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Shrinking Rights in Iran

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: May 9, 2007


A spring clampdown on dress code violations, such as women with immodest headdress or men with Western-style haircuts, is something of a pre-summer ritual in Iran. News reports suggest this year’s crackdown (RFE/RL) has been particularly thorough, with over ten thousand women receiving warnings during a ten-day stretch in April. According to Human Rights Watch, Iran’s judiciary, which instigated the crackdown, is using national security laws to rein in Iran’s “burgeoning” women’s rights movement.

The problem, of course, is not limited to hemlines or haircuts. Human rights have steadily eroded across the board under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Disappearances and deaths by stoning are now common, according to the State Department, as are extrajudicial killings, restrictions on civil liberties, and “violence by vigilante groups with ties to the government.” Last December the UN General Assembly also censured Tehran for various human rights violations, including its use of torture and press restrictions (BBC). Even al-Jazeera was recently banned from Iran’s Majlis for insulting a Shiite cleric. Arrests of political opponents are also increasingly routine; a former top nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, was arrested April 30 for reportedly spying and exchanging nuclear secrets with “foreign elements” (BBC). And an Iranian-American academic was recently nabbed in Tehran and briefly detained (IHT). These rights concerns, taken alongside heightened tensions over the nuclear issue and sanctions, have “created an unprecedented pressure which can make the society more vulnerable than before,” writes the Iranian blogger Mohammad Ali Abtahi.

Yet some experts complain that Iran’s human rights issues have not received more outside attention. “The nuclearization of U.S.-Iran relations has come at expense of other issues such as human rights, and that needs to be brought back to the table,” argues Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council. With talk of more normalized bilateral relations in the air, some reformists democracy activists remain skeptical Tehran would ever want to end its diplomatic isolation. “This would reduce state domination of an economy that is crippled by corruption and negligence, and loosen control of societal and political life by state institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and their allies,” writes Iranian author Nasrin Alavi.

It is also unclear what role outside powers like the United States should play to promote human rights in Iran. The Bush administration allocated $75 million to the cause but prominent Iranian activists like Akbar Ganji say “it will make the work of the pro-democracy movement more difficult” by tainting those who receive U.S. funds (ChiTrib). Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center agrees. “Some democracy activists have faced detention and interrogation over alleged complicity in a U.S. plot to foment a ‘soft revolution,’” he writes in this recent Online Debate. Litwak says U.S. funds should only go toward pro-democracy groups based in the United States, whether American or Iranian-American, which then filter money less directly back to Iran. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute agrees Washington’s money can taint the activists it is intended to help. But debating Litwak, Rubin argues that “Tehran’s crackdown on dissent predated the congressional appropriation of $75 million,” pointing to the muzzling of Iranian dissidents like Ahmad Batebi and Mansour Ossanlou. This CFR Backgrounder examines the country’s deteriorating human rights record.

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