By Barbara Slavin
Every day brings another horrific story of human rights abuses in the Middle East.
From the killing fields of Syria to the carnage in Yemen to the crowded prisons of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Israel, there are enough atrocities in the region to absorb the energies of dozens of human rights organizations.
The international community has limited resources to deal with these abuses and is hampered by double standards that target U.S. adversaries over U.S. allies. But international pressure can help, especially when coupled with domestic activism and diplomatic engagement.
At a panel discussion Wednesday at the Atlantic Council that this reporter moderated, Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, expressed optimism that the Iranian government could improve its record on human rights in the aftermath of a landmark nuclear deal.
“Cautious engagement has some utility,” Shaheed, who has produced ten reports on Iran’s human rights record since 2011, said. These interactions should be designed “to produce results through dialogue that is visible, benchmarked and credible rather than shouting at each other from a distance.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani campaigned in 2013 on a platform that prioritized a nuclear deal that would ease the burden of sanctions. He also promised that he would lighten the burden of the security state on the Iranian people.
He achieved the first goal last year with the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but has yet to deliver on the second.
In fact, there has been a continuing crackdown on freedom of the press and civil society as well as discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities and arbitrary imprisonment of Iranian dual nationals including an Iranian-American, Siamak Namazi, and his 80-year-old father, Baquer.
Also recently jailed was a young British-Iranian woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was separated from her two-year-old daughter after she tried to return home from a family visit to Iran.
Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American academic who was imprisoned for four months in 2007 after she visited her mother in Iran, told the Atlantic Council that the Iranian authorities may have mistaken Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, for a reporter. There has been a concerted effort by Iranian intelligence and security authorities to undermine Rouhani by jailing journalists and civil society activists, Esfandiari said. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been contradicting the president and undercutting his authority. Usually, she told this reporter, Khamenei waits until a president is on his second term before fighting with him in public. Rouhani is expected to run for re-election in 2017.
It is clear that Khamenei and the Iranian security establishment are worried about the implications of the nuclear deal and its potential to strengthen the private sector and civil society in Iran. Recent parliamentary elections also showed Iranians’ preference for moderates who seek more interaction with the West, a more robust economy and greater political freedoms.
Unlike Saudi Arabia – which has no written penal code and people can be sentenced to death for such things as practicing witchcraft – Iran has civil rights protections written into its laws and constitution. It has also signed international human rights conventions and has a number of civil society groups within the country as well as an active and vocal diaspora.
Human rights activists say outsiders should press Iran to implement its own laws. Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, said the answer is not more U.S. economic sanctions that target the Iranian people in general. She told the Atlantic Council that most members of Congress who argue for more sanctions against Iran now are seeking to overturn the nuclear deal and “don’t give two diddlies about human rights.”
Hadi Ghaemi, founder and executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said Rouhani should not be let off the hook about his campaign promises. Having told the Iranian people that they would be freer under his administration, Ghaemi said Rouhani “can’t have it both ways,”.
Ghaemi pointed to the success of recent international campaigns in securing freedom for Iranian political prisoners, such as Atena Farghadani, a young cartoonist who was jailed after posting caricatures of Iranian politicians as animals on her Facebook page. Her 12-year sentence for “undermining national security” was reduced to 18 months after an international outcry. A campaign in 2010, in support of activists within Iran, prevented the execution of a woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who had been sentenced to death by stoning .
Shaheed has never been allowed to visit Iran but said he has found it easier than previous U.N. special rapporteurs on Iran to compile his reports because of modern technology. He said he has interviewed 700 witnesses, one-third of them in Iran, without compromising their safety or security.
While rejecting Shaheed’s requests to visit the country and decrying his appointment as evidence of political double standards, Iranian authorities have responded to his allegations. His campaign against Iran’s heavy use of capital punishment for drug-related crimes also appears to be resonating.
A new parliament that is to take office at the end of this month is dominated by Rouhani supporters and is less likely to pass repressive laws than the current legislature.
Ghaemi, whose organization supported the nuclear deal, said that those who advocated for the agreement have “a moral and strategic obligation to put human rights as a major topic of discussion” with the Iranian government going forward.
The Barack Obama administration did not make political or social reform a condition of the deal – contrary to allegations in a recent article about Obama aide Ben Rhodes in the New York Times Magazine.
But that does not mean that the U.S. should stop pressing for Iran to improve its record on human rights or to release jailed Iranian-Americans such as the Namazis.
As this reporter stated in a brief for the Atlantic Council:
“No outside country or body can dictate to a sovereign Iran how it should treat its own citizens. There are double standards in terms of the amount of negative attention the US government and media pay to Iran compared to other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, Israel, and Egypt, with which the United States has closer ties. Still, it would be easier for the Obama administration and its successor, as well as other Western democracies, to work constructively with a less repressive Iran. An improvement in Iran’s human rights record could bring major economic benefits to the Islamic Republic, bolster the JCPOA, and facilitate Iran’s reintegration into global and regional security discussions.”