FPI Fact Sheet: Under Rouhani, Iran’s Extremism Persists

October 29, 2014

President Hassan Rouhani has failed to fulfill his pledges to promote “equal civil rights” in Iran and advance a “constructive approach to diplomacy.” Instead, he has presided over a regime that continues to support wide-ranging political repression, religious persecution, and global terrorism. In the most recent high-profile abuse, Tehran on Saturday executed a 26-year-old woman for killing the man she said attempted to rape her, defying sustained international pressure for her release and spurning charges that the regime had elicited her confession by force.

This fact sheet highlights some of the regime’s ongoing human rights abuses and support for terrorism under Rouhani, who assumed Iran’s presidency in August 2013 amid Western optimism that his conciliatory rhetoric would herald improved relations.

I. Overview

President Rouhani has broken his promises to promote moderation and reform in Iran. As Dr. Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated in congressional testimony in June 2014, “The picture is bleak. … We must never forget that Iran’s government remains a theocratic dictatorship which wages war against its people’s fundamental rights.” In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Rouhani rejected his calls for reform. “Earlier today I met with President Rouhani,” Cameron said. “We have severe disagreements. Iran’s support for terrorist organizations, its nuclear program, its treatment of its people. All these need to change.”

  • Rouhani said that all Iranians “should feel they’re the citizens of one country and enjoy equal rights,” but the regime continues to oppress its people. As United Against Nuclear Iran, a non-profit and non-partisan advocacy group, noted, “Political dissidents, human rights activists, labor leaders, women, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, students and anybody who is seen as a threat to the regime are routinely detained incommunicado and beaten, raped, lashed and subjected to inhumane forms of physical and psychological torture.”
  • Rouhani promised to combat “violence and extremism,” but Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. Iran, which has remained on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror since 1984, supports terror or terrorist enablers in Southeast Asia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East at large.

II. Executions

Under Rouhani, Iran routinely executes and tortures prisoners to advance its radical Islamist ideology, deter political opponents, and persecute ethnic and religious minorities. “President Rouhani has attempted to cast himself as a mild-mannered reformist figure, but the brutal reality is that Iran is hanging an average of two prisoners a day, the vast majority after unfair trials,” said Allan Hogarth, the head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty International, in September 2014. Moreover, under Rouhani, homosexuality, drug possession, and apostasy are capital crimes.

  • Since Rouhani took office in August 2013, Iran has executed more than 1,000 people, with some 600 executions in 2014 alone. According to Iran Human Rights (IHR), “the number of executions in the six months after his election is twice as high as the number in the corresponding period before the election.”
  • Under Rouhani, Iranian law permits the execution of juvenile offenders. According to an October 2014 report by a coalition of organizations that advocates for human rights in Iran, “The new penal code explicitly defines the ‘age of criminal responsibility’ for children as the age of maturity under shari’a law, meaning that girls over nine years of age and boys over fifteen years of age are eligible for execution if convicted of ‘crimes against God’ (such as apostasy) or ‘retribution crimes’ (such as ‘intentional murder’). … Iran executes more juvenile offenders than any other country in the world.”
  • Under Rouhani, the regime often uses torture to extract confessions from prisoners. As Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, stated in an October 2014 report, prisoners experienced “prolonged solitary confinement, mock executions and the threat of rape, along with physical abuse, including severe beatings, use of suspension and pressure positions, electroshock and burnings.”

III. Domestic Repression

Rouhani said that Iran is “one of the most tranquil, secure and stable nations” in the Middle East, but the regime’s policies have made Iran precisely the opposite. In a June 2014 report, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran highlighted “the continuation of the practice of torture; the denial of due process throughout the Iranian judicial system; the lack of freedom of speech, association, or assembly (and in particular, the right to dissent); the pervasive ill treatment in the Iranian prison system; … the lack of accountability—indeed impunity—of government officials implicated in gross human rights violations; … and Iran’s lack of cooperation with international human rights mechanisms.”

  • Rouhani called for free speech in Iran, but Tehran continues to imprison journalists, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. “The way journalists are being treated puts everything journalism should stand for at risk in Iran,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa programme director at Amnesty International, in August 2014. “Anyone deemed critical of the authorities has been at increased risk of arrest and prosecution in recent months, creating an intense climate of fear where voicing any criticism has become a direct road to prison.”
  • Rouhani said that Internet censorship “does not work,” but such censorship continues under his watch. As the U.N.’s Ahmed Shaheed stated in July 2014, “Millions of websites are blocked in Iran. … Almost 50% of the top five-hundred visited websites in the world are blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.”
  • Rouhani said, “Women should enjoy equal opportunities, security, and social rights,” but he has taken no meaningful steps to improve women’s status. According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2014, “Iranian women face discrimination in many areas including personal status matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody.” Women are treated as second-class citizens: They cannot enter public stadiums, must adhere to dress codes, face restricted access to employment, and can be forced into marriage as children. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate decision-maker in Iran, has said that gender equality is “one of the biggest mistakes of Western thought.”
  • Rouhani proclaimed, “All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice,” but Iran continues its persecution of the Bahá’ís, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. According to a September 2014 report by the Bahá’í International Community, “The constant threat of raids, arrests, and detention or imprisonment has been among the main features of Iran’s persecution of Bahá’ís over the last decade — and it continues today, despite … promises by President Hassan Rouhani to end discrimination on the basis of religion.”

IV. Global Terrorism

Rouhani asserted that he opposes terrorism “no matter who it is taking place against,” but Iran continues to support terrorist groups throughout the globe, leaving death and chaos in their wake. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stated in March 2014 congressional testimony that Iran considers its “use of terrorism as a tool of foreign policy, one which is no more and no less legitimate than any other tool in its national toolkit.”

  • Rouhani said, “All of us should work to push terrorists out of Syria,” but Iran has supported the regime of Bashar Assad, which has killed more than 190,000 people to date in a bloody civil war. As Scott Modell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies stated in congressional testimony in July 2014, “Iran’s military intervention in Syria turned the tide of the war and prevented the collapse of the Assad regime. By siding with Assad, Iran has inflamed sectarian divisions across the region, leading to an unprecedented flow of Sunni foreign fighters into Syria and surrounding countries.”
  • Rouhani affirmed his support for Iran’s proxy Hezbollah, which has killed more Americans than any terrorist group other than Al Qaeda and operates a global terrorist network, and for Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction. In a September 2014 press conference, Rouhani even claimed that neither organization constitutes a terrorist group.
  • Rouhani said Iran in no way “seeks to control other Muslim countries in the region,” but Tehran’s support for terrorist groups throughout the Middle East paints a different picture. Iran funds or otherwise supports terrorist groups that operate in neighboring regimes — including Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria.

V. U.S. Policy toward Iran

  • The United States should adopt a comprehensive policy toward Iran that both seeks to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and pressures it to halt its human rights abuses. As 38 lawmakers said in a bipartisan, bicameral letter to President Obama in May 2014, “The United States’ current engagement with Iran provides an unprecedented opportunity to emphasize and elevate the human rights situation in Iran. We urge you to seize this opportunity and to ensure that, whatever the nature and scope of the U.S. dialogue with Iran, human rights issues are a consistent and vital element of the conversation.”
  • The Obama administration and Congress should speak out publicly against Iranian human rights abuses at every available opportunity. The administration erred when it failed to support the Green Revolution in 2009. Such silence emboldens America’s enemies and discourages oppressed people everywhere who seek U.S. support. The United States should instead work to sanction key human rights abusers in Iran and support Iranians seeking to promote freedom and democracy.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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