August 5, 2013 | The Wall Street Journal
A Chance for the New Iranian President to Prove He’s a Reformer
Co-authored by Linda Frum
The inauguration of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran on Sunday has stirred considerable hope among some Western observers for the start of a new era of liberalization in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Rouhani may prove to be the reformer his supporters claim, but the luxury of such optimism isn't available to the hundreds of dissidents who have run afoul of the Islamic Republic and are trapped in its prisons.
Since Mr. Rouhani's election in mid-June, the regime's executions of prisoners—a good barometer of a government's inclinations—have increased in frequency. Between June 20 and July 20, at least 97 Iranian prisoners were executed. That's the regime's official count; as a rule, the actual numbers are higher. By contrast, in July 2012 there were 29 confirmed executions.
Sunday's inauguration will give Western diplomats an opportunity to challenge Mr. Rouhani to show the world evidence of a fresh start in Tehran. According to the regime, representatives from 40 countries will attend. Though no European countries are sending top officials, European diplomats already in Iran will attend, according to the British Foreign Office. These diplomats should publicly deplore the executions and shine a light on the political prisoners languishing in Iranian jails.
When bringing pressure on a draconian regime, it helps to point to a particular political prisoner, giving a face to countless victims who remain unknown. The Western diplomats couldn't do better than to focus on Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, who has been incarcerated in Tehran's infamous Evin prison since 2006.
The 55-year-old religious leader is routinely tortured, according to Amnesty International. The group reports that he has been denied medication for his Parkinson's, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems. According to friends and family members, he is very weak and they fear for his survival.
Mr. Boroujerdi suffers now because he publicly challenged the regime's theological doctrine—promulgated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the early days of the Islamic Revolution of 1979—that only an Islamic jurist can rule the country. Mr. Boroujerdi instead supports the traditional Shiite view that religious leaders should stay out of politics and preach their messages to the faithful in mosques. In his words, protesting in 2006, “the regime is adamant that either people adhere to political Islam or be jailed, exiled or killed. Its behavior is no different from that of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar.”
Mr. Boroujerdi has also preached tolerance of all religious beliefs, including atheism, on the grounds that faith must be freely chosen. Perhaps nothing bothers the Iranian regime more than religious pluralism: In recent years, the country has been swept by the arrests and executions of members of minority groups like the Bahais and Sufi dervishes.
In 2010, a message from Mr. Boroujerdi was smuggled out of Evin prison, delivering a message to the world's Jews in celebration of Hanukkah. “Any religious belief that brings us closer to (God) is the truth,” he wrote. “This force will lead humanity towards enlightenment. On this great day, we celebrate the unity among the believers of God's light.”
Some may wonder why Mr. Boroujerdi has not been executed, in contrast to so many others who challenged the regime. One possible reason is that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his henchmen fear the potential rage of the Iranian people.
Mr. Boroujerdi is much admired by his countrymen: When security forces came for him seven years ago, thousands of people gathered on the roads to prevent the arrest. The protest failed because the regime was determined to shut down a critic whose public meetings had grown so popular that they were moved to a soccer stadium seating thousands. A regime already worried about a restive populace seems unlikely to execute an influential leader whose death could set off widespread demonstrations. Better to let him die in prison from medical problems.
In the meantime, the ruling ayatollahs want to keep Mr. Boroujerdi sealed off from the outside world. The Iranian intelligence ministry has assigned a special guard to watch Mr. Boroujerdi's cell around the clock, according to his associates. Despite this arrangement, he manages to smuggle notes to his friends and family. The writers of this article have both received short letters from him in recent weeks. In one case, he apologized for a delay in his communication, explaining that an earlier message had been seized.
The time has come for Western leaders to appeal for Mr. Boroujerdi's release and for the release of others like him. Canada's ambassador for religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, has already done so this past week: “The continued detention of . . . Ayatollah Boroujerdi demonstrates the Khamenei regime's wanton disregard for religious freedom and human rights.”
Some would caution that such appeals enrage the regime, making things worse for prisoners. It should be remembered that Soviet dissidents were enormously encouraged when President Reagan denounced the inhumane practices of the “evil empire.” It is easier for repressive regimes to kill anonymous people than human beings with names and faces, about whom the civilized world shows its concern. The inauguration of President Rouhani on Aug. 4 will present the civilized world with just such an opportunity.
Ms. Frum is a member of the Canadian Senate. Mr. Ledeen, a scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is the author of “Virgil's Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles” (Transaction, 2011).