November 19, 2013 | New York Daily News
Iran: Still Hostile to Gays
Co-authored by Stuart Appelbaum
The expectation that the election of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would curtail persecution of minorities has proved a bitter disappointment for his country’s struggling gay community. Sadly, human rights under the so-called “moderate” Rouhani presidency is a case where past is prologue.
Rouhani has not openly expressed anti-gay rhetoric like his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said while visiting New York, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.” Still, the situation for gays in Iran has not improved under the new leadership.
“Nothing essential has changed. The structure is still the same. It’s a play, a comic and ugly performance. They’re relying on the naivete of people to be able to succeed,” said the openly gay Iranian poet Payam Feili about Rouhani’s policies.
Rouhani made an election promise to end bias and move away from the hostile domestic climate fostered by Ahmadenijad against minorities and political opponents.
But Iran’s LGBT community considers these sweeping verbal gestures empty rhetoric because Rouhani’s track record says otherwise. Just shy of 100 days in office Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp arrested “a network of homosexuals” in the city of Kermanshah near Iraq’s border. Militia forces stormed a ceremony hall and seized some 80 people.
The Guardian reported that those people, “including both straight and gay Iranians, had gathered for a birthday party in Kermanshah. At least 17 people who had tattoos, make-up, or were wearing rainbow bracelets were blindfolded and taken to an unknown location.” The poet Feili hails from Kermanshah and he remains on a literary blacklist because of his sexuality.
But being placed on a blacklist isn’t the worst that can happen. The persecution and ostracism that Feili and the birthday party attendees face is being methodically codified in a deadly way.
The country’s Islamic Penal Code lists homosexuality as an offense punishable by death. According to a new October UN report by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, the Islamic Republic’s penal system fails to conform to international human rights standards because it, for example, classifies homosexuality as a “capital offense.” Rouhani seems to be abiding by this designation, despite public statements to the contrary.
Iran’s clerical regime, which Rouhani served for 16 years as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, has zealously meted out lashings and capital punishment to gays and advocates of equal treatment for Iran’s LGBT community. Rouhani has refused to release the journalist Siamak Ghaderi, who was imprisoned in 2010 and whipped in 2012, after he chose to contest Ahmadinejad's assertion that homosexuality is non-existent in Iran. Ghaderi published interviews with gay Iranians online and was subsequently arrested and sent to prison.
This helps explain why Iranian Nobel Peace laureate and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi condemned Rouhani's regime in November for its claim to have released a large number of political prisoners as “a big lie.” She blasted Rouhani for the significant spike in executions during his presidency.
While the international community focuses on Iran's illicit nuclear weapons program, the scale of human rights violations remains largely ignored. Rouhani's first 100 days in office were riddled with broken promises on the human rights front, but there are pressure points that Western nations can exploit.
President Obama has the power to institute human rights sanctions on regime politicians, judicial figures, and security personnel that run roughshod over the rights of gays and other minority groups in Iran, for example.
He has done something similar in the past. In 2010, he signed an executive order to sanction Iranian officials for human rights violations for inflicting violence on Iranian protestors during the fraudulent 2009 presidential election. In contrast to economic sanctions designed to stop the purchase of Iranian oil, human rights sanctions block travel visas to the U.S. and make the violators liable for financial penalties.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set an impressive precedent at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva when she declared, “Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do.”
Non-economic sanctions targeting human rights violators has helped change the calculus with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. Increased pressure from the West on human rights issues in Iran can help promise a future for the LGBT community that looks ahead rather than to the past.
Appelbaum is president of The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Weinthal is a fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal