Foreign Policy Initiative/Freedom House Analysis: The Green Movement Returns

March 31, 2011

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The Islamic Republic of Iran claims that organized dissent has disappeared and that its rule is unquestioned. The state-controlled media denounces anti-regime protestors as “hypocrites, monarchists, thugs, and seditionists,” and insisted that the brave Iranians on the streets demanding their rights on March 1st were merely out shopping for Nowruz, the Persian New Year. These claims are important because the regime wants to demonstrate that the United States and its Middle Eastern allies have no choice but to accept Iran’s domestic, regional and nuclear ambitions. The recent eruption of unrest in Iran in response to similar protests across the Middle East proves that discontent remains widespread in the country and that, contrary to the predictions of many, the Green Movement is still very much alive.

The foundation of the Islamic Republic’s ambitions is an increasingly brutal and well-funded police state with sophisticated surveillance capabilities. The latest regime tactic is to crush the opposition by imprisoning dissidents, isolating the prisoners and their families, and breaking the prisoners physically and psychologically.

The Islamic Republic’s tactics are reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s: imprisoning and torturing lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists; handing down unjust and long sentences after televised show trials and forced confessions; and exiling dissidents internally to prisons far from their homes and families. The Iranian regime has, in Soviet fashion, been creating an atmosphere of fear by imprisoning even those simply doing their jobs, especially lawyers and journalists. For example, the Iranian government recently sentenced Nasrin Sotoudeh, the lawyer of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, to 12 years in prison, to be followed by a 20-year ban on her leaving Iran and on practicing law. Following her trial, the regime arrested Ms. Sotoudeh’s husband and her lawyer.

These brave Iranians are the 21st century equivalent of Soviet dissidents and political prisoners. We should express our support for the regime’s political prisoners and their families by raising their cases and condemning the regime’s actions against them just as President Ronald Reagan did for Soviet dissidents during the Cold War.

It is important to remember that the setbacks suffered by the Iranian opposition since the fraudulent Presidential election of June 2009 do not mean that Iranians are now content with the current regime. As events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and even Syria demonstrate, and recent Iranian demonstrations reinforce, discontent can exist for decades before erupting unexpectedly. In Iran, the regime crushed dissent following the June 2009 election by using lethal force daily against peaceful protestors. The absence of daily mass demonstrations today is no surprise given that after the June 2009 election the regime arrested over 4,000 people, imprisoned and tortured hundreds, and more recently began a massive execution program. According to Canadian parliamentarian and human rights lawyer, Irwin Cotler, Iran started 2011 executing at “a rate of about one person every eight hours.”

Unfortunately, in the nearly two years since June 2009, international attention to and interest in the plight of ordinary Iranians has waned.  Now, with the significant transformation underway elsewhere in the region, there is a danger that Western policymakers will be tempted to once again ignore the difficult case of Iran and instead work to support the uncertain transitions underway in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the region. But this ignores a central point. It is likely only a matter of time until Iran follows the path of its neighbors. 

Democratic change in Iran would not automatically resolve all outstanding political issues, but would go a long way toward addressing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions. It is thus in the interest of the United States to do everything in its power to ensure that Iran’s continued gross violations of human rights do not continue to be ignored by the international community.

A new approach:

  • Years of indirect and direct negotiations involving the United States, European Union, and United Nations, have failed to resolve the nuclear issue. The Islamic Republic has repeatedly shown a complete lack of seriousness in the nuclear negotiations. It is time to seek new approaches to pressuring the Iranian government to meet its international obligations.
  • We need to tell the Islamic Republic clearly that we will not continue to ignore its repeated human rights violations. We can do this by stealing the regime’s clothing on the issue of justice and human rights. Iranians are tired of hearing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talking about the Palestinians while ignoring his own regime’s human rights violations. We need to support that sentiment and change the subject to human rights in Iran.
  • The human rights issue is the conversation Iran does not want to have. The case for human rights is unanswerable. Unlike the nuclear issue, the Iranian regime cannot obfuscate. Human rights are an issue of principle, not of interest, around which many countries can rally. The UN Human Rights Council's vote on March 24 to establish a Special Rapporteur to investigate Iran is a positive development.

Facts on the ground:

  • The situation in Iran has become much worse since the fraudulent June 2009 elections, as the Islamic Republic continues to try to instill fear in its population.  Iranian democracy and human rights activists want and need our support.
  • In the past, doubts have been expressed about Iranian democracy activists’ desire to cooperate with the United States.  However, U.S.-funded programs have never wanted for Iranians willing to work with them. Furthermore, the Islamic regime has always accused its opponents and dissidents of working for the United States and other foreign powers. The democratic world should not let Iranian regime propaganda prevent our assisting Iranian activists who want our support.
  • The number of imprisoned journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists rapidly increased in 2010.
  • Reporters Without Borders reported in December 2010 that: “The number of journalists now detained in the Islamic Republic of Iran now stands at 37, which makes it the world’s biggest prison for the media.”
  • In January 2011, more than six political prisoners were executed and at least 90 other executions were carried out. This prompted the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and UN experts to call for a moratorium on executions.
  • Though the regime denies having political prisoners, activists have been able to identify at least 1,000 languishing in Iranian prisons.  

The United States can help by:

1.  Reiterating the connection between the international community’s lack of trust in the Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its atrocious human rights record:

  • Repeatedly and relentlessly raise Iranian human rights violations, whether in bilateral diplomacy or in international fora:
  • A primary reason we talk of an Iranian threat is because a regime that proudly murders its own people in public is similarly unhesitant about exporting terrorism to Austria, Argentina, France, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey, and threatening to destroy Israel.

2.  Supporting political prisoner campaigns & refugee advocacy: 

  • Press for the release of political prisoners and ask that Iran hold the perpetrators of human rights abuses to account.
  • Support further sanctions against individual regime human rights abusers, similar to those from September 2010, which were authorized through the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010.
  • Adopt prisoners and make statements on their behalf. In particular, the United States and its allies shoulddemand a moratorium on executions in Iran.  In this regard, President Obama’s naming of imprisoned human rights activists Nasrin Sotoudeh, Jafar Panahi, Abdolreza Tajik, and Mohammad Valian, in his 2011 Nowruz message was a positive development.

3.  Promoting digital security efforts

  • Help provide digital platforms to distribute training material and software to assist Iranian dissidents and offset their weaknesses in the face of regime repression.
  • Encourage the U.S. Treasury Department to work with technology companies and non-governmental organizations to ensure that sanctions remain targeted on the regime and not non-governmental Iranian internet and technology users.
  • Ensure that the State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor allocates ample funds to internet freedom and digital security for Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has had 31 years to prove that it can be a responsible international actor. It has repeatedly failed. An Iran that abides by basic norms of human rights and representative government is more likely to pursue its national interests lawfully and rationally and is less likely to waste its national resources on exporting violence and on nuclear weapons. The events of recent months show that it is only a matter of time before Iran goes the way of Egypt, Tunisia, and others in the region. The Iranian people will one day, hopefully soon, be free. It is in the strategic and moral interest of the United States to make sure that this happens as soon as possible.

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