Dealmakers must end their silence on human rights abuses in Iran

Moderniser Rouhani executed a prisoner every two hours this June


After an historic nuclear agreement was reached with six world powers on Tuesday, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani hailed the end of the ‘inhumane and tyrannical’ international sanctions that have been crippling the Iranian economy for years.

In exchange for the lifting of sanctions, Iran will have to reduce its current stockpile of low enriched uranium by 98 per cent, and reduce the number of centrifuges it owns by two-thirds.

That a deal has been reached is remarkable – just last year Rouhani said Iran would not dismantle existing centrifuges ‘under any circumstances’ – and will probably go down as the biggest diplomatic achievement of Obama’s career.

It has come about – perhaps could only have come about – in a climate of weakening US-Israel ties and intensifying sectarian rifts across the Middle East. The wisdom of seeking an allegiance with Iran against IS remains to be debated.

For Iranians the deal draws a line under the Ahmadinejad years, when the slogan ‘nuclear energy is our absolute right’ was popularised and international relations soured seemingly beyond redemption, leading to Iran becoming one of the most sanctioned countries on earth.

There is no doubt that the departure of the ultranationalist, Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad was good for Iran’s PR. But it is a mistake to see Rouhani as a moderniser simply because he is not his predecessor, and the new dialogue between Iran and the West has plainly failed at improving the human rights situation in the country.

Executions in Iran continue to take place with astonishing frequency. According to Iran Human Rights (IHR), an Oslo-based organisation, at least 570 prisoners were hanged in the first half of 2015, the highest rate for two decades.

The IHR says that approximately 39 per cent of executions are reported on state television, but most slip under the radar. It’s little wonder; according to IHR, between 1 and 17 June a prisoner was executed every two hours. Over a period of three days in April, 43 people were executed, including a juvenile with a serious mental illness.

Crimes people have been executed for under Rouhani include:

‘Working with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran’

‘Heresy and insulting the prophet Jonah’

‘Waging war on God’ (through poetry)


(IHR. Click to enlarge)

It is astonishing that there has been so little mention of this in almost a decade of negotiations, and that Iran’s nuclear activity is given as the only reason for sanctions. When planning changes that will affect every aspect of Iranian life, human rights abuses have been completely overlooked.

That western powers have focused so obsessively on Iran’s nuclear potential whilst ignoring the experiences of civilians plays right into the hands of Iran’s religious hardliners. The Ayatollah Khamenei’s portrayal of the US and its allies as warmongers pure and simple is an important part of his nationalist agenda.

This is not the first time in recent months that western hypocrisy on human rights has been so illuminated. In the midst of the international outcry at the flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, David Cameron expressed his sadness at the death of Saudi King Abdullah, whose ‘commitment to peace’ he praised.

Iranians will welcome the lifting of sanctions, which have led to staggering inflation and made it increasingly difficult to access healthcare and medicine. But this new rapprochement between Iran and the west must include a dialogue on human rights.

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on Iran, said on news of the deal:

“It is my sincere hope that the successful conclusion of the nuclear talks, which will enable the lifting of economic sanctions, will allow president Hassan Rouhani to focus on his other campaign pledges, specifically those to promote the enjoyment of all human rights by the Iranian people.”

Of course, dealmakers must consider that humanitarian demands may threaten their other conditions. This is why it is so crucial that, with a deal having been struck, the spotlight is turned on the executions, imprisonment of journalists, crackdown on free association and women’s rights, and mistreatment of minorities that have been overshadowed for so long by nuclear concerns.

Isolating a country does not improve human rights there (North Korea), and opening channels of dialogue could be an opportunity to improve things for Iranians. But so far we have seen only an opportunistic silence on these issues.

If they are serious about presenting the nuclear deal as a positive step for relations with Iran, it is crucial that western leaders use their new engagement with the Iranian government to speak out against its treatment of its citizens.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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