April 2, 2021 | Policy Brief

New State Department Report Documents Grave Abuses in Iran

April 2, 2021 | Policy Brief

New State Department Report Documents Grave Abuses in Iran

Impunity for Iran’s systematic human rights abuses “remained pervasive throughout all levels of the government and security forces,” according to an annual review the State Department released on Tuesday. The report, which comes as part of a larger publication documenting human rights violations worldwide, paints a grim portrait of a society dominated by a ruthless Islamist dictatorship.

According to the report, the regime in Iran routinely engages in unlawful or politically motivated killings of protesters and political dissidents; tortures prisoners; denies inmates any semblance of due process; prohibits freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly; blocks access to the internet; bars regime critics from running for public office; and discriminates against women and ethnic and religious minorities.

The report provides gruesome details about the regime’s means of torture. “Commonly reported methods of torture and abuse in prisons,” the State Department finds, “included threats of execution or rape, forced tests of virginity and ‘sodomy,’ sleep deprivation, electroshock, including the shocking of genitals, burnings, the use of pressure positions, and severe and repeated beatings.”

The report also describes Iran’s human rights abuses outside its own borders. “Government officials materially contributed to human rights abuses not only against Iranians, but also in Syria, through their military support for Syrian president Bashar Assad and Hizballah forces; in Iraq, through aid to pro-Iran Iraqi militia groups; and in Yemen, through support for Houthi rebels,” the report says.

In remarks to the press on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the report reflects a renewed U.S. effort to enshrine human rights as a cornerstone of American foreign policy. The Biden administration seeks to differentiate its approach to human rights from that of former President Donald Trump, who largely limited his human rights advocacy to regimes that directly threatened what he regarded as the U.S. national interest.

“President Biden,” said Blinken, “has committed to putting human rights back at the center of American foreign policy, and that’s a commitment that I and the entire Department of State take very seriously.” Contra Trump, Blinken argued that combating human rights abuses wherever they occur advances U.S. interests, since a country committed to human rights remains less prone to conflict.

However, the State Department report contains a misleading claim regarding one of the worst Iranian human rights violations of 2020: the shootdown of a Ukrainian airliner as it departed Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. All 176 people on board, including 138 with ties to Canada, perished. Yet despite the lack of credible corroboratory evidence, the report describes Tehran’s action as “accidental.”

Iran’s official account claims the downing resulted from human error, with military operators misidentifying the civilian plane as a “hostile target.” In February, however, Agnes Callamard, then-UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, concluded that Tehran had “failed to carry out a full and transparent investigation in line with its international obligations.” As a result, the motives for the attack remain unclear.

Ukrainian and Canadian officials, for their part, have outright rejected the regime’s narrative, arguing that Tehran failed to conduct an adequate inquiry.

Words matter. An accurate description of Iran’s conduct is integral to securing justice for the victims. The State Department should immediately drop its unfounded use of the term “accidental.” In addition, Washington should hold Tehran accountable by maintaining maximum pressure on Iran and should refuse to lift sanctions until the regime takes meaningful steps to halt its human rights abuses.

Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Tzvi, the Iran Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Tzvi on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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