Iran’s Civil Society Ignored but Defiant

Iran’s Civil Society Ignored but Defiant
By Hamid Yazdan Panah

Don’t look now but Iran’s civil society is on fire.  In recent weeks dissidents, ethnic minorities, and political activists have presented a formidable challenge to the claim that the Nuclear Deal with Iran would benefit human rights and political reform. Their presence is also a sharp critique  towards the facade of reform projected by Hassan Rouhani. The unrest is particularly inconvenient for Rouhani and his Western counterparts who appear more interested in establishing ties with the theocracy in Tehran than the ongoing movement for change in Iran.

In November ethnic Azeri’s rose up in protest in Tabriz, Urmia and Zanjan after state TV aired a racist joke directed against the group. Protesters wereconfronted with tear gas and riot police as they took to the streets to demand an end to racist policies in the country. The protests provided the opportunity for one of Iran’s largest ethnic minorities to voice their grievances against a repressive regime which routinely discriminates against them.  


Azeri’s are not the only minorities protesting repression in Iran. Ethnic Kurds also protested discrimination and repression in May of this year, following the suspicious death of a young Kurdish woman. Iranian Kurds, many of whom are Sunni muslims, continue to face discrimination and repression. In October, Iranconfirmed the death sentence of  Sunni preacher Shahram Ahmadi who is of Kurdish ethnicity.  Iran’s ethnic minorities make upnearly half of the country's population, yet they routinely face institutional discrimination and are sentenced to deathwithout a fair trial.

Last month,  Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, called on the regime to end its intimidation and harassment of journalists and dissidents. In a statementShaheed stated, “The government of Iran should not silence critical or dissenting voices under the guise of vague and unsubstantiated national security concerns.”

His calls are particularly poignant as Iranian dissidents continue to engage in organized acts of civil disobedience despite the continual threat of arrest.  Recent video clips from Iran show well known dissidents rallying on the street, and outside of Evin prison and the judiciary, in protest of the lack of civil liberties in Iran.The clips include the elderlyMohammad Maleki, the former President of Tehran University, singing a hymn asking when freedom will come to the people of Iran. The clips also include a defiant woman who removes the hood of her jacketrevealing that she has no headscarf, in bold defiance of compulsory veiling in Iran.

The courage of these activists, and their strategy of defiant civil disobedience is indeed a sight to see and provides a compelling view of Iran’s rich and organized civil society. Yet you won’t find these stories in mainstream coverage on Iran, nor is Iranian civil society acknowledged as a player when discussing political and economic deals with the Ayatollahs.


Despite hollow claims that a deal with the regime would improve human rights, executions are in fact on the rise this year in Iran, and have beenhigher under Rouhani than Ahmadinejad. This begs the question, where do Iran’s dissidents fall in the context of a cozier relationship with Tehran? If recent history is any indication, it appears they fated to remain on the outskirts, ignored but defiant in their dissent.

Hamid Yazdan Panah is an Iranian-American human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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