Hunger strikes in Iranian prisons are hardly new. But the international attention that accompanied one recent strike has exposed rare cracks in the regime’s theocratic armor, and offers a key lesson for the United States. By publicly highlighting the plight of Iran’s hunger strikers, Washington can weaken Tehran’s resolve to resist their demands.
On December 31, imprisoned human rights activist Arash Sadeghi ended a 71-day hunger strike after Iran acceded to his demand to free his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi-Iraee, who had recently begun serving a six-year sentence on charges of criticizing the regime.
Sadeghi’s strike spurred an unprecedented global advocacy campaign. On the day before his wife’s release, more than half a million people made #SaveArash the highest-trending hashtag on Twitter. Hundreds of Iranians even risked their lives by conducting a demonstration outside Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison – a rare example of public protest since the quashed 2009 Green Revolution.
In late January, observing that public scrutiny of Sadeghi’s case had receded, Tehran sent his wife back to prison, leading him to resume his hunger strike for several more weeks. The couple remains in jail today. But the episode, which coincided with several other, lesser-known hunger strikes, clearly shook the regime.
Iran’s prosecutor-general denounced the strikes as a foreign conspiracy aimed at undermining the judiciary. Similarly, the Tehran city prosecutor criticized media coverage of the strikes, claiming that it could “be taken advantage of by the enemy.”
Iran’s temporary capitulation in Sadeghi’s case likely reflects both ideological and political sensitivities. The regime incarcerates its opponents not only to ensure its grip on power, but also to enforce its revolutionary creed, which seeks to refashion Iranian society in accordance with radical Islamist principles.
But hunger strikes, by their nature, highlight the regime’s ideological impotence. As one Kurdish-Iranian journalist put it, “Prison is a tool of suppression but Iran cannot control prisoners’ power over their bodies, and this frightens them.”
Washington should exploit this fear. In recent weeks, at least three prominent Iranians – journalist Hengameh Shahidi, human rights activist Atena Daemi, and trade unionist Esmail Abdi – have waged hunger strikes in Iranian prisons. By leading an international effort on their behalf, the United States not only can aid their cause, but also can underscore the failure of the regime’s efforts to stifle dissent.
In the coming days, Trump administration officials and members of Congress should deploy the bully pulpit to draw attention to the hunger strikes. They should urge European officials to discuss the prisoners with their Iranian counterparts. Ambassador Nikki Haley should raise the inmates’ ordeal at the United Nations. And the Treasury Department should impose additional sanctions on Iranian entities linked to the regime’s domestic repression.
In so doing, the United States can expose further cracks in Tehran’s theocratic armor, and strengthen moderate forces that harbor a different vision for the country’s future.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.