The latest round of negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program resume in
Geneva against the backdrop of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “charm
offensive” and raised expectations of a prospective agreement. Indeed, one US
official went so far as to claim enthusiastically that he had “never had such
intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian
However, while negotiations will clearly focus on
Iran’s nuclear program – and on economic sanctions that may be relaxed in
exchange for Iranian concessions on the nuclear front – the United States and
its allies must ensure that nuclear negotiations do not overshadow – let alone
sanitize – the massive domestic repression in Iran.
Indeed, when the US
negotiated an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975, it did not
turn a blind eye to the USSR’s human rights abuses; instead, the Helsinki Final
Act linked the security, economics, and human rights “baskets,” with human
rights emerging as the most transformative of the three. Negotiations with Iran
should replicate this approach.
What follows is an inventory of serious
human rights abuses in Iran, and a corresponding set of queries that will serve
as a litmus test for the authenticity of Rouhani’s commitment to justice and
human rights for the Iranian people.
Prior to Rouhani’s
rise to power, Iran had the highest per capita execution rate in the world. Yet,
under the new “moderate” President, the rate of executions has actually
increased, with some 100 Iranians executed in the first month after Rouhani’s
election, 30 executed during the week of his “charm offensive” at the United
Nations – a fact that was largely ignored – and a recent wave of executions
that, shockingly enough, has seen more than 45 prisoners executed since October
26. Moreover, many prisoners are killed by the regime in secret, such that the
true number of executions is almost certainly higher.
Query: Will Rouhani
declare a moratorium on executions?
The UN Special Rapporteur on
Human Rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed – with whom I met recently – has
documented the horrific treatment that Iranian prisoners endure.
has found that physical torture, including beating, whipping, and assault,
occurs in 100% of cases; sexual torture, including rape, molestation, and
violence to genitals, occurs in 60% of cases; and psychological and
environmental torture, such as solitary confinement, are also “highly
Query: Will Rouhani put an end to the widespread use of
torture by Iranian officials?
3. Political prisoners
According to reports, there
are hundreds of political prisoners currently detained in Iran. Among them are
the leadership of ethnic and religious minorities, human rights defenders,
students, journalists, bloggers, artists, trade unionists, members of the
political opposition and various other leaders of Iranian civil society. As
Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi put it, “Nearly all of the opposition
activists in prison before Rouhani was elected are still in prison.” In the
leadup to Rouhani’s appearance at the UN, nearly 100 political prisoners were
freed, including iconic human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. However, while
their release is a welcome development, it is not enough to free individual
prisoners; the system that criminalizes innocence must be reformed, and those
that prosecute and persecute the innocent must be held to account. It is
therefore outrageous that Rouhani’s appointee as Justice Minister is Mostafa
Pour-Mohammadi, a man implicated in a litany of major human rights violations,
including the 1988 massacre of 5,000 political prisoners. Indeed, the families
of these victims – with whom I recently met – were stunned not only by his
appointment, but by the international silence with which it was
Query: Will Rouhani release the remaining political prisoners,
and will he stop detaining new ones?
4. Persecution of the Baha’i
observers have repeatedly recognized the systematic and widespread persecution
of Iran’s Baha’i religious minority. Earlier this year, UNESCO found that the
Baha’i “face widespread and entrenched discrimination, including denial of
access to employment in the public sector, institutions of higher education, as
well as to benefits of the pension system.” Indeed, the Baha’i are routinely
imprisoned for practicing their faith, and seven Baha’i leaders recently began
their sixth year of a twenty-year sentence, which for some amounts to a death
sentence, given their advanced age. Moreover, despite President Rouhani’s
rhetorical overtures for greater tolerance, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Khameini issued a fatwa last month calling on Iranians to avoid any interactions
with members of the Baha’i faith, whom he described as “deviant and
Query: Will Rouhani end the persecution of the Baha’i? Will
he accept them as full members of Iranian society and allow them to openly
practice their faith?
5. Persecution of other religious and ethnic minorities
The Iranian state incites hatred and violence against many minorities, violating
their political, social, religious, economic, cultural, linguistic and
educational rights. Among other abuses, minority schools and houses of worship
have been closed or destroyed, restrictions have been imposed on both the public
and private use of minority languages, and members of minority groups – such as
the Baloch, Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, and Christians – have been imprisoned on
spurious charges such as “spreading corruption on earth.”
Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini – sentenced on trumped-up charges to eight
years in jail – has just been transferred to a more dangerous prison where he
faces life-threatening conditions.
Query:Will Rouhani end the oppression
6. Persecution of women
While Rouhani has spoken eloquently of
gender equality – and Article 20 of the Iranian constitution purports to protect
it – women face widespread and systematic discrimination in education,
employment, state benefits, family relations and access to justice.
Iranian civil code compels women to obey their husbands, married women may not
leave the country without their husbands’ consent, and there is a dearth of
women in decision-making roles.
Query:Will Rouhani follow through on his
promise to improve women’s rights, ensure gender equality, and establish Iran’s
first Ministry of Women?
7. Persecution of lesbian and gay people
criminalizes samesex relations and allows the courts wide discretion in
determining sentences, which can include corporal and capital punishment. As Dr.
Shaheed has reported, many LGBT Iranians are victims of discrimination and
violence, but do not report their victimization to the authorities out of fear
that they will themselves be charged with a criminal offence.
Rouhani decriminalize same-sex relations and end discrimination on the basis of
sexual orientation and gender identity?
8. The Persecution of Journalists and
the Assault on Free Speech
Iran continues to be one of the countries with the
largest number of imprisoned journalists in the world, regularly arresting
journalists and bloggers, and imprisoning them without charge or trial. When
charges are laid, they may include such absurd accusations as “propagating
against the system” or “insulting the President.” In addition, many journalists
report that the regime intimidates and harasses their families in an effort to
pressure them into discontinuing their work. The lead-up to last June’s election
was marked by the monitoring and censoring of internet activity, the blocking of
access to opposition websites and e-mail accounts, and a roundup of members of
the press. The most recent manifestation of the pressure borne by Iranian
journalists was this week’s closure of the Bahar newspaper.
President Rouhani stop detaining journalists and permit free expression and
freedom of the press, including criticism of his regime?
9. Assault on the rule
of law and the independence of the judiciary
There is a complete absence of
judicial independence and rule of law in Iran. Indeed, the entire legal system
is designed to enable and enforce the regime’s massive human rights
Lawyers who have represented prisoners of conscience have had
their licenses revoked and have often become political prisoners themselves;
nine major government ministries responsible for the rule of law and the
administration of justice have become sanctuaries for the human rights violators
themselves; and Dr. Shaheed estimates that some 40 lawyers have been
detained since 2009. Any hopes that matters would improve under Rouhani appear
to have been confounded by the appointment of Pour-Mohammadi as Justice
Minister, as well as Elham Aminzadeh – a long-time apologist for Iran’s human
rights record – as Vice President for Legal Affairs.
Query: Will Rouhani
ensure respect for the rule of law, accountability for the nine ministries, and
the independence of the Iranian justice system? Will he release any lawyers
still detained? And will he allow lawyers – including Nasrin Sotoudeh – to
champion the cases and causes they choose?
10. Denial of political rights
June, Rouhani defeated five other candidates to win the Iranian presidency;
however, 680 potential candidates were barred from the ballot, including all of
the women who tried to run. According to the Iranian constitution, the president
must be a man who believes in “the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran
and official religion of the country.” Moreover, in advance of the election, the
regime sought to intimidate opposition leaders and activists with arrests and a
crackdown on political expression, such that the election cannot be claimed to
be free or fair, even if the most “moderate” candidate was
Query: Will Rouhani honour his promise to hold elections that
are truly free and fair?
11. Incitement to genocide
In September, days before
speaking at the UN, Rouhani addressed a parade in Tehran that included a display
of Shahab-3 missiles, featuring messages such as “Death to the USA” and “Israel
should cease to exist.”
While Rouhani’s rhetoric for international
consumption is admittedly less inflammatory than that of his predecessor, the
Supreme Leader’s annihilationist incitement remains, and Rouhani is implicated
Query:Will Rouhani cease and desist from this state-sanctioned
culture of hate, explicitly and implicitly, at home and abroad? 1
12. A culture of
Dr. Shaheed has found that “a lack of Government investigation and
redress generally fosters a culture of impunity” in Iran. The nomination of
Pour-Mohammadi is a revealing and indeed scandalous example of the continuation
of that culture under Rouhani, as is that of Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan,
who has ties to Hezbollah and has been implicated in the 1983 bombing of the US
Marine barracks in Beirut. Moreover, several members of the new cabinet –
including Rouhani himself – have spent time at Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence
and Security, which suppresses dissent, spies on Iranian expatriates abroad,
supports Hezbollah, and carries out kidnappings and extrajudicial
Query: Will Rouhani end the culture of impunity of Iran? In
particular, will Rouhani remove Pour-Mohammadi from office and ensure that he is
held accountable for his crimes?
In the end, the fact that Rouhani’s rhetoric is
less incendiary than that of his predecessor is welcome, but it should not in
itself be cause for complacency, let alone celebration. Neither should any
openness – or perceived openness – on the nuclear file overshadow Iran’s
continuing violations of human rights. Rouhani’s deeds – not his words – will be
the test of his commitment to a free Iran.
Irwin Cotler is co-chair of
the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran and Liberal Vice-Chair of
Parliament’s Subcommittee on International Human Rights.