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Rouhani Wins on Nuclear Deal. Struggles on Human Rights

Posted September 23rd, 2015 at 2:53 pm (UTC-4)
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By Barbara Slavin

With Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about to arrive in New York, hopes are fading for the release of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian during this year’s U.N. General Assembly.

In the past, Iranian officials have freed political prisoners before the annual diplomatic gabfest. But this could well be the second General Assembly that Rezaian spends behind bars.

The 39-year-old Iranian-American journalist has been detained for 14 months on unspecified charges. For a time, it was thought that one motive for keeping him was to gain some sort of leverage in the nuclear negotiations between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers. But while U.S. officials raised Rezaian’s case – and that of two other Iranian-American detainees – at every round of the negotiations, they did not make a nuclear deal conditional on the dual citizens’ release. The nuclear agreement has now passed U.S. Congressional scrutiny and is expected to be implemented starting next month.

In a recent interview  with CBS’s 60 Minutes, Rouhani seemed to suggest that release of Iranians jailed in the U.S. for violating sanctions against Iran might lead to freedom for Rezaian and the other Iranian-Americans. U.S. officials have rejected such “swaps” in the past as falsely equating individuals facing trumped up charges with those convicted of actual crimes.

Unfortunately for Rezaian and the other prisoners, the decision to release them does not lie in the hands of Iran’s president – unlike the situation in Egypt, where President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi pardoned 100 political prisoners – including three Al-Jazeera journalists – on the eve of leaving for New York.

Indeed, Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, have publicly and privately expressed sympathy for Rezaian; Zarif went so far as to call him a “friend” and a “good reporter.” However, those holding him appear to have no interest in further boosting the standing of the Rouhani government, which is experiencing a surge of popularity because of the successful nuclear talks.

Shadowy security forces – including the intelligence branch of the Revolutionary Guards which is said to be holding Rezaian – may also want to impress on Rouhani that the nuclear deal is not the beginning of a real rapprochement between Iran and a country long branded as “the Great Satan.” By continuing to snatch American hostages, these groups insure that reconciliation is also hampered on the U.S. side and that Iran remains a potential target of more sanctions focused on human rights.

Iranian-Americans, of course, are only a fraction of the political prisoners in Iran.

There are several hundred others, including two young women activists arrested within the last six months: Atena Daemi, 27, sentenced to 14 years for protesting Iran’s excessive use of the death penalty, and Atena Farghadani, 28, serving 12 years for posting cartoons on Facebook depicting members of the Iranian parliament as animals.

Meanwhile, another prisoner, trade unionist Shahrokh Zamani, 51, died recently from a stroke after reportedly failing to receive adequate medical care.

Human rights groups, many of which supported the nuclear negotiations and advocated on Capitol Hill for its approval, are now urging   U.N. and foreign officials, journalists and others who will come into contact with Rouhani during his New York visit to refocus their advocacy on greater freedom for the Iranian people.

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told VOA that there have been some improvements under Rouhani and that  “the general public doesn’t feel as suffocated” as it did under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But civil society remains stymied and even on campuses – where some qualified professors have been reinstated since Ahmadinejad left office – students are unable to form or join associations, Ghaemi said. The Association of Iranian Journalists also remains disbanded.

According to a recent report by Ghaemi’s group the Revolutionary Guards continue to aggressively target dissident expression on the Internet and to filter many critical sites. Iran is also on track to execute 1,000 people this year, most on drug-related charges and often without due process of law.

Since his election two years ago, Rouhani has focused on the nuclear negotiations and on ways of reforming and boosting the Iranian economy. But he also “talked a lot about ending the security state” as a candidate, Ghaemi says, and “we’ve seen nothing in that direction.”

With parliamentary elections approaching early next year, Ghaemi says Rouhani will need to begin to address the concerns of civil society if he expects to attract significant turnout and support for candidates he favors – especially since the economic benefits of sanctions relief may not be evident for some time. A pragmatist and long-time pillar of the Iranian system, Rouhani has no real party of his own and must rely on backers of the 2009 Green Movement and other reformists to gain a majority in parliament, Ghaemi notes.

Iranian hardliners will inevitably push back in an effort to “prove their resilience,” Ghaemi says, and show elected officials the limits of their ability to change Iranian society.

But the trend lines are not in their favor. Iran has already changed enormously since the revolution and its young, well-educated people have shown a willingness to keep pushing the envelope on matters of personal expression, including dress and relationships with the opposite sex. They want jobs but also more freedom from government harassment in their daily lives.

The nuclear deal will inevitably encourage these trends as more and more Westerners return to Iran as business people and tourists. Among them will be members of the large Iranian diaspora who have contributed already to Iran’s economic development. They could certainly do much more if the threat of being arrested on false pretexts — like Rezaian was — did not remain hanging over their heads.


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