June 24, 2014 | Ottawa Citizen

Don’t Forget Sexual Minorities In Iran

Co-authored by Arsham Parsi

While the world powers prepare for a July negotiation session with Iran over its illicit nuclear program, the deteriorating situation for sexual minorities continues unabated.  Sadly, the nuclear talks have drowned out voices for influencing a change in Iran’s persecution of its LGBT citizens.

Many observers expected a Persian thaw with the election of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani one year ago this month. But nothing substantive has changed for LGBT rights in Iran.

To its credit, Canada has gone to great lengths to help Iran’s struggling LGBT community, including aid to refugees to relocate to Canada.  Former Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has worked with the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees organization, assisting in the expedited placement of over 200 Iranian queers into Canada.

Foreign Minister John Baird declared in 2012, “We will speak out on the issues that matter to Canadians — whether it is the role and treatment of women around the world, or the persecution of gays.” With a view toward countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran, Baird added, “Yet, too many countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality.”

While President Hassan Rouhani has not invoked the highly inflammatory anti-gay rhetoric of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has remained silent about violence against LGBT Iranians. Take some recent examples. Rouhani has not called for the release of imprisoned non-gay journalist Siamak Ghaderi, who was arrested in 2010 for challenging Ahmadinejad’s assertion that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Admittedly, Rouhani is not in control of the judiciary.

Nevertheless, there were high expectations that Rouhani’s rhetoric about the current home arrests of the 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi would lead to their release. After all, Rouhani was the former head of the National Security Council. But it was clear to us that his talk was merely part of his election campaign devoid of action.

Last October, around 50 members of the Nabi Akram Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards raided a private birthday function, in Arg Hall, a reception hall in a suburb of the city of Kermanshah. According to a statement issued by Kermanshah Province’s Basij Forces, their aim was to end “homosexual and Satan-worshipping network with dozens of (members).” The attendees were arrested.

If Rouhani was determined to open his society for reforms, he would surely not remain passive and silent. The 1980s slogan to end the AIDS crisis and discrimination against LGBT people, Silence =Death, still rings true. All of this helps to explain why human rights concerns should inform the nuclear negotiations.  

Public international pressure is one of Iran’s Achilles heels. In March, the European parliament issued a non-binding resolution calling on Iran to end “discrimination on the basis of religious, belief, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.” Unsurprisingly, the head of Iran’s Basij militia force, Brig-Gen. Mohammad Reza Nagdi said, “Homosexuals in (Europe) have intercourse like animals.”

We have observed that international public pressure has stopped many of Iran’s repressive forms of domestic repression. The case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani , who was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, was spared because of international outrage. Sadly, she is still in prison. But the specific case shows that whenever there is strong international solidarity and sophisticated human rights campaigns, Iran’s regime, especially its anti-Western Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, quickly throws in the towel.

With the international community intensely focused on an end to Iran’s nuclear crisis, it would be a missed opportunity to decouple human rights from the nuclear negotiations.

Arsham Parsi is the head of the Toronto-based organization, the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees. He fled the Islamic of Republic of Iran in 2005 and has lived in Toronto since 2006. 
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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