By Hamid Yazdan Panah
The recent Iran deal has brought much fanfare and celebration, most of which conveniently overlooks the fundamental nature of the Iranian regime. Putting aside the details of the agreement, one claim in particular has consistently been made about the nuclear deal which simply holds no weight. The claim is that the nuclear deal will somehow improve human rights in Iran, and lead to an improvement in Iranian civil society.
This claim can be proven false objectively by human rights reports and practical observations, as well as in a theoretical sense when analyzing the structure of power in Tehran. Those who put forth such claims never identify an actual mechanism through which the nuclear deal will objectively improve human rights, or lead to increased democratization.
One pundit in particular is notorious for these types of assertions. Trita Parsi, of the National Iranian American Council, has ceaselessly lobbied for a nuclear deal, making all types of claims about what the benefits of the deal would be. In a recent CNN article, Parsi gave a list of supposed benefits of the claim, including that the deal would lead to the “Unleashing Iran’s moderates” and that this would lead to increased democratization in Iran. The claim is worth examining, not because of its merits (it has none), but because it reveals how human rights work is distorted to achieve political ends.
Parsi attempts a leap of logic here. The deal may benefit certain factions within the regime. These factions may carry the label “moderate”, though in reality, they are nothing of the sort. In point of fact executions under the “moderate” Rouhani have actually increased in Iran. Either way, the empowerment of a particular faction certainly does not change the reality of human rights and democracy in Iran.
As Parsi states, “The deal enjoys solid support among the Iranian public as well as among Iranian civil society leaders, partly because they believe the deal ‘would enable political and cultural reforms.’” Again, Parsi does not identify practical or objective improvements, nor does he cite a mechanism through which these improvements will be made. We are to assume that through some form of osmosis, the beliefs of Iranian civil society will lead to change.
Nevermind the fact that the UN For the sake of argument let us analyze the source Parsi cites to support his argument, and see whether or not it holds merit.
Parsi cites a study undertaken by the International Campaign For Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI). The methodology of the study, states: “While the Campaign approached 44 individuals inside Iran to interview for this study, only 28 agreed to talk to us on the record, due to security concerns.”
So we are to understand that the 28 people who agreed to talk, out of a country of 70 million, are a representative sample that we should use to formulate policy. Never mind that nearly half the individuals approached refused to be interviewed for fear of the consequences. The fear expressed by nearly half the individuals involved is more telling than the hope expressed by the 28 individuals cited.
Parsi conveniently sweeps aside the issues of institutional reform, democratic participation, or the fact that censorship scared off almost half the participants in the study he himself used. Nor does he mention the fact that Supreme Leader’s financial empire stands to gain considerably from the removal of sanctions. That doesn’t seem to factor into aspirations of democracy as Parsi sees it.
Parsi is not the only one engaged in this type of manipulation. The author of the study, the International Campaign for Human Rights is also guilty of shamelessly distorting what should be an objective study to fit their agenda.
In fact, the study itself notes, “Thirty-six percent expected no improvement in political or cultural freedoms.” That means roughly 10 of the 28 people surveyed believed no improvements would come of the nuclear deal.
Incidentally, the founder of the International Campaign for Human Rights is none other than Hadi Ghaemi, a former board member of NIAC, and someone who like Parsi has consistently called for an end to sanctions on the Iranian regime.
In 2008, Ghaemi and Parsi signed a “Joint Experts Statement on Iran”. The statement not only follows the regimes talking points on what it wants in terms of nuclear concessions but it also reveals keys points which underscore both Parsi and Ghaemi’s views on Iran, this includes their refusal to recognize the desire for fundamental change in Iran. The statement claims “In fact, there is currently no significant support within Iran for extra-constitutional regime change.” Interestingly enough, just one year later, major protests occurred throughout Iran, in which chants of “down with the Supreme Leader of Iran” became a common theme, something Parsi even admits in his own book.
Ghaemi’s blog on the “Iran Primer”, a website with a very clear and political agenda, is unabashedly in support of Hassan Rouhani and his supposed reforms. If the Director of Amnesty International was writing blog pieces in support of a particular administration or President, surely it would raise questions as to the impartiality of the organization.
The question remains as to why Ghaemi has used the International Campaign to advocate for his own political opinions. Normally a human rights organization should do research, and then present its findings after objective analysis. Not formulate a political position, outside the context of human rights, and then gather quotes which support that position, often times in a dishonest manner. It appears that Ghaemi has long held specific views on sanctions and reform in Iran, and uses the Campaign to launder those views.
The Campaign has also attempted to misrepresent the views of certain Iranian dissidents. Quoting them as though they expect the nuclear deal to lead to change in Iran, when their actual position is something else.
For example both NIAC and ICHRI use a quote by Nasrin Sotudeh is given which states, “It is obvious that we welcome peaceful relations with all countries and as such support the negotiations.” However, in other interviews Sotudeh has stated, “Reaching a nuclear agreement cannot automatically improve human rights in Iran…We should distinguish these issues from one another. If a government manages to reach an agreement with the international community, it can still continue to mistreat its own citizens.”
Prominent Iranian dissident, Mohammad Maleki, was quoted as saying “I support the nuclear negotiations.” But his full quote continues to state, “In my opinion, as long as people are not permitted to exercise their freedom of expression and opinion, then nothing significant will happen for the improvement of the human rights situation.”
These quotes show that the support for negotiations is only half the story for Iranian dissidents, and they readily identify the need for systemic change within Iran to take place, something with Ghaemi and Parsi avoid addressing. Instead they continue to promote ideas of change within the regime.
Blurring the line between political advocacy and human rights work does a disservice to the dissidents in Iran, and damages the credibility of the International Campaign. The fact is that they should be focusing their resources on Iran’s horrendous human rights record and the plight of dissidents within the country.
The ICHR has promoted itself as the leading human rights organization focused on Iran, yet the fact that it is involved so closely with NIAC and promoting a specific political agenda calls into question its legitimacy and impartiality. Some have even charged ICHR with being bias in its coverage of political prisoners within Iran.
Instead we see that they are engaged in politicized lobbying within the same framework as NIAC, and have a long term connection with that organization and its agenda.
The result of all of this is not very different than the results of the nuclear deal. Human rights activists and dissidents in Iran are used as pawns for political ends, while they continue to suffer under a brutal dictatorship. That is the reality of the nuclear deal in Iran.
Hamid Yazdan Panah is an attorney focused on asylum and immigration in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also a human rights activist focused on the Middle East and Iran.