Commentary: Iran’s Foreign Minister Toes the Supreme Leader’s Line on Human Rights

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ICHRI– When Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently tried to side-step questions about the country’s abysmal human rights record, he yet again exposed his government’s inability—or reluctance—to face the issue even though President Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013 promising to improve it.

At a press conference in Norway on June 13, 2016, Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam, the co-founder and spokesman of Iran Human Rights, tried to put Zarif on the hot seat:

“You mentioned that in the last election many young people voted for Mr. Rouhani because they wanted the raemoval of sanctions and engagement [with other countries]. But among the main reasons youth voted were  [Rouhani’s] promises to improve human rights and release political prisoners. Now, about three years later, we see that unfortunately the situation of human rights has not improved. In some cases, it has even gotten worse, like with the death penalty. Last year probably saw the highest number of annual executions in more than 30 years. So, when it comes to civil society [in Iran], the crackdown continues.”

He continued: “The human rights defender Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison, 10 years for simply establishing an anti-death penalty campaign, which was peaceful. Arash Sadeghiwas meanwhile sentenced to 19 years in prison for peaceful civil activities. When it comes to the cultural crackdown, recently the police attacked a graduation party of some young students, boys and girls, and they were lashed 99 times because they were partying together. So, my questions to you are:

1) When will human rights be improved now that the engagement [with other countries] has started and the nuclear deal has been achieved?

2) How stable and secure is a state that cannot tolerate peaceful civil activities or even a bunch of students partying together?

Zarif shot back: “Actually, I think the people of Iran, who went to the polls to vote for members of Parliament only two months ago [February 2016], have shown that at least back home in Iran they are happier than you are here looking from a distance… So, I hope that you can change your glasses and look at Iran again.”

There is, however, no evidence to suggest that people’s participation in elections indicates their approval of their government’s human rights record. The Islamic Republic cannot justify thecontinuing crackdown on civil rights activists, religious minorities and journalists, and the mistreatment of women as second-class citizens by citing the high voter turnout in its recent elections.

As the front man of Iran’s foreign policy, Zarif can help reform his country’s human rights record from his perch in the international arena. He can listen to criticism from human rights organizations and pass it on to the relevant Iranian authorities. Instead he has consistently avoided the topic or tried to justify Iran’s deplorable record of crushing plurality and dissent.

No Problem, No Change

“We do not jail people for their opinions,” Zarif told American talk show host Charlie Rose on April 28, 2015, in response to a question about the recent wave of arrests of journalists in Iran. “The government has a plan to improve [and] enhance human rights in the country, as every government should. And I believe we have an obligation as a government to our own people to do that. But people who commit crimes, who violate the laws of the country, cannot hide behind being a journalist or being a political activist. People have to observe the law.”

A year earlier Zarif had resorted to denying even knowing about the case of prominent student leader Majid Tavakoli, who, along with many of his peers, was imprisoned for leading peaceful protests during Iran’s widely contested 2009 presidential election and has remained imprisoned during the Rouhani administration.

Zarif’s ongoing denials of Iran’s poor human rights record has earned the ire of many Iranian journalists who have been imprisoned because of their articles and opinions.

“I spent weeks under duress inside Ward 209 of Evin Prison, [where I was pressured] to take responsibility for the news articles and reports I had written,” said Siamak Ghaderhi, a journalist who was imprisoned for four years in 2010 for publishing posts critical of the government on his blogs. “Why I did I go to prison for four years, Mr. Zarif?”

Since Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, UK, US, plus Germany) signed the nuclear deal in July 2015, the Foreign Ministry, which is led by Zarif, has increasingly handled Iran’s human rights dossier in international forums—a task that was previously managed by the Judiciary.

Rights activists accordingly expressed worry that Zarif would toe the official line set by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who favors a heavily monitored and restricted society and has repeatedly warned that Iran should not submit to foreign pressure on any issue. Meanwhile, conservative extremists have publicly doubted Zarif’s ability to uphold the Islamic Republic’s values and image because they see him as being too soft on the West.

In February 2014, Iran’s state television—which is controlled by Khamenei’s supporters—complained that Zarif was increasingly assuming responsibility for handling human rights cases involving Iran in international forums, such as the UN, instead of deferring to the Judiciary (as representatives of the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had done). The report claimed that, according to a decision by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the only body in charge of such cases is the Judiciary’s Human Rights Council. But the Foreign Ministry has continued to address these issues on the international stage, including at the nuclear talks with the P5+1 countries.

Yet the Zarif-led Foreign Ministry has not treated the issue very differently than the Judiciary. When confronted with criticism, Zarif uses the same dismissive language and accuses Western governments of using human rights as a tool to take down their opponents while turning a blind eye to abuses committed by their allies.

In a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart in June 2015, Zarif claimed Western countries expose their double standard on human rights by responding differently to human rights issues in Iraq and Syria, and called on independent states to reject Western-backed UN resolutions on human rights. A month later he criticized the West’s “obvious” double-standards in a meeting with the Serbian foreign minister, and a few months later told his Australian counterpart that human rights should not be used as leverage against other countries.

Zarif has expressed willingness to discuss the topic with European governments, most recently in aspeech at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). “I am prepared to enter talks with Europe on human right issues and have bilateral talks with [EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini],” he said on June 15, 2016.

But he has so far mainly resorted to bringing up the high voter turnouts in Iran’s 2013 presidential election and 2016 parliamentary elections to deflect any substantial discussion of specific cases involving human rights. Meanwhile, simply agreeing in principle to talk about human rights with foreign governments has resulted in Iran’s conservatives accusing the Rouhani administration of capitulating to Western demands.

“If we allow a new game called ‘human rights’ to become an issue in the same exact way as the 13-year nuclear game that was played by the P5+1 nations, won’t we be betraying our principles?”opined Fatemeh Taheri in the ultra-conservative Risheh website on June 14, 2016. Taheri also reminded her readers that the supreme leader has warned the Rouhani government against engaging with the West on any topic that interferes with Iran’s internal affairs.

During his presidential campaign in 2013, Rouhani gave speeches about expanding freedoms and freeing political prisoners. But it has become clear that Iran’s foreign minister is not only deferring to the supreme leader on these issues, but also following his guidelines regarding engaging with the West on human rights. There are few other explanations for Zarif’s blatantly false and misleading statements on the topic.


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