September 12, 2014 | Canadian Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights
The Islamic Republic of Iran Under President Hassan Rouhani
Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to share my analysis with you. Allow me in particular to express my gratitude to this subcommittee for raising the twin issues of the Islamic Republic’s use of terror against its own citizens, and the regime’s sponsorship of international terrorism.
All too often, these two issues are treated separately, with international terror enjoying greater attention in the West than the violation of human rights in Iran. This of course sends a terrible message to the Iranian public: “The West cares as long as the Islamic Republic’s terror targets Western interests but ignores violations of the human rights of Iranian citizens.” This hearing is an important step in correcting that perception among the Iranian public.
Almost a year has passed since Dr. Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated as the seventh president in the history of the Islamic Republic.
I would like to reflect on this past year of Rouhani’s reign to consider two questions raised by the Subcommittee on International Human Rights:
- What is the state of human rights in Iran under President Rouhani?
- What is the state of the Islamic Republic’s sponsorship of international terror under President Rouhani?
At FDD, we employed a simple methodology to answer these questions:
We systematically surveyed the open source material, in particular the Persian language sources, searching for indicators of human rights violations and the sponsorship of international terror.
In both cases, as will be explained below, our research demonstrates that the Islamic Republic under President Rouhani has not changed its fundamental view of terror as an instrument of power against real and perceived adversaries, both in Iran and abroad, in order to secure regime survival.
Due to the paucity of current data, our survey could not assess President Rouhani’s current views concerning these issues, but historical data strongly indicates that in the 1990s, Dr. Rouhani could not have been ignorant of the regime’s use of terror as a domestic control mechanism and possibly approved terrorism as a means of projecting power abroad.
Based on the evidence presented below, we conclude that there is no reason to expect meaningful improvement in the state of human rights in Iran under President Rouhani. We further conclude that the Islamic Republic’s sponsorship of international terror is likely to continue.
The state of human rights in Iran under President Rouhani
Although the human rights issue did not hold a prominent place in Dr. Rouhani’s campaign platform, he declared his intention to formulate a Charter of Citizens’ Rights [Manshour-e Hoqouz-e Shahrvandi] in order to promote equality. The first draft of the charter has since been released, but rather than promoting equality, the charter reflects the inequalities codified in the Constitution and institutionalized in the political praxis of the Islamic Republic.
When condemning discrimination against citizens, the charter stresses that it is against “inappropriate discrimination” [tab’iz-e narava], implicitly condoning “appropriate discrimination.” Examples of what the charter considers “appropriate discrimination” include religiously-based discrimination against women and the discrimination of state-recognized religious minorities, who, for instance, are not allowed to run for president. Religious minorities not recognized by the state, such as Bahais, atheists and followers of mystic interpretations of Islam, who are subjected to systematic discrimination by the state, are not even mentioned in the charter.
Freedoms recognized by the charter are restricted by reference to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic and existing legislation, which in practice negates those freedoms. Freedom of speech, for example, will be restricted by censorship and subjected to subjective interpretations such as the broadly defined “acts against national security,” “propagation against the regime,” “insulting” the leader and high ranking authorities and the like. The charter further restricts freedom with reference to abstract and debatable principles such as the “foundations of Islam” and “national security.”
Dr. Rouhani’s Charter of Citizens’ Rights, in other words, is the best proof that the president is not intending to change the current state of the human rights of Iranian citizens.
But even further, there is proof that the state of human rights in the Islamic Republic is deteriorating under President Rouhani.
On March 13, 2014 Dr. Ahmad Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, released his latest report, which praises the release of 80 political prisoners upon President Rouhani’s election but condemns the imprisonment of 92 human rights defenders; 39 bloggers and journalists; 307 members of religious minorities, including Shi’a religious activists who do not share the belief in the concept of the Guardianship of the Jurist [Velayat-e Faqih], members of the Bahai faith converts to Christianity, Sunni Muslims and Islamic mystics; and more than 200 activists propagating the cause of ethnic minorities in Iran who are currently imprisoned.
Dr. Shaheed’s report also documents the execution of 624 individuals in 2013, which is an increase from 522 executions in 2012. The majority of those executed were found guilty in murder or narcotics-related crimes, but there were also a few cases where the individuals were convicted of waging armed struggle against the Islamic Republic, waging war against God, and terrorism related charges.
Since the release of Dr. Shaheed’s report, the newspaper Ebtekar was banned for three days, while Aseman, Bahar, 9 Dey, and Qanoun are indefinitely banned. Moreover, on the morning of April 17, 2014, the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization, elements within the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and more than one hundred prison wardens violently attacked the political prisoners at Ward 350 of Evin Prison. This marked the peak of violence against political prisoners since Dr. Rouhani’s presidential inauguration.
There are those who defend President Rouhani’s human rights record. On May 3, 2014, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, expediency council chairman, accused unnamed individuals and power centers of increasing the pressure against political prisoners “in order to put the government under real pressure, to exhaust it and tell the world that they [the government] are inefficacious without authority.”
Historical data, however, suggests that in the 1990s Dr. Rouhani could not have been ignorant of the regime’s use of terror and human rights violations as a control mechanism domestically, and possibly approved terrorism as a means of projecting power abroad.
- On July 14, 1980, Mr. Rouhani, in his capacity as parliamentarian and political/ideological commissar in the regular military, demanded the public hanging of perceived “plotters” against the regime and “saboteurs.”
- Ever since Mr. Rouhani was appointed Representative of the Supreme Leader to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), and SNSC secretary on November 13, 1989, he was involved in decision making concerning acts of armed suppression of dissidents in Iran, including extremely violent armed suppression of the May 1992 riots in Mashhad, as well as Shiraz and Eslamshahr, which Mr. Rouhani admits the SNSC failed to predict. Moreover, the assassinations of Iranian dissidents, both in Iran and abroad, which took place during the Rafsanjani presidency and later became known as “chain” or “serial” killings, were part of a pattern of which Mr. Rouhani and Ayatollah Rafsanjani could not have been ignorant.
- In a July 14, 1999 speech, Mr. Rouhani referred to student uprisings as a “foreign opportunist plot,” and blamed a group of people “who have no connection to our dear students.” The Law Enforcement Forces’ suppression of the student activists and the subsequent Revolutionary Tribunal rulings against them, used similar allegations, which of course were pure fabrications made by Mr. Rouhani and the regime.
Based on the findings of Dr. Shaheed and further restrictions of press freedom in the aftermath of the publication of his report, and Dr. Rouhani’s earlier statements, we conclude that there is no reason to expect any significant improvement in the state of human rights in Iran under President Rouhani.
The Islamic Republic’s Sponsorship of International Terror under President Rouhani
The Islamic Republic’s support for international terror is codified in Article 154 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which states: “While scrupulously refraining from all forms of interference in the affairs of other nations, it supports the just struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors in every corner of the globe.” This concept was later termed the “export of the revolution.”
The late Hojjat al-Eslam Mohammad Montazeri, one of the founding fathers of the Office of the Liberation Movements, which was the main agent of exporting the revolution abroad, in his March 19, 1980 interview with Payam-e Enqelab (mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)) explained the support of “liberation movements” as a means of keeping enemies of the regime in Tehran busy on their own soil rather than challenging the Islamic Republic at Iran’s international borders. This fundamentally was the reason why the Islamic Republic began supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.
In his past statements, Dr. Rouhani has commented on the usefulness of terror as a means of deterring the enemy. As the Islamic Republic’s clandestine nuclear cooperation with the Khan network in Pakistan became known, Dr. Rouhani made a speech discussing the June 25, 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dahran, Saudi Arabia, which he insisted was a “domestic [Saudi] affair.” On December 22, 2006, a federal judge ruled that Iran is responsible for the bombing and ordered the government of the Islamic Republic to pay $254 million to the families of 17 Americans who died in the attack. The attacks, Rouhani argued, showed the United States that “at least for some time – it no longer can count on this island of stability [Saudi Arabia].” Rouhani continued: “[U]ntil today, in the region there was one type of fundamentalism, Shi’a fundamentalism, which they [the United States] tried to do away with, but today Sunni fundamentalism too has risen.” If we read between the lines, it is clear Dr. Rouhani was saying that the regime in Tehran was ready, if necessary, to unleash Sunni terrorism against the United States in the region in an attempt to delay a military confrontation, which in the same speech, he expressed as inevitable.
Addressing Friday prayer leaders in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Dr. Rouhani almost expressed joy: “Within the United States, there is terror,” Rouhani said. He continued, “A fear, unprecedented in the course of the past hundred years… Arms sales has increased 70%… the public fears more attacks, this time with chemical agents, which adds to public fears… discussions about use of anthrax and biological agents being used in future attacks is creating greater fear among the people…” Mentioning examples of how ordinary Americans prepare for such attacks, Rouhani rhetorically asks the audience, “You see how this island of stability has been transformed into the land of fear?” Dr. Rouhani seems to have been communicating what he perceived as weaknesses of the United States to the Friday prayer leaders.
Ever since taking over the presidency, Dr. Rouhani has become even more careful in his public statements. We do not have reason to believe that he fundamentally disagrees with the support of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and to a degree Hamas as means of power projection abroad, but there may be tactical differences between President Rouhani and other major actors in the Islamic Republic’s decision-making establishment.
The Rouhani government’s approach to the crisis in Syria provides interesting insights into those tactical differences.
The Alawite regime in Syria is not only the oldest state ally of the Islamic Republic, it also serves the strategic interests of Tehran as a bridge between Shi’ite interests spanning from Western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. As former president Rafsanjani said in a December 24, 2012 meeting with Iraq’s special envoy to Iran, “We must possess Syria. If the chain from Lebanon to here is cut, bad things will happen.”
Major General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), has stressed the importance of Syria as a core component of the Iranian-led “resistance” to Israel and the United States. Interestingly, during Suleimani’s September 4 address to Iran’s Assembly of Experts, he identified the importance of Syria in challenging two Sunni Arab adversaries of the Islamic Republic: Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Remarkably, Ayatollah Rafsanjani recently condemned the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. We believe Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s statements, which were delivered at a time a United States invasion of Syria seemed inevitable, may have been an attempt to demonstrate President Rouhani’s readiness to sacrifice Bashar al-Assad so as not to lose all of the Islamic Republic’s assets in Syria.
Challenging Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s public statements, Major General Suleimani pledged the IRGC’s full support to the Syrian dictator. Supreme Leader Khamenei took the side of the IRGC and issued a brazen warning to Washington against the use of force in Syria while foreign minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif candidly told members of the P5+1 group that he is not authorized to discuss developments in Syria.
The struggle for Iran’s official line in the Syrian conflict clearly showed that Major General Suleimani had the upper hand, and not President Rouhani.
Based on these findings, we conclude that the Islamic Republic under President Rouhani has not changed its fundamental view of terror as a means of power projection abroad. Differences between President Rouhani and other decision-makers, such as the Revolutionary Guards, are tactical and not strategic, and the Islamic Republic’s Syria policy shows that the IRGC, rather than President Rouhani, had the upper hand in strategic decision-making concerning use of terrorism.
Policy Recommendations for the Government of Canada
We would recommend the following:
- The Government of Canada has hitherto provided a sanctuary for victims of human rights in Iran. Many Iranians found a second home in Canada and as Iranian/Canadians contribute to the Canadian society. I am urging the Government of Canada to continue this humanitarian effort.
- The Government of Canada has designated the IRGC Quds Force (IRGC QF) as a terrorist organization. In addition to recommending that the entire IRGC be designated as a terrorist organization, I also urge the Government of Canada to identify and subject further individuals and entities involved in state sponsorship of international terror to sanctions. This should include entities like the Imam Khomeini Aid and Relief Committee, which provides material support to the IRGC QF and in some cases acts as a front for the IRGC QF.
Allow me to thank you once more for inviting me to testify before this distinguished subcommittee.