Updated: Nov 29, 2021
by Masih Alinejad, Kambiz Foroohar
Tuesday, March 9, 2021
Editor's Note: Masih Alinejad, Kambiz Foroohar is an Iranian journalist, author, political activist, and women's rights activist who focuses on criticism of Iranian 'Islamofascism', especially in women's rights.
Masih Alinejad leads Women's Movement Against the Forced Hijab
Thousands of Iranian women took to the streets to protest against the hijab law in Tehran in the spring of 1979
It has been a tough few months for human rights in Iran.
Wrestler Navid Afkari and laborer Mostafa Salehi were executed in quick succession for participating in public protests against the Islamic Republic.
Dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam was, in an elaborate plot hatched by the Revolutionary Guards, lured to Baghdad from his home in France and abducted to Tehran. After a brief show trial, in December Zam was hanged.
In February, prisoner of conscience Behnam Mahjoubi was denied medical treatment and killed under torture.
Add to this list, just in the past six months, a number of Baluchi and Arab-Iranians have been executed as part of a campaign to sow fear among the country’s ethnic minorities.
Biden has made human rights a prime consideration in shaping his foreign policy towards Turkey and Saudi Arabia. When it comes to Iran, however, he seems to be intent on simply undoing some of the effective policies put into place by the previous administration. Certainly, the new team has shown little indication that the Iranian popular campaign for freedom or the country’s abysmal human rights record is to be at all relevant in its overall strategy toward the country.
President Biden’s oft repeated plan is to reverse the Trump administration's efforts and, in particular, to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The so-called "Iran Deal" was the signature foreign policy accomplishment of President Obama’s team, many of whose members are filling similar positions in the new administration. A return to the JCPOA fits into the Biden campaign's general political narrative of returning to the policies of the Obama era and to the reassertion of an American commitment to multilateralism. Getting back into the Iran Deal ticks many of the boxes.
The appointment of Robert Malley, a longtime diplomat, capable of holding his nose as he deals with unsavory despots in the region, reinforced the message that Biden was serious about the deal. Within the Iranian community he is seen as a defender of Tehran’s clerical regime. In his public writings and statements, he has rarely blamed the Islamic Republic for any of its nefarious actions. In Oct. 2019, after the Iranian military attacked Saudi oil facilities, in an article for Foreign Affairs, Malley warned against“war with Iran.” The only alternative to “war with Iran” is presented as diplomatic engagement. When a month later, the Iranian security forces killed 1,500 protesters in a matter of a few days in order to stop widespread demonstrations, Malley in a French TV appearance blamed the Saudis, the Israelis and the Americans.
A disorganized last minute campaign by Iranian dissidents and human rights activists failed to derail Malley’s appointment especially after a chorus of lobbyists for the Islamic Republic and former Obama administration officials, notably Ben Rhodes, the former communications guru for Obama’s White House entered the fray, accusing the naysayers of being warmongers and funded by the Saudis.
Amidst the Washington political point scoring, a simple observation was lost. Iran has changed greatly and the Islamic Republic has lost all basis of legitimacy among Iranians. There have been at least three bursts of nationwide protests since 2009 calling for change, and it is clear that the new administration is in danger of siding with a brutal regime against its own people.
This chasm came into view when a group of 38 Iranian political prisoners, respected opposition figures and political activists all based in Iran published an open letter to President Biden, at a great risk to themselves to insist on the continuation of "maximum political, diplomatic and financial pressure" on the Iranian regime.
The nuclear deal’s proponents had argued that lifting the sanctions was the prime desire of the Iranian people, but leaders of the civil society inside Iran are on the contrary calling for maximum financial pressure - namely, the continuation of sanctions. The signatories included individuals who have been jailed after demanding Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's resignation in a letter signed by fourteen dissidents in 2019. They asked Biden to recognize their demand for a secular government and “support [for] human rights in Iran and the release of all prisoners of conscience and those who are in jail for not adhering to the ideology of the Islamic Republic."
The signatories, a diverse group from different social strata and political beliefs, include Manouchehr Bakhtiari who has been jailed for protesting his son's murder by security forces during the November 2019 unrest, dissidents Fatemeh Sepehri and Mohammad Nourizad, and civil rights activists such as Farangis Mazloum, an anti-war activist. The authors are either in jail or have all served prison terms for seeking a more democratic and inclusive Iran.
The letter, which was entirely ignored in the US media, adds to the complexity of the task facing Biden’s administration but also raises an important question – who speaks for Iran’s people. It is an important question since there is a deep chasm between the ruling clerical regime and the vast majority of Iranians who reluctantly tolerate the status quo.
Every day, ordinary Iranians are paying a price for pushing back on the restrictions that annul what we in the West take as our inalienable rights. The irony is not lost on many Iranians that while the Democrats castigated the Trump administration for its purported discriminatory policies toward women, they are silent on the gender apartheid rules enforced in the Islamic Republic.
Anti-compulsory hijab protesters are harshly singled out for punishment. Saba Kord Afshari, a 22 year-old women’s rights defender, posted videos and photographs of herself in public without a headscarf , as part of the White Wednesdays - My Stealthy Freedom campaign. She was sentenced to 24 years in prison for encouraging people to commit immorality, colluding against national security and spreading propaganda against the system.
Of course, Saba is not alone. Her mother, Raheleh Ahwas was also jailed for protesting against the sentence handed down to her daughter. Another mother-activist duo is Yasamin Aryani who is only 24 but is serving 16 years for removing her headscarf. Her mother Monireh Arabshahi is also jailed for protesting compulsory hijab laws.
How is the Biden administration to deal with a regime with little popular support and an abysmal human rights record, with a record of assassinating dissidents, kidnapping opposition figures and holding dual nationals as hostage?
In 2009, Team Obama sat on the sidelines as Iranians voiced their anger over the Obama administration’s muted response to the violent crackdown on protests following the disputed presidential elections.. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later said she regretted her decision not to be more forceful in her response. At that time, the Obama administration thought that placating Iran’s clerical leadership would lead to improved relations.
In the rush to undo the previous administration’s record, the signs are there that Team Biden is about to make the grievous mistake of pursuing an agreement with the Islamic Republic without paying any heed to human rights. It is not as if the U.S. government is unaware of Iran’s human rights violations, so leaving human rights out of any future negotiations with Tehran would be an indefensible betrayal of the Iranian people.
The Department of State under Secretary Pompeo underscored the importance of human rights, and documented abuses in such publications as its Report on Unalienable Rights.
The Biden administration is not even paying lip service to human rights. On Feb. 16, Behnam Mahjoubi, a member of Iran’s severely persecuted Sufi Gonabadi Order, who was subjected to months of torture was hospitalized because of his injuries and went into a coma from which he never recovered. In an audio tape smuggled out of prison, Mahjoubi had previously described being tied to a pole in the shape of crucifix for hours. Mahjoubi was among hundreds of Sufi dervishes who were arrested at street demonstrations in Tehran in 2018. He had been serving a two-year prison sentence under the charge of “collusion against national security” in Evin Prison since June 2020 and remained imprisoned even though he suffered seizures and partial paralysis.
The previous administration made a habit of calling out Tehran’s abuses of human rights but the silence from Team Biden’s top diplomats, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Malley sends a clear message.
To be charitable, perhaps as Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security advisor, has explained, the aim is to address the nuclear problem quickly so the administration can move on to addressing Iran’s malign behavior across the region.
Good luck with that.
The nuclear issue and the economic sanctions are the only leverage Washington has over the Islamic Republic. If Washington fails to raise human rights concerns now, from the fate of dual nationals and political prisoners to gender apartheid practices and religious pogroms against the persecuted Baha’i minority, it will squander this leverage.
Once sanctions are lifted, Tehran will have no desire to open up a dialogue on other issues, least of all on human rights.
Masih Alinejad is a human rights campaigner and founder of My Stealthy Freedom campaign against compulsory hijab in the Islamic Republic. Kambiz Foroohar is a journalist and a geopolitical strategist.