There is no shortage of political prisoners incarcerated in Iran’s penitentiaries.

The plight of persecuted Iranians rarely reaches the level of audible background music in Western capitals. However, Canada’s Parliament hosted last week an Iran Accountability Week, which seeks to change the one-dimensional focus on Iran’s illicit nuclear program.

In short, the parliamentarians, according to a 10-point plan released by Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, chairman of the Accountability Week program, aim to “expose, unmask and hold Iran accountable for its critical mass of violations of human rights, and in particular ensure that the ongoing P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran will neither overshadow nor sanitize the Iranian regime’s widespread and systematic violations of human rights.”

Canada’s human rights paradigm recognizes that the wholesale lack of western freedom in the Islamic Republic of Iran should not be decoupled from the nuclear talks.

The efficacy of freedom promotion in Iran has influenced changes in a regime that, historically, has not been terribly worried about killing its citizens for exercising basic civil liberties.

A cornerstone of Canada’s program is for parliamentarians to join forces with their counterparts abroad and “adopt” Iranian political prisoners.

Cotler said that two of the adopted prisoners – Nasrin Sotoudeh and Hamid Ghassemi- Shall – were released.

He said “Political prisoners who escape Iran have consistently said that international attention to their case was their best protection.”

All of this helps to explain why Iran is highly vulnerable to human rights sanctions and public pressure campaigns.

The timing for a Canada-style Iran human rights campaign meshes well with what is unfolding in Iran.

There have been small cracks in Iran’s otherwise highly misogynistic system.

Take last week’s example of the Stealthy Freedom of Iranian Women Facebook page, which shows Iranian women taking off their hijabs and displaying their hair as a sign of protest.

According to the Facebook page, “Iranian women inside the country want to share their ‘stealthily’ taken photos without the veil.”

The women posted selfies of themselves on the Facebook page.

According to media reports, the Facebook page “Stealthy Freedoms of Iranian Women,” has reached 180,000 likes in a two-week period; and it just launched a Twitter micro-blog.

The Stealthy Freedom of Iranian Women campaign is prima facie evidence that large numbers of women yearn for a reorganized Iranian society.

Masih Alinejad, who founded the “Stealthy Freedom of Iranian Women” Facebook page, said: “There is a phrase called guilty pleasures in English, you know, like having a fondness for chocolate when you know it’s not good for you... For me, when I was in Iran, taking my veil off, was like thumbing my nose at authority, especially the authority that was forced upon me.”

“These women are extremely brave because they have posted their photographs on Facebook, which is banned under the law in Iran,” Alinejad told The Washington Post. “They are in a way daring the authorities to arrest them. And with the publicity that the site has received, the pictures of these women are all over the world.”

Canada’s third Iran accountability week included recommendations from Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)  and Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at FDD, to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the plainclothes street thugs, the Basij, as terrorist organizations under Canada's Criminal Code, and for their human rights abuses under Canadian sanctions laws.

Both militias played a critical role in violently repressing democratic protests in 2009 against massive fraud in Iran’s presidential election.

Writing in Canada’s National Post newspaper, which formed a partnership with members of parliament to draw attention to incarcerated political dissidents in Iran, Cotler said: “This also marks the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of Iran’s Baha’i leadership, also known as the Yaran; an execution binge that has seen over 600 executions since the ‘moderate’ Hassan Rouhani ascended to the presidency in August 2013, and over 250 carried out in 2014 alone.”

Cotler stressed the importance of spotlighting the “continuing unjust imprisonment of more than 900 prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, including women, human rights defenders, ethnic and religious leaders, journalists, bloggers, students and trade union leaders – in short, the leaders of Iranian civil society – many [of who are] under threat of execution.”

The US, which initiated human rights sanctions in 2010 against Iranian figures who violently repressed protests in 2009, has been silent. Since Rouhani’s election in 2013, the US has not imposed human rights sanctions.

Iran’s regime is extraordinarily sensitive to human rights pressure.

If past is prologue, a broad-based human rights campaign, modeled on Canada – particularly its “Adopt Iranian political prisoner” tactic, could save lives.

Benjamin Weinthal reports on European affairs for
The Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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