2020 Marked by a Tumultuous Start for Human Rights in Iran

On January 14, Human Rights Watch released its annual summary of the state of human rights in Iran, reviewing Iran’s from brutal crackdowns on protests, arbitrary arrests, and execution; Iran’s continued discrimination based on religion, gender, and orientation; and the humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions. Some issues raised in the report include:

  • The right to assemble, protest, and voice rightful grievances has long been repressed by Iranian authorities. However, under the weight of growing internal pressure from economic discontent and sanctions beginning in late 2019, Iranian authorities grew increasingly cruel in their crackdown on domestic dissent. 
  • This has resulted in an increase of arbitrary arrests of journalists, artists, activists, and foreign and dual nationals. Additionally, the judiciary has increasingly ignored due process and lacked transparency in dealing with such cases, and has doled out harsh sentences. 
  • The worst of these abuses came in November of 2019, after protests – sparked by a spike in gas prices – were met with brutal force. At least 300+ deaths have been reported, but may include many more as the government refuses to declare actual numbers. A staggering 7,000 people were reportedly arrested and the internet was shut down for nearly a week as Iranians were forcibly cut off from the outside world. 
  • Though the report notes some small victories for women, such as limited permission to attend soccer matches and an amendment to the nationality law that allows women to pass citizenship to their children, the legal status of women is still highly discriminatory. Such inequitable practices are also true for religious minorities, especially of the Bahai faith, and homosexuality continues to be criminalized.
  • The report also discusses the humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions. Though legally exempt from sanctions, the report notes limited access to vital medicines and medical equipment due to banking restrictions.

As is evident in the report, 2019 was a bleak year for human rights and Iranians have suffered greatly under domestic and foreign pressures. Unfortunately for Iranians, the new year has been a devastating continuation of tragedy. The events of the past two weeks have rocked not only Iran, but also the globe, as people all across the world held their breath bracing for a war that seemed inevitable after the U.S. assassination of Iran’s General, Qassem Soleimani.

In their attempt at retaliation, Iranian authorities carried out an attack on U.S. airbases in Iraq. On the night of the attack, January 8th, Iranian defenses mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, which was leaving Iranian airspace and carrying 176 civilians. The weight of this tragedy was compounded by authorities hiding the details of the crash for three days. More protests broke out after the state declared its error, as Iranians took the streets to grieve and shout their anger at incompetent officials culpable for this and other calamities. Again, protestors were met with unjust force. 

Those responsible for this appalling loss of life must be held to account. Iranian authorities must end their authoritarian practice of silencing rightful dissent and do justice by their citizens by adhering to their obligations under international human rights law. 

The 176 lives needlessly lost were a consequence not only of inept Iranian officials, but also a result of increased escalation and conflict between the United States and Iran.

As Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau stated: “I think if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians [57 of crash victims] would be right now home with their families. This is something that happens when you have conflict and war, innocents bear the brunt of it and it is a reminder why all of us have to work so hard on de-escalation.”

Such tragedy is a reminder that the greatest human rights violation is war itself, which is why it is incumbent upon both Iran and the United States to end this cycle of violence and bellicose language in order to prevent further loss of innocent life and the unpredictable costs of war.

With MLK Day upon us we are reminded of his sage words so many years ago during the war in Vietnam: “A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just…’ America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood…War is not the answer.” 

NIAC Letter Regarding Etsy’s U.S. Sanctions Compliance Policies and Discriminatory Treatment Towards Iranian Americans

Photo Credit: yasmeenabedi / Twitter

The National Iranian American Council has sent a letter to Etsy concerning its apparently discriminatory treatment of an American vendor selling “Persian dolls” on its website. These dolls appear to have been made in America with American materials by an American, and under no circumstances should have been flagged as a prohibited item. No sanctions apply to American-made items celebrating Persian cultural heritage or antiquity. Etsy’s knee-jerk or automated reaction that led to the prohibition of the dolls is deeply concerning and smacks of discrimination.

At this time, many Iranian Americans are concerned that rising geopolitical tensions are triggering a new wave of xenophobia against our community. NIAC urges Etsy to publicly detail the reasoning behind this discriminatory treatment, take action to verify that it will not continue it and issue an apology to the vendor. NIAC also stand ready to discuss with Etsy the sanctions on Iran and how the company can avoid similar discriminatory action in the future.

The text of the letter is below:

January 18, 2020

SENT VIA MAIL

Etsy Legal Compliance Office
55 Washington Street, Suite 512
Brooklyn, New York 11201

Re: Letter Regarding Etsy’s U.S. Sanctions Compliance Policies and Discriminatory Treatment Towards Iranian Americans

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing on behalf of the National Iranian American Council (“NIAC”), the largest grassroots organization in the United States representing the interests of Iranian Americans, regarding Etsy’s decision to remove from its online store products made by U.S. persons in the United States solely due to the inclusion of the word “Persian” in the title of the product. While we understand that–as a U.S. company–Etsy must comply with all U.S. sanctions laws, Etsy must not implement these commitments in such a manner as to discriminate against users of Iranian descent or to render prohibitive all cultural items of or relating to Iran. We are deeply troubled by this incident and are concerned that–based on Etsy’s apparent sanctions compliance policies and procedures–other users of Iranian descent are likely to face similar discriminatory treatment from Etsy in the future. 

Recently, it has come to our attention that Etsy removed handmade dolls for sale on its online store because the items were described as “Persian dolls.” According to Etsy’s notice, Etsy removed the product because “Persian dolls” constituted a “prohibited item” under the company’s policies. This product, as NIAC understands it, was made by a user of Iranian descent in the United States using solely goods sourced from the United States. No U.S. sanctions laws or regulations appear to have been triggered by Etsy’s hosting of this item for sale on its online store. Etsy’s apparent compliance program has prohibited items from its online store that would raise no compliance issues under U.S. sanctions laws.

U.S. companies must narrowly tailor their U.S. sanctions compliance policies and procedures to the requirements of U.S. laws to ensure that these policies and procedures do not discriminate against and further burden affected communities, including the Iranian-American community. Identifying “Persian dolls” as a “prohibited item” pursuant to its internal sanctions policies and procedures does not qualify as a sanctions program narrowly tailored to the requirements of U.S. law. Such sanctions over-compliance has understandably caused much frustration and anger in our community, and actions such as Etsy’s raise persistent fears that the Iranian American community is the subject of discriminatory treatment. 

We trust that Etsy will review this matter and seek to mitigate the harm caused to any affected parties. We would like to speak further with representatives of the company regarding how they can engage in remediation to revise their sanctions program to ensure that it is strictly tailored to the requirements of U.S law and does not cause any undue impacts on Iranian Americans or other affected communities moving forward. We thank you for your consideration and look forward to your response. 

Sincerely,

Jamal Abdi
President, National Iranian American Council

NIAC Statement on European Powers Triggering JCPOA Dispute Resolution Mechanism

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, January 14, 2020
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

In response to European powers triggering a dispute resolution mechanism over Iran halting compliance with nuclear limits following President Trump’s violation and withdrawal from the deal, Ryan Costello, Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), issued the following statement:

“Europe’s complete fecklessness in the face of Donald Trump’s pressure is once again on full display. Unlike the Trump administration that has orchestrated this nuclear crisis, Europe wants to keep the Iran deal alive and has exerted diplomatic energy toward that end, with little to show for it. However, this step is likely to be viewed in Iran and much of the rest of the world as a cave to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure after Europe has continually failed to deliver promised sanctions relief to Iran. This will further reduce Iranian appetite for accommodation with the West and adherence to the Nonproliferation Treaty. Moreover, hawks in the U.S. are likely to seize the dispute resolution mechanism to try to collapse the agreement on faulty legal grounds, even if that is not the intent of European powers.

“All powers need to tread cautiously, lest they risk playing into those intent on collapsing the agreement and all diplomatic pathways with Iran. Keeping the deal alive, and with it a diplomatic opening to resolve broader concerns with Iran, is in the national interest of the United States, Europe and Iran. This shouldn’t change as a result of Europe’s triggering of the dispute resolution mechanism, which risks doing more harm than good. The alternative scenario of a collapsed deal will rapidly escalate already high tensions and make a conflict increasingly inevitable. Europe will pay a high price for any increase in instability in the Middle East and renewed refugee flows.”

NIAC Statement on Repression of Iranian Protests

WASHINGTON DC – In response to reports that Iranian protests, after shooting down a Ukrainian International Airlines passenger plane last week, are being repressed by authorities, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issued the following statement:

“The National Iranian American Council condemns the Iranian government’s continued use of force against protesters over the weekend, and urges it to take immediate action to uphold its international human rights obligations.

“Many Iranians are rightfully incensed that their government shot down a civilian airliner and killed 176 innocent people, which was compounded by three days of lies to try to cover up the armed forces’ culpability in the shoot down.

“The Iranian people, like everyone, have the right to protest their government without fear of being targeted with lethal force. We reiterate our condemnations of the Iranian government’s ongoing human rights abuses and urge security forces to halt all abuses against protesters and prisoners of conscience.”

NIAC Statement on Iran’s Accidental Downing of Passenger Plane

WASHINGTON DC – In response to reports that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had acknowledged that it was responsible for accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian International Airlines passenger plane this week, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issued the following statement:

“Our hearts are with the families and friends still grieving over their lost loved ones. This has been a tremendous loss for Iran, the Iranian diaspora and all who lost loved ones on the flight.

“Today we learned this was an entirely avoidable and irresponsible error, which has already prompted large protests in Iran. It was also brought on by avoidable tensions between the U.S. and Iran that threatened to spill over into full-blown war. It underscores that when tensions rise, it is unfortunately all too common for mistakes to be made that lead to disastrous consequences. We urge the U.S. and Iranian governments to continue to deescalate, open up diplomatic channels and ensure there is no further loss of life from the reckless rush to the brink of war.”

NIAC Statement on Iranian Missile Attacks on U.S. Bases in Iraq

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, January 7, 2020 
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

Washington DC – In response to reports that Iran had launched missiles targeting U.S. military bases in Iraq, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issued the following statement:

“NIAC is deeply concerned by reports of Iranian missile attacks against U.S. military bases inside Iraq. We condemn all military escalations by both the Iranian and U.S. governments that have led us to this tragic and avoidable point. It is not too late to pull back from a full-blown war. However, that window is closing rapidly. Congress must act immediately to halt hostilities and prevent Trump’s threats of massive retaliation, including bombing of Iranian cultural sites.

“Donald Trump owns this 100%. He inherited a working nuclear deal and a tense but stable situation with Iran. He has deeply wounded the first major diplomatic initiative between the U.S. and Iranian government in decades, and listened to ideologues who convinced him to assassinate an Iranian general. At every step of the way, he has been warned he risked moving back on the path to war. Now that day may be here.

“Our thoughts are with all the people who will be harmed by this senseless and needless conflict. It is ordinary Iranians, Iraqis, and people across the region who will bear a profound cost that can’t be justified. So too will American soldiers, and their families here at home, who will bear the consequences of yet another war that was thrust upon them by callous leaders.

“We call on the international community and the United Nations to do everything in its power to find a diplomatic resolution to these hostilities before the entire region erupts in war.

“We also remain deeply concerned about the Trump administration’s detainment of Iranian Americans at the border on the basis of national heritage and additional discriminatory actions against our community. We will remain vigilant amid the looming specter of war and safeguard our community’s rights.”

NIAC Statement on Iran’s Decision to Reduce Compliance with Nuclear Deal

In response to reports that Iran would continue to reduce compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issued the following statement:

“The catastrophic ineptitude of President Trump’s maximum pressure strategy is yet again on full display, this time with Iran’s nuclear program. From the assassination of Iran’s IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani to now a further reduction in Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement Trump has worked to unravel, this president’s policies have accelerated the prospects of war, the specter of nuclear proliferation, and instability in the region. At every crossroad where a diplomatic offramp was possible, Trump has chosen self-defeating conflict and inexplicable escalation.

“Despite Trump taking the U.S. very nearly to a point of no return, it appears Iran is still keeping open the prospect of saving the nuclear deal that remains the best vehicle to impose limits on Iran’s nuclear program.  

“Even as it ceases application of its commitments, and amidst threats from the U.S. president that he may bomb Iranian cultural sites, Iran’s announcement appears to be a deliberate step to ensure that the nuclear agreement can remain at least in life support. While nuclear safeguards have been downgraded with this final step, Iran’s professed willingness to continue providing IAEA nuclear inspectors access to its nuclear sites and its continued implementation of the Additional Protocol suggest that even at this reduced state, the JCPOA is still an option on the table for the international community – and perhaps Trump’s successor – to salvage.”

NIAC Condemns Iranian Government’s Harassment of Journalists Abroad

In response to reports that the Iranian government has continued to intimidate and harass Iranian journalists based abroad, particularly those in the United Kingdom, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issued the following statement:

“NIAC is deeply disturbed by reports that the Iranian government is threatening reporters of Persian-language news outlets and their families. We believe in the free flow of information and strongly condemn any intimidation tactics against journalists aimed at suppressing this basic principle. The Iranian government must abide by its international human rights obligations, cease its assault on the press at home and abroad, and free all those arrested for their beliefs and political activism.”

NIAC Statement on the Passage of Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran

In response to the passage of a resolution by the House Foreign Affairs Committee condemning the Iranian government for its human rights abuses, the National Iranian American (NIAC) released the following statement: 

“We are pleased that the resolution passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee condemning the Iranian government’s human rights violations includes a key recommendation calling for the expansion of General License D-1 so that U.S. sanctions do not inhibit the Iranian people’s access to the internet. This is long overdue and we hope that given support from Congress and civil society, including our own outreach, the Treasury Department will move swiftly to implement the recommendation. To truly stand with the Iranian people, we must credibly spotlight and condemn abuses by the Iranian government while also challenging ‘maximum pressure’ policies that have only hurt ordinary Iranians and undermined their ability to seek their rights.”

Amnesty Report: Torture and Detention in Aftermath of Iran Protest Crackdown

In a new report, Amnesty International noted that the death toll for the recent protests in Iran has risen to 304. This number may include many more still not reported or confirmed. In addition to the outrageous death toll, thousands have been injured or detained by Iranian authorities. Many of their fates are still unknown. 

The initial suppression of protests was marked by the use of lethal force, violence, and mass arrest. Notably, the report notes that arrests have continued after protests have abated. These detentions have targeted Iranian activists from across the spectrum, journalists, and students. The mass arrests highlight the arbitrary nature of the incarcerations and show that Iranian authorities are more concerned about containing a populace that is suffering under economic sanctions and the authoritarianism of the state, than with addressing their rightful grievances. 

Amnesty’s report also cites cases of torture and abuse at the hands of the authorities while under arrest. In some cases, Iranian authorities have refused to give any information to the families of detainees, making their whereabouts and conditions unknown. The impact of these shameful measures is felt not only by those unfairly being held and tortured, but by their loved ones in search of answers and justice.

All those detained must be treated according to international law, which prohibits torture and promises due process, and Iran must stop its systematic use of arbitrary detention to tamp down dissent and protests. All people have the right to assemble, protest, and hold to account their government. Iran is no exception, and we continue to call on the government of Iran to fulfill its obligations under international human rights law. 

Amnesty International has also provided a copy of its report in Persian, which can be found here.

NIAC Urges Universities to Extend Admission Deadlines for Iranian Students amidst Internet Shutdown

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, November 21, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org 

Washington DC – President of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), Jamal Abdi, issued the following statement urging universities to extend application deadlines for Iranian nationals in light of the extended Internet shutdown imposed by the Iranian government:

“We ask all university administrators to extend deadlines as necessary to accommodate Iranian nationals seeking admission in light of recent turmoil in Iran. As documented by both human rights organizations and tech companies, the Iranian government has responded to protests with a brutal crackdown and effectively shut down the internet for six days, at the time of publication. Such circumstances render it impossible for Iranian nationals to take standardized tests (reports indicate the administration of tests have been canceled), secure transcripts and send in application materials in advance of forthcoming deadlines. Moreover, there is little clarity as to when the Internet and other basic functions will be restored. Prospective Iranian students should not be further harmed as a result of the gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian government, and we encourage all university administrators to extend all possible accommodations to them.

“NIAC staff stands willing to discuss the situation on the ground with any administrators in order to underscore the importance of extending application deadlines for prospective students.”

NIAC Petitions U.S. Treasury for General License Update to Support Iranians’ Access to Internet

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, November 20, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org 

Washington DC – As the Iranian government implements a near total shutdown of the internet in the midst of a crackdown against widespread protests, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) called on the U.S. Treasury Department to take necessary steps to ensure U.S. sanctions are not contributing to the Iranian government’s ability to disconnect Iranians. Iranian Americans have been unable to communicate with family members during the shutdown and the isolation of Iran due to certain sanctions has unfortunately contributed to the Iranian government’s ability to separate its population from the rest of the world. 

NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement further explaining the rule range request: 

“NIAC is petitioning the Treasury Department for a formal rule change request to expand General License D-1, which has not been updated in more than five years. Over the past several months, Apple, Amazon, Google and many other tech companies have begun blocking Iranians from accessing key software and services as a result of limitations and ambiguities in General License D-1 and escalating U.S. sanctions on Iran. 

“This has forced Iranian developers to rely on Iran’s state-operated internal Internet, which has aided the Iranian government in building this infrastructure and reduced the costs of cutting off outside connections. This also undermines Iranian developers’ ability to work with the global developer community and makes it far more difficult for ordinary Iranians to access and operate virtual private networks and other important communication tools that allow them to communicate freely in spite of government censorship.

“Unfortunately, while General License D-1 was a welcome step to reduce the consequences of sanctions on Internet communications when it was first implemented in 2014, it is in need of clarification and expansion. As indicated by tech companies blocking Iranians from accessing their services, the exemptions contained in General License D-1 have not kept up with the pace of technology or the increasingly complex sanctions regime.

“NIAC strongly supported General License D-1 and has advocated in support of measures to prevent censorship technology from being acquired by Iran’s government and to ensure Iranians have access to communication technology. The formal rule change request is included below, and we look forward to working for its timely adoption.”