September 22, 2016 | Policy Brief

What Rouhani Didn’t Say at the UN

September 22, 2016 | Policy Brief

What Rouhani Didn’t Say at the UN

As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani makes his case before the United Nations today that the Islamic Republic merits a place in the community of nations and boardrooms worldwide, his government continued arresting reporters and sentencing foreign nationals to prison on trumped-up charges. Amid Rouhani’s charm offensive, it is crucial to remember that Iran continues to use hostage-taking as a tool of diplomacy, and remains both a toxic business environment and a serial violator of international norms.

Over the past week, Iranian authorities have arrested two editors as part of a wider campaign against journalists supposedly collaborating with “enemy states.” These arrests coincided with a 10-year sentence for U.S. permanent resident Nizar Zakka, accused by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court of spying on behalf of Washington.

Zakka, a Lebanese-born information technology expert, headed an organization that reportedly received State Department grants to support internet freedom in the Middle East. He had traveled to Tehran at the invitation of the Iranian government to attend a conference on sustainable development.

Zakka joins imprisoned U.S. dual nationals Robin Shahini, businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer, as well as Canadian-Iranian professor Homa Hoodfar and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a British-Iranian national and project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The sweeping charges against them include “collaborating with a hostile government, propaganda against the state,” and heading a “foreign-linked hostile network.” While Rouhani woos foreign companies, they will find Iran remains a high-risk market even for those – like these hostages – who are well-connected around the globe.

The arrests and sentences send a clear signal to the Iranian people and international community. Rouhani ran for office pledging to lift sanctions against the Islamic Republic, but that vow should not be mistaken for any real economic or political reforms. The Iranian president reminded audiences this summer that the country is committed to its founding ideal of “resistance” – a clear message that Tehran would remain both aggressive abroad and repressive at home.

Throughout the debate that has raged since last summer’s nuclear agreement, the Obama administration has pledged it would continue to hold Iran accountable for its malign activities. Over the past year, however, the administration has issued only a paltry number of new sanctions designations – and none for human rights abuses – even as Tehran demonstrates a “complete disregard of its obligations under international human rights law,” according to a former UN expert on Iranian human rights.

At the UN, Rouhani hopes to convince world leaders that his country is ready to rejoin the international community and global economy. But there should be consequences for Iran continuing to hold Americans, dual nationals, and others hostage. Western political and business leaders must make sure their money and policies are not held hostage as well.

Toby Dershowitz is vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Annie Fixler is a policy analyst at its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. 


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