Hardliners are also scoring points against Iranian reformist forces who are being blamed for compromising Iran’s national security by supporting a nuclear deal that has produced few benefits. They argue that “we gave up our crown jewel for a lollipop.” In other words, Iran’s nuclear program was ceded for negligible economic gain. As the threat of a military confrontation looms on the horizon, Iranian reformists are on the defensive.

Guidelines and Redlines

Given this bleak political context, what do Iranian pro-democracy/human rights activists want from the international community? The following points reflect a broad consensus within Iran among this constituency. Those who are genuinely interested in understanding the internal Iranian debate on human rights and democracy are advised to respect these guidelines and red lines.

  1. Keep the global spotlight on Iran’s human rights record; name and sanction individuals directly involved in human rights abuses.
  2. Oppose foreign-based “regime change” policies, especially the military adventurism by the United States and its regional allies (i.e. a strong repudiation of Trump/Bolton’s policy toward Iran).
  3. Oppose broad-based economic sanctions that affect average Iranian citizens (targeted sanctions against human rights abusers and high regime officials with blood on their hands are welcomed even if this cannot be publicly affirmed).
  4. Support the Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA) because it averts/reduces the prospects for war and removes economic sanctions and opens Iran up to the international community (i.e. yes, to diplomacy).
  5. Nonviolent strategy for political change is the only way forward. This suggests patience and a long-term approach to advancing human rights/democracy. There are no quick fixes. Stated differently, the struggle for democracy/human rights in Iran is a marathon, not a sprint.
  6. Give recognition to and elevate the work of human rights/pro-democracy defenders within Iran, especially those who are in prison. Key figures include Nasrin Sotoudeh, Nargess Mohammadi, Ismail Bakhshi, Sepideh Gholian, and many others.
  7. Emulate the example of French President Emmanuel Macron. Earlier this year, he formally invited Nasrin Sotoudeh to be part of the G7 gender advisory council. This type of creative thinking should be replicated by the international community ad nauseam.

Between now and the next US presidential election, the possibility of a U.S.-Iran military confrontation is extremely high. If it were to happen, it would likely unleash a broader Middle Eastern war and represent a complete disaster for Iran’s beleaguered human rights community. The Islamic Republic would seize this opportunity to further expand repression and silence all dissent. Mass executions are probable.

Given this reality, a priority for those living outside of Iran who care about human rights should be to restrain the predatory impulses of the Trump Administration and its regional allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia) that seek a military conflict. While internal repression within Iran has reached new heights, further deterioration is possible. You need not take my word for it; simply listen to the heroic voices emanating from Iran who consistently, repeatedly articulate this position.

Originally published by Siyasa and republished here with permission.

Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies and co-editor with Danny Postel of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s FutureThe Syria Dilemma and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @NaderAliHashemi.

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  1. What a great title. You get drawn in, and then major disappointment. Oh for goodness sake.

    If you are going to talk about human rights from inside Iran, at least have the decency to give just one sentence to the Declaration of Human Rights or its roots from the Zend-Avesta.

    Or is that too “Royal” for you.

    Then you have that typical “blame the US sanctions” argument, that is totally oblivious to the fact that the Ayatollah regime has destroyed the Iranian economy with its own theocratic sanctions.

    Enough said.

  2. Mr Mostofi,

    I don’t know your educational background, but one thing is un-disputed among historians looking at the Sassanid times: the social conditions of the population living under zoroastrian state was way worst than the cast system Gandhi fought against after independence.

    Current day Iran’s Gini index, if applicable, is better than any time in the history of the people living on the Iranian plateau.

  3. Mr Mostofi,

    I don’t know your educational background, but one thing is un-disputed among historians looking at the Sassanid times: the social conditions of the population living under zoroastrian state was way worst than the cast system Gandi fought against after independence.

    Current day Iran has better Gini index than any time in the history of the people living on the Iranian plateau.

  4. Nader Hashemi

    The West is the enemy of Iranian power.

    These Iraians to whom you allude in your article are the foot soldiers of the Western propaganda war against Iran; fools and knaves.

  5. The US and UK’s political establishments have always vehemently defended the human rights while themselves ruthlessly supported the most heartless violators of the human rights; or hiding behind sanctimonious democratising or civilising missions – indeed their abominable colonial and imperialist missions – have massacred 1000s upon 1000s, even millions of innocent people. But the US or UK politicians have not authored the human rights!

    It can be argued that the ‘Western’ human rights should be considered within the cultural context of our society without being fully endorsed. But the human rights, such as the condemnation of unfair trials, rape, physical and mental torture and slandering and harassing families simply because of their race, political or religious views are not ‘un-Islamic’, are not ‘irrational’ Western inventions. The human rights is a guideline to protect vulnerable individuals and communities. How else can we denounce the persecution of Muslims in Burma’s Myanmar? The rape and murder of the Yazidi women-children by the ISIS? The savage atrocities under Saddam or the Shah?! The human rights are indeed the people’s moral compass to monitor their political establishments and warn them of abuses of power and undetected corruptions.

    Many Iranians unreservedly condemn the Pahlavi regime, the Saudis, the Soviet, Pol Pot or Pinochet or Argentina’s military junta or Franco for their unfair trials, smear campaigns, torture and murder of their respective dissidents but, themselves while enjoying total freedom outside of Iran, due to their affiliations they close their eyes and condone and rationalise the very violations in Iran that they themselves denounce in others and if they or their children are subjected to would not tolerate for a minute! How would they react if they are unfairly condemned to 10-20 years and 100 lashes simply for their or opposing views? Not 20 days or 20 weeks or 20 months but 20 years?! And if a lawyer comes to their defence would they condemn the lawyer too? Has it not been the human rights that have unreservedly condemned the Slavery, Domination, Exploitation, Repression, Rape, Torture, Racism and Genocide?

    Just because the Western Powers have been corrupt and used the human rights as an excuse to interfere, exploit and cover up their own criminal intentions, the anti-Western politicians have also taken this for granted to call it a Western ‘threat’ or ‘Western propaganda war’, hence moralise smearing the human rights activists in order to silence their critics and foster their own unpopular despotism – just like the Zionists labelling their critics as ‘anti-Semite’ to silence them; or like the cynics denying God and the faithful simply because some corrupt institutions proclaim to represent God and speak for the faithful.

    Yes, we all are vulnerable, and unfortunately, living a safe and privileged life, sometimes unwillingly fall into the trap of intellectual despotism!

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