See the original article in The Guardian here. Written by Firuzeh Mahmoudi and Mahdieh Javid. With progress being made in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, it’s time for a new conversation about Iran – one about the country’s dismal human rights record. The international community’s diplomatic efforts should be deployed to improve the basic tenets of democracy – freedom of speech, freedom of press, right to information, equality of citizens, and free and fair elections. Foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran are taking slow, tentative steps in Lausanne toward an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. A partial joint-statement is expected to be delivered before the Tuesday midnight deadline, with many unresolved details to be decided on in the coming months. Iran’s hardliners remain fearful of a diplomatic rapprochement. The impact of any shift in emphasis from the nuclear conversation is not lost on Iran’s hardliners. As Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said on his official website: “If we didn’t have a nuclear program [the Americans] would look for another excuse, like human rights concerns … therefore, it’s best for us to continue with our progress with all force and refuse to respond to bullying”. Iran’s conservative elements remain inordinately in control; they continue to fear the aspirations of Iran’s people, managing elections tightly, and persecuting human rights activists. Soheil Arabi, an online activist, has been sentenced to death for posting on Facebook. Bahareh Hedayat has spent more than five years behind bars for advocating for gender equality and basic rights at universities. Iran continues to execute more individuals per capita than any other country. According to the most recent report from Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights, at least 753 individuals were executed in 2014, the highest total recorded in the past 12 years. United for Iran’sPolitical Prisoner Database lists more than 1,150 individuals incarcerated for simple acts of civic engagement that are legal, indeed encouraged, in much of the developed world. More Iranians that ever would directly support more moderate elements in government. Many Iranians, unlike hardline government officials, yearn for a more lenient government with strong, healthy ties to the west. According to a recent survey by iPOS, one of the leading pollsters working on Iran, 86% of Iranians support a nuclear agreement. Continuing, and eventually resolving, the current negotiations on Iran’s nuclear related program seems more likely now than in the past. The past few months, Iran-US relations have been marked by previously unthinkable gestures, including Secretary of State John Kerry’s public condolences to Hossein Fereydoun, presidential special advisor and brother of President Rohani, on the death of his mother. An end to the nuclear negotiation offers myriad neglected opportunities to save lives. The international community has several tools at its disposal to support human rights improvements in Iran. Many existing United Nations mechanisms could be used to apply pressure on Iran. The Universal Periodic Review, conducted under the Human Rights Council, is a one-of-a-kind process that reviews the human rights records of all UN Member States every four years. In recent years, a resolution on Iran is proposed and approved annually at the UN General Assembly. Iran is one of a handful of member states that has a country-specific special rapporteur who reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council. One of the first areas of focus should be a halt on all executions in Iran. The US, in partnership with the UN, should also pressure Iran to release imprisoned human rights defenders and political prisoners. Perhaps the most critical support is to help Iranians access safe and reliable communications technology. The international community should support projects that would ultimately enable world citizens, including Iranians, to bypass the governments’ control over internet, in the same way that satellite technology has bypassed government censorship efforts. At the very least, the west should increase its support for internet censorship circumvention technologies, and secure communication platforms. Though the government of Iran claims otherwise, it does not like to have its ugly side in the spotlight. For too long, the focus has been on the nuclear weapons program. But recent progress should finally free us to start thinking about other important questions, such as the transformation of Iranian society.  

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