The Iran you won’t hear about from President Rouhani
The original version of this op-ed was published in the Foreign Policy magazine.
By John Baird
It has now been one year since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran. Rouhani came into power with big promises -- to tackle entrenched corruption, to grant Iranians basic freedoms, and to unleash the constrained talents and aspirations of Iran's citizens. His very mantra was one of hope and change.
These promises appealed to a wide array of Iran's long-suffering minority groups -- Ahwazi, Baluch, Kurd, Azeri, Christian and Baha'i. And they appealed internationally, where Iran purported to extend the hand of friendship and co-operation, and offered an escape from the downward spiral of zero-sum rivalry and regional turmoil. After the obtuseness of Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this new language and tone was profoundly seductive to all those who long pined for hope and change in the country.
But one year later, we must be hard-headed, and ask ourselves: who has been accorded the dignity that President Rouhani promised? The honest answer cannot be optimistic. Not the Iranian defense lawyers imprisoned for defending the rights of their fellow citizens. Not the political prisoners beaten bloody by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) forces in Evin Prison's notorious Ward 350. Certainly not Hashem Shaabani, a member of the Ahwazi minority who was arrested, tortured and summarily executed for his poetry.
Indeed, Iranians hoping for moderation were let down almost immediately upon Rouhani taking office. On the day of his inauguration, Rouhani selected Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the former deputy intelligence minister, as his sole nominee for the role of justice minister. Pourmohammadi, as Iranians well know, was one of the key officials responsible for the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran. Later, in 1994, he was head of foreign counter-intelligence when the government of Iran was implicated in court for the deadly bombing of the Israeli Cultural Center in Argentina.
Now, joined in cabinet by old friends from the MOIS, the new justice minister supervises a legal system that has already put to death at least 470 prisoners since Rouhani's inauguration, earning him the unofficial title of "Minister of Murder." Even compared to Ahmadinejad, Rouhani's administration has almost doubled the monthly rate of executions. Their legal processes are as dubious as their purpose, with many charged under the pretext of narcotics-related offences, or the supposed crimes of "enmity against God" or "corruption on earth."
This disturbing trend is one of the more obvious causes for concern. Others have been blurred and obscured by an administration highly preoccupied with PR and perception. For example, to coincide with Rouhani's highly-publicized appearance at the U.N. last year, Iranian officials promised the release of 85 political prisoners as a tangible demonstration of his moderation. The reality? Only a small fraction ultimately made it out of incarceration, the news of which did not garner the headlines generated by the original promise.
Rouhani's administration then released a Draft Charter of Rights, a campaign promise that was meant to symbolize the new government's embrace of human rights. The reality of this document was that it was widely discredited by legal experts, entrenched existing inequalities, and did nothing to advance the rights of the Iranian people. The grand promise of its title was further undermined with the introduction of a "political crime" bill in Parliament last September, which would criminalize any criticism of the state.
In the same month, Rouhani introduced a resolution at the U.N. dubbed "World Against Violence and Extremism," supposedly an Iranian commitment to fighting extremism. Yet the reality of Iran's unwavering moral, financial, political, and military support to the Syrian regime has resulted in the death of over 150,000 people, a more deeply entrenched extremism, and further destabilization of the region. Despite Iran's long-suffering economy, it managed to supply Bashar al-Assad with a $3.6 billion line of credit and a mandate to continue the massacre of his own people. Iran unleashed Hezbollah to protect Assad, to undermine Lebanon, and to wage a clandestine sectarian war that impacts far beyond the immediate region.
Iran's campaign for international legitimacy continued in April with its successful bid to be appointed to the U.N. Economic and Social Council's Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a body committed to women's empowerment and equality with men. Iranian women cannot get a passport without their husband's permission, and are barred from running for the presidency of Iran, yet their rulers purport to be advocates for women on the international stage. Most shockingly, Iran's appointment to the Commission came only a few weeks after the Rouhani government upheld the hanging sentence of a 26 year-old victim of sexual assault.
Neither the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, nor the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, reported any tangible improvements with regards to the human rights situation in the country in their March reports to the Human Rights Council. According to the secretary general, "The new administration has not made any significant improvement in the promotion and protection of freedom of expression and opinion, despite pledges made by the president during his campaign and after his swearing in," and Dr. Shaheed continues to be denied access to the visit the country in order to carry out his mandate from the international community.
Cynics may see unrealistic rhetoric and unfulfilled promises as par for the course for politicians. But the chasm between Rouhani's style and substance belies a more sinister truth. Under the careful watch of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the organized machinery of a clerical dictatorship remains in place. The Iranian regime's scale of terrorizing its people at home and sponsoring terrorism abroad is staggering. That continues to be Iran's reality.
Why does Canada care so much about how Iran treats its own citizens and the citizens of neighboring countries? Because we believe those citizens deserve better. They deserve the dignity of an economy free of corruption and cronyism. They deserve deep reform that delivers jobs, not just empty propaganda or deceptive games.
The international community must be a voice for those who are silenced by the Iranian regime. That means, as we work toward a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue, the international community must press Iran to respect human rights and to cease its support for terrorism. Otherwise, Iranian recklessness abroad and oppression at home will continue to feed regional destabilization and deprive a population of over 75 million people their basic rights and freedoms.
Canada has been listening to the voices of all those inside Iran who want to see a better future. Our support to initiatives like the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, which now has grown to reach over 4.5 million unique users inside Iran, amplifies the suppressed voices seeking the basic dignity of a peaceful and prosperous life, and those who defend democratic values and human rights.
We are determined to respond to these voices with more than rhetoric. Through Canada's leadership on the United Nations Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, the world calls Iran to account for its appalling human rights violations. Canada has also passed the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, enabling victims to obtain redress for the awful wrongs done to them by terrorist states like Iran. Plaintiffs recently won a first case against Iran under this act in Ontario's Superior Court, but now the government of Iran, the IRGC and the MOIS have decided to appeal the verdict. To do this, they will benefit from the legal system of an open and democratic country like Canada while at the same time suppressing human rights defenders, jailing lawyers and demonstrating virtually no respect for the rule of law at home.
Let us unite in reminding Iranians of the limitless possibilities of freedom. That a woman who had been jailed and tortured in prison could one day stand for presidential office -- and succeed. That the halls of a notorious prison could one day be permanently closed to its brutal guards and opened to those who wish to reflect on past tyranny. These are not only the powerful true stories of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, or Cambodia's Tuol Sleng prison. These could be the stories of someone like leading Iranian human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and of the notorious Evin Prison that confined her and many other political prisoners.
To be truly optimistic about Iran's future, we must be realistic about Iran's present. Until we see reform rather than rhetoric, Canada will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Iran in their desire for real hope and dignity.
John Baird is Canada's Foreign Minister.
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