Even as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sat with his Western counterparts last weekend in Geneva, shaking hands and celebrating the interim six-month nuclear deal, the lifeless body of a young man hung from a crane in a bleak public square in Tehran, spreading fear among Iranians, who suffer the world’s highest per capita rate of executions.
How can these stark contrasts be reconciled as world leaders move to the next stage of rapprochement with Iran?
Diplomacy is, without doubt, preferable to war or to the sanctions that have impoverished ordinary Iranians already struggling in a corrupt and mismanaged economy. Under the shadow of negotiations, however, Iran’s appalling human rights situation has hardly changed.
If anything, the alarming rate of executions seems to have increased in recent weeks. A handful of political prisoners have been released as a symbolic gesture, but many still languish in inhumane conditions. The torture of dissidents and the censorship of the media both continue as before. The persecution of religious minorities such as Bahais and Christians and of ethnic groups such as Ahwazi Arabs, Balochis and Kurds likewise continues unabated. The hard-line leadership is letting Iranians know that a strategic retreat in nuclear negotiations to end sanctions does not translate into reform at home.
Will the world community disregard human rights in the coming months to conclude a comprehensive nuclear deal?
Some argue that a successful deal would strengthen the reformists. Others contend that it would help the hard-liners survive. Yet others argue that human rights must be trumped by security concerns.
None of these positions justifies silence on abuses. If reformists genuinely seek change, they should welcome calls for an end to executions, torture and religious persecution. If hard-liners increase repression under the cover of international legitimacy, they should be exposed. And if pundits believe that appeasement of those espousing a hateful religious ideology will guarantee long-term security, they should understand the difference between political “realism” and wishful thinking.
An authoritarian regime without legitimacy will invariably rule through militarization. The concept of security differs in a democratic context. Consider how in the 1980s Argentina and Brazil, and then post-apartheid South Africa in the 1990s, abandoned military nuclear programs once they achieved democratic rule. A government that is answerable to its citizens has different priorities.
Iran’s current leadership thrives on “nuclear nationalism.” It equates national interests with the absolute power of a small, self-appointed religious-military ruling class rather than with the equal rights of its citizens. Even reformist President Hassan Rouhani’s proposed “civil rights charter” is limited to members of “heavenly” religions. In the theocratic ideology of the Islamic Republic, human rights are conditioned on whether the state approves of a citizen’s beliefs. This is nothing less than religious apartheid. It breeds fanaticism and violence. If there is no end to such abuses, how can the Islamic Republic be trusted?
Lasting change can be achieved only through freedom for the Iranian people. Nearly 35 years of totalitarianism have galvanized a youthful, post-utopian generation who seek a better future. Iran has one of the most vibrant civil societies in the Middle East. Students’ and women’s movements, labor unions, grass-roots charities, human rights advocates, environmentalists, courageous journalists and enlightened artists — these are the relentless forces that hold the promise of a lasting democratic transformation.
The U.N. General Assembly’s recent adoption of a resolution condemning Iran’s human rights record, for the 10th year in a row, reassured Iranians that their plight has not been forgotten. It is imperative that, in its March session in Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council renew the mandate of Ahmad Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. Failure to do so, in the name of appeasement, would have a disastrous impact at a time when Iran’s leadership is engaged in the cost-benefit calculus of adopting reforms rather than maintaining the status quo.
The Geneva talks should be considered as complementary halves, with the nuclear negotiations in one location and the human rights deliberations in another. Both halves are necessary for a complete solution.
Iran is at a crossroads. Its people are caught between paths leading in opposite directions. One promises reintegration into the world community amid a historic transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. The other gives rise to fear that, in a time of reluctant compromises and declining political fortunes, enraged hard-liners will stubbornly cling to power by unleashing even worse atrocities against Iranian citizens portrayed as “enemies,” “apostates” and “foreign conspirators.”
The interim nuclear deal and diplomatic engagement with Iran are a welcome opportunity for change. But the world should ensure that human rights are not sacrificed at the altar of political expedience.
Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian human rights lawyer and the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Payam Akhavan is a founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and a professor of international law at McGill University in Montreal.