Source: The Foreign Policy Initiative
Iran’s recent sentencing of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian to a prison term of unspecified duration reflects a broader surge of human rights abuses since the July 14 nuclear agreement. The timing of the latest crackdown is no coincidence: Tehran seeks to rebut U.S. claims that the nuclear deal may strengthen moderate forces in Iran and improve relations between the two nations. Ironically, the agreement has spurred Tehran to escalate its domestic repression.
In November, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) arrested some 170 people whom it called “managers of a number of mobile social networking groups” who acted against “moral security in the Iranian society,” according to Iranian state media. “Facilitating access to obscene content through social networks, encouraging immoral behavior, and publishing insulting content about ethnic groups, officials and national figures were among the illegal activities for which they were detained,” the report noted. The IRGC also arrested five journalists that it dubbed “members of an infiltration group connected to the US and UK.”
According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, these incarcerations amount to the “largest crackdown since the violent state suppression of the protests that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran,” and come in the wake of a series of similar abuses.
Since July 14, Iran has blocked social networking apps such as Telegram, IMO, BeeTalk and Signal; sentenced journalist Solmaz Ikdar to three years in prison for criticizing the regime on Facebook; arrested prominent cartoonist Hadi Heidari and journalists Issa Saharkhiz and Ehsan Mazandarani; sentenced poets Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Moosavi to prison terms of nine years and six months, respectively, for criticizing the regime, and to 99 lashes apiece for shaking hands with the opposite sex; sentenced award-winning Iranian filmmaker Keywan Karimi to six years in prison and 223 lashes; and sentenced prominent author Mohammad Ali Taheri to death for “sowing corruption on Iran” through his promotion of alternative medicine.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, released a report in October detailing a grim litany of human rights abuses over the past year. Perhaps most notably, the document states that Iran continues “to execute more individuals per capita than any other country in the world.” Between January 1 and September 15, Tehran executed 694 prisoners (compared to 753 in all of 2014), “likely putting the execution rate during the first half of 2015 at its highest in some 25 years.”
Moreover, the report noted, Iran has tortured prisoners and denied them access to lawyers; restricted the political rights of religious minorities and regime opponents; curbed women’s rights in civil, political, social and economic arenas; and persecuted Baha’is, Christians, and Sufi Dervish minorities. At the same time, Tehran has continued to reject continuous requests — issued in vain by the office of the special rapporteur since 2005 — for country visits.
The report nonetheless expressed hope that the nuclear agreement will spur the regime “to redouble its efforts” to improve human rights. The data it catalogues, however, suggest that Iran will continue its intransigence. In fact, in a perverse irony fraught with bleak symbolism, the Islamist regime — as the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran recently observed — has even attempted to silence Iranian media outlets critical of the deal.
Tehran’s posture stems not merely from its determination to preserve its decades-long grip on power, but also from its conviction that the nuclear deal has created a new threat to its survival. Both during and after the negotiations, the Obama administration repeatedly portrayed the agreement as an opportunity to mend Iran’s relationship with the United States and the international community. However, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fears such an outcome would spur the expansion of U.S. power in the region, lead to his country’s “infiltration” with Western cultural influences that contradict the values of the Islamic Revolution, and ultimately undermine his regime.
“The enemies,” Khamenei said on September 9, “are trying to make our youth become decadent and indifferent towards the Revolution and to kill the spirit of valor and being revolutionary in them.” “Negotiations,” he added, “are just an excuse and a tool for penetration. Negotiations are an instrument for imposing their demands.” In essence, they seek to change “beliefs, ideals, outlooks and lifestyle,” Khamenei said on November 25. “They want to do something to make the targeted individual and the influenced personality think in the same way that the Americans do.” For this reason, the supreme leader insisted during the talks that they must focus exclusively on the nuclear file, and reaffirmed after the agreement that he still will not negotiate with the United States on any other issue.
By escalating its domestic repression now, Tehran aims to reinforce its earlier message that a post-nuclear deal Iran will continue to oppose American regional influence and values. Ironically therefore, while President Obama once argued that the nuclear deal would make it “easier” to check Iran’s other “nefarious activities,” the campaign to secure the release of Jason Rezaian and other American prisoners will actually prove far more challenging today. From Tehran’s perspective, their release would convey the unacceptable impression that the nuclear deal has spurred the very rapprochement between America and Iran that the regime has inflexibly opposed.
In effect, then, the nuclear deal has further radicalized an already repressive regime, and leaves the United States in a weaker position to influence its policies. At the same time, while the nuclear agreement sacrificed much of America’s economic leverage, President Obama can still begin to alter Iran’s strategic calculus by acting on his earlier pledge to continue sanctioning Iran for its human rights violations. For example, America could impose new sanctions on the IRGC, a key party to Tehran’s despotism. In other words, rather than continue its current passivity, the Obama administration should demonstrate that Iran’s imprisonment of American hostages will spur severe consequences.