May 19, 2015 | The National Post

Ali Alfoneh: Tehran’s Brutal Crackdown Continues

Almost two years into the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, and just as long after the start of the latest round of nuclear negotiations with Tehran, human rights in Iran show no signs of improvement. On the contrary there is continuity — and in some cases deterioration — in the state of human rights in Iran compared to the pre-Rouhani era.

This situation is closely linked to the nuclear negotiations. Negotiations and the regime’s concessions — as small as they may seem to the P5+1 negotiators — make the regime appear weak in the eyes of many Iranians. A weakness the regime then tries to compensate with increased repression.

Tehran engaged in nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 from a poor bargaining position. Rouhani’s campaign promise was to improve Iran’s economy, which he explained was only possible through nuclear negotiations and concessions, in return for sanctions relief.

As Rouhani’s team moved into office, perception of Iran’s weak position was reinforced by presidential advisor Akbar Torkan, who admitted that Iran’s economy was “in worse shape than expected.” The international sanctions regime — and eight years of mismanagement under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — had taken their toll on the economy, which teetered on bankruptcy.

It was under such dire conditions that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, on Sept. 17, 2013, officially endorsed Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy by calling for “heroic flexibility.”

“Heroic flexibility,” however, was only needed when facing the United States. In its dealings with the Iranian public, the regime has adopted repression and terror as its preferred method.

That terror has been reflected in an increased number of executions — at least 753 in 2014, which is the highest total recorded in 12 years, and includes 53 public executions. In comparison, there were 580 executions in 2012 and 687 executions in 2013. Most were either related to narcotics or homicide, but broadly the executions — particularly those conducted publicly — serve to demonstrate the central government’s strength.

Under Rouhani, the Islamic Republic has demonstrated a similarly harsh treatment of domestic opposition. Simultaneous with the nuclear negotiations, the regime has continued arbitrary detention of political dissidents. Most prominently, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, leaders of Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement, are still under house arrest.

Ali Mottahari, a parliamentarian who has used the podium to call for their release, was severely beaten last month by vigilante groups close to the Basij paramilitary. Mottahari and his driver sought refuge at a local police station, but officers simply watched as a mob landed its blows.

There is also greater continuity than change when it comes to the Iranian press. According to Mottahari, there is an atmosphere of fear among journalists, who exercise greater self-censorship than in the past. This is hardly surprising when one considers that 13 journalists and bloggers have been detained over the past year, bringing the total to 30.

The jailed journalists include Seraj al-Din Miramadi (a distant relative of Khamenei), Ali-Asghar Qavari of the reformist newspaper Bahar, and Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post. Arya Jafari and four other journalists from the Iran Student News Agency were arrested last October because they reported on public protests against a spate of acid attacks against women. While Jafari has been released, the fate of his ISNA colleagues remains unknown.

Newspapers have fared little better: the reformist daily Roozan was closed in December 2014 after commemorating the anniversary of the passing of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, an ally-turned-rival of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The weekly Setareh Sobh  was closed January of this year for calling for a fair trial of the opposition leaders under house arrest, while Mardom-e Emrooz was banned the same month for publishing a photo of the actor George Clooney wearing a lapel pin to honour the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Suppression of Iranian workers and labour activists is another area of concern. Eight labour union activists are imprisoned and many more are in legal limbo awaiting the ruling of the Islamic Revolutionary Court on charges of disturbing public order. Last week, ahead of the May 1 Labor Day holiday, two additional labour activists were arrested.

Other fields of heightened repression include attacks under the guise of enforcing modesty and morals, as well as detaining followers of Islamic mysticism and Muslim converts to Christianity. However, it is the followers of the Baha’i faith who are subjected to the severest repression. More than 100 Bahai’s are currently imprisoned.

Under Rouhani, the leading agents of repression continue to include strong institutions such as the Islamic Revolutionary Court, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the Basij paramilitary and their allied vigilante groups.

The overlapping fields of responsibility between the various intelligence and security organizations and their vigilante allies cause a permanent interdepartmental rivalry, as well as a permanent state of terror in which an individual arrested and released by one security agency risks arrest in the hands of a rival agency.

There is no evidence that President Rouhani is trying to rein in the security and intelligence services, but every indication of the regime resorting to increased repression as a means of compensating for its perceived weakness. Expect even harsher suppression should the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement.

What would happen if the two sides fail to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement? The regime would face an impoverished public demanding a decent livelihood that the government cannot deliver due to continued sanctions. And, that would ensure continued repression by the regime.

Ali Alfoneh is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @Alfoneh

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