The Four-fold Threat

Presenting a harrowing report on Tehran’s crimes at home and abroad, Irwin Cotler presses for effective sanctions to bring Ahmadinejad’s Iran to its knees.

Iranian Repression311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Iranian Repression311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
FOR THE PAST SEVERAL years Irwin Cotler has been going around the world single-mindedly making the case against “Ahmadinejad’s Iran,” a term he uses to distinguish Iran’s regime from its people.
In recent weeks, Cotler, a Liberal member of the Canadian Parliament and a former attorney general and minister of justice, met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as well as with government leaders and parliamentarians in the US, Germany, Austria, Israel and several other countries, to advocate stronger action against the Iranian regime’s continuing violations of international law and human rights in four key areas: its nuclear weapons program, its links to international terror, its incitement to genocide and its violent domestic repression.
Last year, in the Canadian Parliament, Cotler initiated detailed parliamentary hearings on the Iranian violations. In parallel, he organized “The Responsibility to Prevent Coalition,” a group of like-minded academics, politicians and freedom activists. The result, a 134-page document entitled “The Danger of a Nuclear, Genocidal and Rights-Violating Iran: The Responsibility to Prevent Petition,” which is largely based on the parliamentary hearings and is endorsed by some 100 international law scholars, human rights advocates, former government leaders, parliamentarians and Iranian freedom activists.
This is probably the most up-to-date and comprehensive public report on Iranian violations in all four areas. Presented by Cotler at a news conference in Jerusalem in mid-July, the 134-page report contains new and disturbing witness testimony, and calls on states and international bodies to heed their legal obligations to hold Ahmadinejad’s Iran to account.
In Cotler’s view, time is fast running out and things are not getting any better. On the contrary, he says, since Ahmadinejad’s return to power after the rigged June 2009 presidential election, there has been a dramatic deterioration, especially in two of the four areas of concern: Iran’s nuclear weapons drive has been accelerated, and the post-election crackdown on domestic dissent increased the rate and the scope of beatings, incarcerations, tortures and executions.
IN PRESENTING THE REPORT, Cotler argues that one of the cardinal mistakes the international community is making is to focus exclusively on Iran’s illicit nuclear program. This deflects attention from and “sanitizes” the other major Iranian violations, and ignores the link between the various threats, for example, between Iran’s potential possession of a nuclear bomb and its incitement to genocide against Israel.
“We need a comprehensive set of remedies and sanctions to combat the four-fold critical mass of threat,” he declares.
Another major problem, in Cotler’s view, is that so far sanctions “have been honored more in the breach than in the observance.”
For example, between 1999 and 2009, the US awarded $107 billion in contracts to firms trading with Iran while sanctions were in place, $15 billion of which went to firms in the oil industry. The aim, therefore, is to get much stiffer sanctions in place, strictly enforced by all participating countries, and directed specifically at each of the four threats. If all these conditions pertain, Cotler believes Ahmadinejad’s Iran can be stopped without the West having to resort to force.
But will sanctions be enough to prevent a determined fundamentalist Iranian regime bent on regional hegemony from producing a nuclear bomb? What more can the international community do short of force against the fourfold Iranian threat? And, given the ruthless, repressive nature of the regime, what chance does the opposition Green Movement, spawned by last year’s vote rigging, have of effecting regime change from below? The “Responsibility to Prevent” report catalogues a long list of Iranian abuses in all four areas. On the nuclear threat, it argues that Iran is well on the way to producing a bomb which would further its hegemonic ambitions and destabilize the region. With a bomb, even if it didn’t use it, Iran would be able to extend its influence, engage in political blackmail, interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring oil countries and prevent the resolution of conflicts.
According to Bassem Eid, founder and executive director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, the Iranians are already playing a major spoiler role on the Israeli-Palestinian front through their Hamas proxies in Gaza. For example, he maintains that when Israel and Hamas were just a hairsbreadth away from a deal to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Iran stepped in to torpedo it.
Moreover, he says, Iran is preventing Egypt from achieving reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas that could pave the way for more meaningful peace talks with Israel. “Iran will never ever allow anyone from the Hamas government – not [Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled] Mashal, [Hamas Gaza leader Ismail] Haniyeh or [senior Hamas official Mahmoud] A-Zahar – to reach any kind of reconciliation with Fatah,” Eid, a signatory to the Responsibility to Prevent report, asserts at the Jerusalem news conference. If Iran were to have a bomb, that kind of subversive influence would be even more difficult to counter.
On the terror front, the report highlights the fact that the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was behind the bombing of the Jewish AMIA Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1994, in which 85 people were killed and 300 wounded, and cites this as another reason for international sanctions against the IRGC and its leaders. The report also notes that Ahmad Vahidi, then head of the IRGC, is now Iran’s defense minister, and in charge of its nuclear weapons program. This raises a chilling question: If Iran were to develop nuclear weaponry, would Vahidi keep terrorists from acquiring a “dirty bomb?” ACCORDING TO COTLER, WHO as minister of justice and attorney general of Canada prosecuted Rwandans for genocidal incitement, the state-sanctioned incitement to genocide against Israel in Ahmadinejad’s Iran is stronger. Moreover, he says, it comes not “just from a bunch of extremists, it comes from the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it comes from Ahmadinejad, and it comes from the Revolutionary Guards.” In his view, the international community has singularly failed to address the problem, with potentially horrific consequences. “The enduring lesson of the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur is that these genocides occurred not simply because of the machinery of death, but because of state-sanctioned incitement to genocide… The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers; it began with words. And we are not paying attention to this state-sanctioned incitement to genocide and to these words,” he insists.
In its incitement to genocide, the Iranian regime has gone through the full gamut of impugning Israel’s legitimacy as a state and that of the Jews as a nation. Ahmadinejad has denigrated Israel as “a false regime,” and Israelis as “an invented people.” Israel has been disparaged by Iranian leaders as “a cancerous tumor” and Jews as “a filthy germ.” In other words, Israel has been delegitimized and Jews dehumanized to justify their destruction.
Ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, Iranian leaders have kept up a persistent barrage of threatening, genocidal language. Two striking examples: “There is only one solution to the Middle East problem, namely the annihilation and destruction of the Jewish state,” Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei declared in January 2001, and at the “World Without Zionism” conference in Tehran in October 2005, Ahmadinejad insisted that “the occupying [Israeli] regime must be wiped off the map.”
The leadership’s aggressive tone is often echoed in the Iranian press: “The nation of Muslims must prepare for the great war, so as to completely wipe out the Zionist regime and remove this cancerous growth. As the Imam Khomeini said, Israel must collapse,” the pro-regime Resalat newspaper wrote in an editorial in October 2006. And in February of this year, Khamenei warned that Israel’s “obliteration is certain,” and Ahmadinejad threatened that Israel will be “finished off… once and for all.” In Cotler’s mind, there is no doubt that Iran has already committed the crime of state-sanctioned incitement to genocide under the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Moreover, he points out that state parties to the 1948 convention are obligated to take action against Iran for doing so. “It is not optional,” he says at the news conference.
“Yet not one state party to the genocide convention, not the US, not my country Canada, not any EU country, has undertaken any of the mandated legal remedies under the convention to combat or prevent this threat,” he complains.
The closest anyone came to taking legal action was through an initiative launched in 2006 by Israel’s former UN ambassador, Dore Gold, and a group of retired diplomats.
They prepared a detailed indictment against Ahmadinejad on charges of incitement to genocide and set about getting state support for its submission to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Significantly, a February 2007 conference they organized in the British House of Commons was attended by then-Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and in its wake 67 members of Parliament supported an early day motion calling on the British government to press through the UN Security Council for Ahmadinejad’s indictment for incitement to commit genocide. A similar event at the New York Bar Association received the endorsement of then-senator Hillary Clinton. There was also some sporadic support from Australia and Canada. But in late 2007, a resolution passed earlier by the US House of Representatives urging Ahmadinejad’s indictment by the Security Council got stuck in the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, and the initiative seemed to peter out. “Still, if the Israeli government were to take up the matter today, there are a number of islands of support in the West it could build on,” Gold tells The Report.
Only a country or group of countries can initiate a prosecution at the International Court of Justice, and some argue Israel would be ill advised to do so because it would open itself to similar treatment by its enemies. Gold disagrees. “The forces of delegitimization are out there anyway, looking for every opportunity to go after the State of Israel. It can’t get worse,” he argues.
In Gold’s view, the effort against Iran has to be multidimensional. That means pressing hard on every possible pressure point.
Sanctions are not enough. Legal and diplomatic moves have to be included in the mix.
“You have got to convince the Iranians that they have indeed put themselves in the position of a pariah state. You have to create a calculus in the minds of the Iranian elite where someone goes to the supreme leader and says, ‘We are in deep trouble,’” he concludes.
THE RESPONSIBILITY TO PREVENT report paints a horrific picture of systematic and widespread human rights violations in Iran, especially after last year’s rigged presidential election.
According to the report, Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year-old woman seen all around the world on YouTube shot dead by a member of the Basij militia during a demonstration, was not the only such random victim. Others were even more cruelly murdered. For example, in testimony to the Canadian Parliament, Payan Akhavan, professor of international law at McGill University, claimed that: “Amir Javadifar, a 24-year-old youth who was arrested for being in the protests, had his corpse delivered to his mother with a fractured skull and a crushed eyeball, while all his fingernails and toenails had been extracted.” Since the 1979 revolution, there have been an estimated 120,000 political executions. In the eight weeks following the June 12th election in 2009, there were 115 executions. The regime reports that 6,000 dissidents are currently under arrest; dissidents say the figure is much higher.
According to Cotler, Iran has executed more people in recent times than any other country in the world, except China, and it has executed more juveniles than any other country, including China. Between 2005 and 2009, 29 minors were executed; and, according to Stop Child Executions, an NGO that monitors the situation in Iran, there are currently over 140 minors on death row.
Iran has also imprisoned more journalists than any other country, blocks the signals of Persian language broadcasts from abroad, does not allow foreign NGOs or journalists to enter Iran and cracks down on local NGO activists. In addition, students, academics, human rights lawyers, women’s rights activists, labor leaders and cyber dissidents are all systematically targeted and intimidated.
After his arrest at a student demonstration in July 1999, Ahmad Batebi, a human rights activist, says he was kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell for 17 months. On one occasion, he recalls being blindfolded and led away with two other prisoners for what he thought would be his execution.
“They blindfolded us and forced us to stand on top of a chair, as if to hang us. They pulled my blindfold aside a bit so I could see what was happening to the other two. These were people who were imprisoned next to me in small cells. I saw their execution,” he testified to the Canadian Parliament.
In addition to political dissidents, the fundamentalist Shi’ite Iranian regime persecutes religious and ethnic minorities. In May this year, five Kurds were executed after trials that lasted around seven minutes and in which the defendants and their lawyers were not allowed to speak. Hundreds of Baluchis are on death row and dozens of Azeris have been arrested for promoting their language.
The Bahai, the largest religious minority in Iran with some 300,000 members, is not recognized as a legitimate religious group and its members are systematically persecuted as “unprotected infidels.” Seven Bahai leaders have been incarcerated in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran since early 2008, charged with insulting Islam. Rank and file Bahais are regularly harassed and imprisoned, and sometimes released in return for surrendering their business licenses.
Bahais are often prevented from working for a living and are barred from higher education.
In late June, houses belonging to 50 Bahai families in the remote northern village of Ivel were destroyed.
CLEARLY, THE RUTHLESS, REPRESSIVE nature of the regime will make it extremely difficult for the large dissident Green Movement to topple it. “After the election, three million people took to the streets and demonstrated. Soon the three million became a hundred thousand, and then ten thousand, and lately not even one thousand,” Menashe Amir, former head of Israel Radio’s Farsi service and a leading Israeli expert on Iranian internal affairs, tells The Report. “The regime not only controls all the centers of power, but they are people imbued with a sense of divine mission.
There are also major economic interests at stake. Today the Revolutionary Guards are the economic giant of Iran, controlling all the most lucrative economic sectors. All this makes them ruthless in their determination to hold onto power and makes it very difficult for their opponents to bring them down.”
Another factor militating against a major uprising is the moderate nature of the Green Movement’s leaders, presidential candidate Ali Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
Indeed, Amir maintains that one of the main reasons the regime has not targeted them is because they serve as a kind of safety valve for much deeper Iranian grievances.
Nevertheless, despite all the seemingly insurmountable difficulties, Amir is convinced that conditions for a major uprising are ripening. He points to the internal struggle within the regime over presidential powers, the widespread popular opposition seething under the surface, and the growing international pressure on the Iranian economy.
But for an uprising to occur, he says sanctions will have to be much stiffer. They would have to cripple the Iranian economy and paralyze the country, by targeting the Iranian oil industry, stopping all shipping and flights to and from Iran, banning imports and exports, encouraging Iranian workers to strike and finding ways to fund them and their families when they do. “In the late 1970s, when Khomeini gave the order to the oil, electricity and water workers to go on strike, he saw to it that the strikers got money to support their families.
The West should do the same,” he exhorts.
Cotler compares the Green Movement in Iran to the Prague Spring in 1968, the precursor of the democratizing Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic 20 years later. He points out that 70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30, influenced by what they read on the Internet and emboldened by the solidarity on their behalf. “I just hope it won’t take 20 years,” he says.
COTLER AGREES WITH AMIR that the current sanctions against Iran do not go far enough.
Although the latest, fourth round of UN backed sanctions adopted by the Security Council on June 9 are significantly stiffer than before, they still leave many loopholes.
For example, according to Cotler, they blacklist three elements of Iran’s national shipping line, but stop short of blacklisting it altogether; they deny Iran key financial services, but do not ban its Central Bank or bond market; they ban the sale of conventional weapons to Iran, but do not order suspension of its ballistic missiles program.
Although the US, with its Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2009 signed into law by President Barak Obama on July 1, and the EU, with its specific targeting of the Iranian energy industry, go further, Cotler insists that still more can and must be done.
The Responsibility to Prevent report’s 18- point “Road Map for Action” spells out a broader, multidimensional approach. On the legal front, it proposes taking Iran to court for state-sponsored incitement to genocide; and on the diplomatic front, to put Iranian human rights violations on every relevant agenda and to impose personal travel bans and asset freezes on Iranian leaders responsible for nuclear terror, genocidal incitement or human rights violations. It also suggests using the UN General Assembly Resolution of March 26, calling for an end to Iran’s domestic repression, as a lever for sanctions, for example, against corporations that provide the Iranian regime with the surveillance equipment it uses against the dissidents.
As for economic sanctions, the road map makes several far-reaching proposals, including:
● Targeting imports of gasoline and other refined petroleum imports
● Imposing sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank
● Banning the export to Iran of dual-use technologies
● Blocking the inflow of sensitive materials
● Targeting the Revolutionary Guard, which controls an estimated 80 percent of Iran’s foreign commerce, as well as its construction, banking and communications sectors, and which Cotler describes as “the epicenter of all four threats”
● Imposing a broad arms embargo on Iran and ordering a complete suspension of its ballistic missile program * Denying landing permission to Iranian ships and planes
● Requiring disclosure of all business dealings with Iran Even the more limited sanctions now in place are starting to bite, says Cotler. Iran is facing serious capitalization problems and dozens of leading firms have been pulling out of the country after being given a choice between trading with Washington or Tehran, not both. “There was even a report a few days ago that the Iranian banks are losing their capacity to finance the nuclear program. So sanctions are hurting, but we still need to do much more to bring Ahmadinejad’s Iran to account,” Cotler concludes.