Tuesday, November 30, 2021
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Iran’s Human Rights Abuses Are Often Criticized, Rarely Acted Upon as They Should Be

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on Monday condemning the abrupt execution of an Iranian journalist, Ruhollah Zam, who had been slapped with the vague charge of “spreading corruption on earth,” then tortured into providing a false confession.

Monday’s statement from Michelle Bachelet was preceded by similar expressions of outrage from European governments and policymakers, starting soon after the execution on Saturday. But despite all of this, Iranian regime’s President Hassan Rouhani still saw fit to state publicly on Monday that he considers it “unlikely” the incident will result in significant strain on Iranian-European relations.

Rouhani’s cavalier attitude is emblematic of the impunity his regime has come to expect even amidst continued expansion of Iran’s list of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. Many of those incidents have resulted in an appropriate increase in foreign scrutiny of the regime, but unfortunately this has rarely led to a comparable increase in actual pressure being exerted on the regime over such issues.

So far, there’s no clear evidence of this trend coming to an end in the wake of Zam’s execution. Iran’s European economic partners did take the step of pulling out of an economic forum that was scheduled to begin on Monday in Tehran, but the event’s organizers have since declared that they look forward to it going forward at some later date, when tensions have subsided.

This lends credence to Rouhani’s assumption that relations will not be much affected over the long term; and it diminishes the impact of the statements condemning Iran’s latest efforts to disregard Western criticism while violently cracking down on domestic dissent. In its statement regarding Saturday’s hanging, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) noted that “such criminal executions [are intended] to create an atmosphere of terror, to intimidate its internal factions, and to thwart the eruption of popular uprisings.”

This strategy has only grown more important to the Iranian regime in recent years, as domestic unrest has become a recurring fact of life.

In the final days of 2017, an economic protest in the city of Mashhad sparked a series of protests that spanned well over 100 cities and towns all across the nation. As the movement grew, it took on a more general message that included chants of “death to the dictator” and explicit demands for regime change. The uprising lasted through much of January 2018 and had the surprising effect of leading the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to acknowledge that the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), had played a major role in planning and facilitating demonstrations.

This in turn prompted a new outpouring of repressive measures by regime officials who recognize a serious threat to their hold on power. The authorities reacted not only by cracking down on the activist community and carrying out mass arrests but also by directing foreign operatives to take their fight onto foreign territory. Presently, four such operatives including a high-ranking Iranian diplomat-terrorist are on trial in Belgium for their attempt to set off explosives at the June 2018 gathering organized just outside of Paris by the NCRI.

Both angles of attack ultimately failed, and a sequel to the January 2018 uprising broke out across an even larger number of localities in November 2019. This movement was promptly put down by the regime’s forces who opened fire on crowds and killed over 1,500 peaceful protesters. But even this did not keep the Iranian people off the streets for long. Protests again broke out in multiple provinces last January after it became clear that the regime had attempted to cover up the fact that 176 individuals on board a commercial airplane had been killed by a missile belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

This series of protest movements has gained some attention from the international community, with some commentators even recognizing its implications for the situation of human rights in Iran. The latest UN resolution on that situation, adopted by the General Assembly last month, includes explicit references to “the nationwide protests of November 2019 and January 2020,” and it urges the regime to release those who have been detained solely for participation in peaceful demonstrations, and to halt reprisals against those people’s families.

Even though that resolution evokes an understanding of the persistent, even escalating problems with Iran’s human rights record, it also repeats the mistakes that are so common to formal Western communications about that issue. The relevant passage implies that Tehran can be trusted to examine the issue on its own, and to rectify its own history of malign behavior. The document as a whole repeats that sentiment with nearly every specific issue it names, from the practice of arbitrary detention to the systematic denial of rights to women and minorities.

The United Nations and the European Union should be used to this sort of thing by now. It has been a familiar feature of Iran’s approach to foreign relations for a long time, and yet somehow it has still never led to a serious change in Western policies for dealing with Iran’s human rights abuses, or any of its other malign activities. The originators of those policies were apparently even willing to turn a blind eye to full-scale crimes against humanity, as they did in 1988 when the regime was systematically executing 30,000 political prisoners.

In the summer of 1988, Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the massacre of 30000 political prisoners

That massacre was the subject of a letter from several UN human rights experts which was delivered to Tehran in September but only released to the public in the week before the Zam execution. The letter seemed to affirm the need for more a more assertive approach to both historical and modern Iranian human rights issues. “The failure of [international] bodies to act,” the letter declared, “had a devastating impact on the survivors and families [of the massacre’s victims] as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran.”

That failure is still ongoing, as evidenced by the fact that public condemnation of Iran’s crimes does not result in action. As the fallout from Zam’s execution continues, European governments should resolve to sever diplomatic and trade relations with Iran so as to make it absolutely clear that Rouhani is wrong to assume human rights violations won’t cause long-term harm to Iran’s international relations.