By Geoffrey Cameron
Geoffrey Cameron is a PhD candidate and Trudeau Scholar at the University of Toronto. He is also principal researcher with the Baha’i Community of Canada.
Now that nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran are being lifted, many countries are looking forward to a new era of political and economic relations with the Islamic Republic. The recent prisoner exchange between Iran and the United States struck a hopeful chord about the possibilities of productive dialogue and engagement. The next step, according to some observers, is to rapidly expand economic access to Iran’s markets for Canadian firms.
Viewed differently, however, the achievement of the nuclear agreement represents the removal of just one obstacle to the restoration of Iran to a respected member of the international community. The next step is for Iran to curb the brutal treatment of its own citizens, and ensure greater fairness for them to participate in its economic life.
The release of American prisoners is celebrated as an achievement of international diplomacy, but we cannot ignore the fact that Canadian residents Saeed Malekpour and Mostafa Azizi have reportedly faced torture and solitary confinement, and remain in prison on trumped-up charges. Most of all, we should place equal value on the lives of Iranian citizens, who continue to face daily repression.
In December last year, the United Nations General Assembly once again (for the 19th time in 20 years) passed a resolution on human rights in Iran. The resolution received more yes votes than it did during the first eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency; state-sponsored violence against everyday citizens has escalated under President Hassan Rouhani. The UN resolution noted the “alarming high frequency” of the death penalty (roughly three per day in 2015) and Iran’s continued execution of minors, in contravention of international conventions it has signed.
At the same time, Iran has continued its crackdown on journalists and labour unions. More than 200 labour organizers were arrested in the first half of 2015. The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center says 827 citizens are currently in prison for exercising their basic rights. The brutality with which the government treats human-rights activists, lawyers, journalists and members of religious minorities has not moderated in the least since it signed the nuclear deal. The Iranian government’s rhetoric of reform is just that: empty talk.
It is impossible to view the economy of Iran separately from the operation of its repressive state apparatus. State agents control so many aspects of the economy that it is hardly a fair market. Furthermore, economic attacks are used by the state to oppress particular groups and individuals.
A frequent target of government persecution is Iran’s Baha’i community. The Baha’is are the country’s largest religious minority, and over the course of the 20th century they made leading contributions to modern health care, girls education and industrial production. Since 1979, they have been the targets of an official government policy to eradicate them as a community, because the Baha’i faith is viewed with intense prejudice by governing hard-line clerics.
Since 2007, more than 780 incidents of economic persecution against Baha’is have been documented – including shop closings, dismissals, the revocation of business licences and other efforts to block Baha’is from earning a livelihood. In November last year, state agents co-ordinated the shutdown of at least 28 Baha’i-owned businesses in six different cities.
Among the Baha’i-owned businesses that have been repeatedly targeted is a mixed farm in northern Iran, run by the Khanjani family. The Khanjanis once ran a factory outside Esfahan that employed several hundred people, but this was shut down by the government after the 1979 revolution. The family then acquired property for a farm that had more than 1,000 livestock and 40,000 apple and peach trees, which produced about 300 tonnes of organic fruit a year. The farm has employed up to 60 workers.
Nineteen members of this family have been imprisoned at one time or another for no reason aside from their religion. Jamaloddin Khanjani was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, alongside six other leading members of the Baha’i community, on fabricated charges and with no due process. They received the longest sentence of any prisoners of conscience in Iran.
An all-party coalition of Canadian MPs has led a campaign over many years for their release from prison.
Since the arrest of Mr. Khanjani, the Iranian government has placed further pressure on the family by effectively confiscating its farmland. Reservoirs, buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed. At harvest time, produce wastes in the orchards.
Economic freedom does not exist in Iran – not for the Baha’i community, and not for other Iranian citizens. Until Iran starts to show real reform in protection for its own people, we should take great care about declaring it open for business.