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Human Rights in Iran: Prospects and the Western Response
Friday, August 12, 2005

By Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director

In response to ongoing developments in Iran, on June 9 the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also called the U.S. Helsinki Commission, held a hearing entitled, “The Iran Crisis: A Transatlantic Response,” to examine the continuing pattern of serious human rights violations in Iran and consider how to formulate an effective transatlantic response. The hearing is part of a series to explore emerging threats to countries in the OSCE region. Iran shares borders with several OSCE participant States: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan and also borders Afghanistan, an OSCE Partner for Cooperation.

Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) focused squarely on the deteriorating human rights climate in Iran: “Across the border, Iran's human rights record is dismal and getting worse. The Iranian regime employs all of the levers of power to crush dissent, resorting in every form of persecution, even so far as execution. No effort is spared to silence opposition.”

“Freedom denied” sums up the regime’s approach to fundamental human rights across the board, observed Chairman Brownback, “the tyrants in Tehran time and time again have shown a zeal for crushing outbreaks of free thought. Having come down hard on vestiges of independent media, the regime has pursued those who sought refuge on the Internet as a domain for democratic discussion.”

Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) drew attention to the extensive economic ties between many European countries and Iran, suggesting that such interests influence policy toward Tehran. Smith also questioned the effectiveness of existing UN human rights structures and the need for major reform of the system.

Dr. Jeff Gedmin, Director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, testifying before the Commission, noted the paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy following the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “It’s changed our thinking about democracy, not only for the moral reasons, but because, as the president and others have said, the old realism, the old stability sort of policies didn't keep us safe, either. They weren’t fully moral, and they didn’t keep us safe.” Gedmin urged a more assertive approach toward Iran that would link the security approach and the human rights and democracy approach, and warned against concentrating on the former to the exclusion of the latter. Gedmin called for ensuring that promotion of democracy is part of any dialogue with the regime, while admitting that European commercial interests could complicate matters.

In his testimony, Tom Melia, Deputy Executive Director of Freedom House, focused on the dynamics of democracy promotion more generally and efforts to foster related U.S. and European cooperation through the Trans-Atlantic Democracy Network initiative involving senior government officials and NGO activists from both sides of the Atlantic. He admitted that there are a variety of European perspectives on how best to encourage democratic change, contrasting “the more traditional Western European officials around Brussels and the newly arrived officials from Central and Eastern Europe….who are willing to be strong allies.”

Citing the recently released report How Freedom is Won, Melia noted that broad civic engagement can speed democratic reform and that the absence of opposition violence in the struggle for change ultimately enhances the prospects for consolidation of democracy. Turning to Iran, he noted that the June 17th elections in that country “are not about filling the offices that matter in Iran.”

Ms. Goli Ameri, Co-Founder of the Iran Democracy Project, addressed the complexities faced by Iranian-Americans who have thrived in the freedom and opportunity offered in the United States, and who hope that such liberties will be seen in Iran itself. She explained some of the differing approaches advocated within the community:

“In my experience, there are three different views on U.S. policy towards Iran amongst Iranian-Americans. One group believes that the U.S. needs to take an active role and make regime change an official U.S. policy. The second group believes that freedom from decades of oppression can only come from the Iranian people themselves without any type of outside involvement.”

Ameri continued, “In my travels, the majority of Iranian-Americans I met have a third, more considerate way in mind. They speak as concerned citizens of the United States and independent of political opposition groups or extremist political doctrines. They care about U.S. long-term interests as much as they care for their compatriots in Iran…Iranian-Americans support the promotion of a civil society and a civil movement in Iran. However, they want to ascertain that the format of support does not hurt the long-term security and interests of the United States, as well as not sully the mindset of the Iranian people towards the United States.”

Ameri emphasized that Iranian-Americans, “differentiate between support for civic organizations and support for opposition groups, with the latter being of zero interest.”

Dr. Karim Lahidji, an Iranian human rights activist since the late 1950s who fled Iran in 1979, pointed to contradictions that exist within the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the “farce” that the regime is somehow based on popular sovereignty. He noted that “power itself is dual in the sense that, on one hand, there is this [unelected] supreme guide, who is kind of a Superman, who supersedes over the other branches of government” and exercises “100 percent real executive power.”

Under the current structures in place in Iran, Lahidji stressed, “the underlying and governing principle, it's not equality. It is discrimination that really rules” in which “the rights of the common citizen are different from the rights of Muslims, or the rights of non-Muslims are different from the rights of Muslims. Women don't have the same rights as men. But common people don't have the same rights as the clergy.” He concluded, “Under the present constitution, any reform of the power structure in the country that would lead to democracy or respect of human rights is impossible.”

Manda Ervin, founder of the Alliance of Iranian Women, focused on the daily difficulties facing the average Iranian, including rising unemployment, unpaid workers, and other hardships that have spawned manifestations of civil disobedience that are in turn repressed by security and paramilitary forces. Hunger strikes and sit-ins by university students and journalists are common and are met with repression by the authorities.

Citing arrests of activists, including members of the Alliance of Iranian Women, Ervin stated, “The regime of Iran practices gender apartheid and legal abuse of children. The constitution of this regime belongs to the 7th century and is unacceptable in the 21st century.” In an impassioned conclusion Ervin said, “the people of Iran need our support, our moral support, our standing in solidarity with them. They don't want words any more. They don't trust words. They want actions. They want United States and Europe to stand together against the regime of Iran.”

The panelists repeatedly cited Iranian youth and the efforts of NGO activists as key elements in building a brighter future for Iran.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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