Washington DC – The tragic suicide of Siamak Pourzand, after a decade of detention and harassment by the Iranian regime, reminded the world once again of the dreadful situation of human rights in Iran that is often overshadowed by the country’s nuclear program.
Nearly one year later, prominent journalists and human rights defenders including Pourzand’s wife, Mehrangiz Kar, convened in Washington for a conference on human rights and democracy in Iran in honor of the prominent Iranian journalist and human rights activist. The event was sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
A topic on the minds of many was why the so-called Arab Awakening succeeded while Iran’s century-long struggle for democracy stalled once again after the 2009 protests.
Former Italian ambassador to Iran Roberto Toscano pointed to the social dimension of the Arab uprising. The Arab uprising, he said, achieved greater socially diversity than Iran’s Green Movement, which was mainly comprised of the upper middle class.
Karim Sadjadpour said that, unlike Syria, where “close to ten thousands civilians have been killed and yet they are still going out and protesting,” in Iran “you are in a somewhat post-Islamist society and you are striving for some sort of democracy—it’s a little more difficult to get people to get onto the streets and get killed for the cause.”
In addition to numerous references to demographic, cultural and historical differences between Iranian and Arab societies, panelists highlighted Iran’s oil revenues as another distinctive feature of the Iranian case. They noted that petrodollars have been used by the regime to buy loyalty and silence opponents.
Journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari’s said that Iranians do not seek a sudden change and are afraid of chaos. Former Tehran correspondent for the New York Times Nazila Fathi added that, with little clear alternative to the current regime, the fear of institutional breakdown is extremely high given Iran’s experience following 1979.
Fathi also said that Iranian government was much more prepared to deal with street protests than Arab states, none of which had gone through regime change and had militia forces like the Basij. As Bahari said, Basijis are willing to get killed and to kill for Khamenei and this has made his regime much stronger.
It was made clear by the panelists that, despite its isolation in the real world, the Iranian population is very active in the virtual world and well-connected through social networks and online media.
However, some noted, communication is getting more and more difficult for ordinary Iranians due not just to the Iranian government’s cyber repression, but sanctions. “The sanctions have made communications very complicated,” said Fathi. “Iranians cannot even buy Skype credits to speak on safe lines. They cannot get the satellite internet that is over Iranian sky because of the sanctions.”
But there were also hopeful notes. Panelists touched upon Iran’s readiness for female leadership, which well-known Iranian musician and singer Arash Sobhani described as a civil rights issue rather than a political one. With women in Iranian becoming more educated and socially active, panelists said Iranian society is increasingly open to female leadership.
Journalist Omid Memarian cast light on a number of indicators of an ongoing cultural shift in Iran. The emerging public discourse of human rights, he said, has shifted to issues that used to be taboo, including the rights of Baha’is and gays.
Taking all into account, the sentiment was that it is an erroneous oversimplification to compare the Green Movement to the Arab uprising. To paraphrase ambassador Toscano, the awakening in the Arab word may have come more rapidly, but the changes have been to some extent superficial; when change comes to Iran, it will be more profound.