Washington, DC – Old habits are difficult to break. After years of almost singularly focusing on the nuclear issue, the west has been slow to react to the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. While United Nations Security Council members are preparing new sanctions over the nuclear issue, the UN has yet to address Iran’s human rights abuses since the fraudulent elections last summer.
Now more than ever, the narrow nuclear focus must be set aside and renewed attention given to the state of human rights in Iran. It is literally a matter of life and death.
On January 28, Mohammad-Reza Ali-Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour were executed for the capital crime of moharebeh, or “taking up arms against God”. Though the Iranian authorities claimed that the two were involved in anti-government protests following the election dispute, Rahmanipour’s lawyer points out he was arrested a month before the elections.
His lawyer was prevented from representing him at his show trial in July and was shocked at the news of the executions, as she was still waiting for word from the appeals court. His father heard about his son’s execution on television.
Nine other activists have been convicted of moharebeh and are awaiting execution. Hundreds more await trial, though they are denied access to legal representation. Several leaders of the persecuted Bahai minority are also on trial, accused of spying.
Seeking to discourage Iran’s Green Movement from taking to the streets on Thursday, the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution, hardline elements within the government have introduced a bill to speed up executions.
The international community should not sit idly by as the Iranian government violates its obligations to uphold human rights. A special session at the UN Human Rights Council should be called immediately to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Iran.
The pressure by hardliners to execute more prisoners is clearly political in nature. Even the head of the Iranian judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, recognised them as such. “These demands are political in nature and are against the law and sharia,” he said last week. An international spotlight on the situation in Iran would strengthen pushback against the hardliners who champion violence and abuses.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Iranian authorities are sensitive to criticism of human rights. This is largely driven by Iran’s ambition to be recognised as a regional leader.
The very nature of the revolution drives this impulse. Three decades ago, it was Iran – not Washington – which spoke of regime change. The victorious revolutionaries sought to export the revolution to neighbouring countries with the aim of recreating the Middle East in their own image.
Tehran’s efforts failed abysmally. No other country followed Tehran’s lead, and by the early 1990s, it was clear that Iran’s own revolution was in trouble. Iran was broke, war-torn, isolated, and starved of international investment. A leader it was not.
Reacting to these realities, Tehran adopted a new approach. Rather than exporting the revolution, Iran should become a model Islamic state that others would aspire to emulate.
But countries aiming for leadership roles have no choice but to safeguard their records. Just as the Iranian government’s violent reactions to election protests further de-legitimised it at home, international focus on Iran’s abuses will serve to weaken its regional leadership credentials.
Tehran knows this. This is partly why Tehran spends diplomatic capital seeking to water down resolutions condemning its human rights record at international bodies. It is also why it is quick to deflect attention from its own record by criticising Washington’s abuses and Israeli violations.
Contrast this to the behaviour of North Korea or Myanmar, which mostly ignore condemnation of their human rights records.
Criticism of Iran’s human rights record should not be confused with interference in Iran’s internal affairs. As a signatory to numerous conventions, Iran has a legal obligation to uphold human rights – and the international community has an obligation to speak up when it fails to do so.
Tehran’s sensitivity about its record makes it vulnerable. Rather than focusing purely on new sanctions – which more often than not hurt the people rather than the government – the international community must bring Iran’s human rights abuses into focus.
Trita Parsi is President of the National Iranian American Council and recipient of the 2010 Grawmeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. This op-ed was first pub-lished by the Financial Times.