Why Human Rights In Iran Are Getting Worse—and What To Do About It

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Prospects for Reform

Most human rights abuses are political in nature and closely linked with establishing the regime's control over its population. The regime's crackdown since the 2009 protests and its growing insecurities in the wake of the Arab uprisings have made many experts skeptical of prospects for reform within the current political system. "The government realizes the potential for such uprisings in Iran" says Ghaemi, "and it has made the regime and the security apparatus even more repressive and intolerant."

"I don't see a kinder, gentler Islamic republic happening anytime soon," says CFR's Isobel Coleman. Iran experienced a period of reforms and relative improvement in human rights under President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2004. But Coleman says she is doubtful of another period of reforms under an elected official, saying the human rights situation will remain "grim" unless there is a fundamental change in the regime. Kar says there must be separation between the state and Islam in politics and governance.

The reform movement suffers from its own weaknesses. Ghaemi says it lacks leadership and a political vision. In this video for CFR's Iran Crisis Guide, Vali Nasr of Tufts University says that for the Green Movement to become a regime-changing factor, it will have to build coalitions among a broad spectrum of the Iranian public "and, in a way, that can defy regime pressure and suppression."

The ongoing power struggle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made prospects for reform even more uncertain. Speaking at an academic gathering in October 2011, Khamenei went as far as proposing the possibility of eliminating the position of the president and moving toward a parliamentary system. Eliminating the presidency will enhance the powers of the supreme leader, but either way, Khamenei will seek to ensure that the next president or prime minister is under his control, experts say. The tipping point, Ghaemi says, could be the 2013 presidential elections, which may allow Khamenei to reshape the political landscape in his vision or he may face greater resistance from competing centers of power in Tehran.

"Many Iranians would like a more progressive and democratic government," says Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who spent four months in the notorious Evin prison in Iran in 2009. But she says it is not clear how many of them prefer an Islamic or a secular government. A March 2011 paper in Political Research Quarterly based on a 2005 and a 2008 survey in Iran argued that popular discontent with the regime's performance had a strong and positive correlation to greater support for democracy.

Kar says for any meaningful change, there must be reforms in election laws that grant the Guardian Council of twelve Islamic jurists, six of them appointed by the supreme leader, the right to veto parliamentary and presidential candidates. Ghaemi calls for reform of the judiciary and greater accountability for the country's security forces.


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Rights activists in and outside Iran have repeatedly said the international focus on Iran's nuclear program--which many Western states believe is cover for a weapons program-- has hampered efforts to advance human rights reforms. Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, says "unfortunately, the nuclear energy issue has stalemated many issues in Iran, the most important being the issue of human rights."

But global attention to Iranian human rights has been on the rise. In March 2011, the UN Human Rights Council appointed a special rapporteur for Iran to investigate the country's human rights violations, the first since 2002.

The United States imposed the first sanctions on Iran for human rights abuses in September 2010. Ten Iranian officials were barred from travel to the United States, and financial restrictions were imposed. The European Union also sanctioned thirty-two Iranian officials in April 2011 and another twenty-nine in October. These include senior members of security forces and the judiciary.

While the impact of sanctions remain uncertain, experts say targeted sanctions are effective tools for naming and shaming Iranian authorities and keeping the spotlight on human rights abuses. "It's the best way to show that the international community cares," says Ghaemi, urging for sanctions that target private sector and government companies that enable repression, such as those that censor mobile, satellite, and Internet communications. Coleman says the United States must be more consistent on human rights in Iran.

Some experts have also called for the United States to support greater openness in Iran by providing Iranians with improved access to technology. The U.S. State Department will continue efforts to train and provide tools to Iran's civil society activists to counter the government's widespread Internet surveillance and censorship efforts. In a May 2011 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee, Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner said the State Department plans to "support more advanced counter-censorship technologies, including circumvention tools in Farsi, secure mobile communications, and technologies to enable activists to post their own content online and protect against cyberattacks."

Some Iranians have also questioned what they see as lack of adequate U.S. support for the Green Movement in 2009. Others caution any direct U.S. involvement, arguing it would delegitimize the opposition movement. In an October 2011 interview with BBC Persia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said if the Green Movement or some other opposition movement gained strength and decided that they wanted U.S. support, they should ask for it more directly.

Saberi says the international community should also find a way to "help exiled journalists and human rights defenders who have fled Iran to continue their education and their work, and lead by example by observing human rights ourselves." There are efforts by the U.S. State Department to expand cooperation with the Iranian people. Clinton said by the end of 2011, Washington will have a "virtual embassy in Tehran." It will be aimed at connecting with the Iranian people by answering their questions on the web, such as how to travel or apply for studying in the United States.


This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Jayshree Bajoria is a senior staff writer at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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