Sunday, 15 October 2017
For all his claims of moderation, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has overseen a crackdown by Iranian security forces. The ranks of political prisoners have swollen since he took office. A shockingly broad range of “offenses” can lead to execution, and despite campaign-trail promises of a more open Iranian society, Rouhani has done nothing to curtail this trend. Well over 3,000 people were executed during his first term, some for “crimes” such as donating money to banned media outlets sympathetic to the main opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
There are few limits on who can be put to death. Iran remains one of very few countries that still executes offenders under the age of 18 at the time of their arrest. This practice has continued during Rouhani’s tenure, and as recently as August, two juvenile offenders were slated for execution within a week of each other.
Although one of these executions did not ultimately go forward, it was not because his sentence was commuted. Instead, the accused paid blood money to the victim’s family, in return for which they spared his life as is their right under Iran’s Islamic law. In recent years, whenever the execution rate has declined, it has apparently been because of this practice, and not because of any change in judicial sentencing.
This serves to illustrate the sharp difference between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people when it comes to basic questions of human compassion. Such misalignment between government and citizenry is important to understand in setting policy toward the Islamic Republic, and President Trump deserves credit for calling attention to it in his United Nations speech. On the other hand, Trump did not make human rights a focus of his remarks, which is unfortunate because despite Tehran’s defiance on matters such as juvenile executions, international pressure can still be effective.
To its credit, the White House is doing its part to back criticism up with credible threats and to build international consensus in many areas. But as long as the United States leaves human rights in the margin of its Iran policy, Tehran will continue to push the boundaries. And as long as the international community continues to look the other way on past crimes, there remains a high benchmark for what Tehran believes it can get away with.
That benchmark was set in 1988, when the Iranian regime set up “death commissions” to dole out death sentences for approximately 30,000 political prisoners, most of them opposition activists. The “offenders,” including numerous juveniles, were executed over the course of a single summer and then buried in secret mass graves. Recently, the United Nations finally broke the international silence when the special rapporteur on human rights in Iran called attention to the massacre in her latest report.
Unfortunately, the United Nations maintains that Iran could be urged to undertake its own investigation, even after 29 years of enforcing silence domestically. Perhaps the United Nations is still clinging to the notion of moderation under President Rouhani, a man who appointed two consecutive justice ministers in full awareness of the roles they had played on death commissions in 1988.
But the United States is apparently immune from such naïveté. This perspective must be brought into view in the deliberations at the United Nations over the forthcoming resolution calling attention to Iran’s abysmal human rights record. For the first time, there is a chance that the resolution will look unflinchingly into the past and finally make it clear that Iran’s past behavior is not forgivable, and its current behavior is not acceptable.
The pressure on the Iranian regime must be backed up by assertive policies and it should be focused on the correct topics, like those the United Nations has identified. The coming deliberations present an opportunity to finally adopt the correct policy on human rights in Iran.