Connecting the dots: Iran's nuclear ambitions, human rights and intelligent sanctions

The sanctions being imposed by the UN need to be reworked to inspire the confidence of Iran's suppressed people.
Arash Falasiri
9 June 2010

This is an ironic period for Iranian society. While society prepares for the first anniversary of the ‘green movement’ and civil resistance, the UN Security Council prepares to impose a fourth sanction on Iran. Although there is an understandable growing global concern regarding the Islamic regime’s nuclear ambitions, the crucial question in this context is whether this fourth sanction gives sufficient consideration to Iran’s post-election conditions. Most specifically, what kind of message is being sent to the Iranian public with the introduction of new sanctions when we consider the recent actions of western leaders? During the last twelve months, they have made several references to Iran’s new situation.

However, it seems that the fourth sanction embodies the same rhetoric present in the previous three. A reading of the drafted new sanction reveals the continuance of the same discourse. Namely, the applied rhetoric continues to undermine the conditions of ordinary life for the people of Iran, rather than target the real power of the new government and Revolutionary Guard.

In lieu of this, and alongside different perspectives from other Iranian journalists and activists, the most effective way to pressure the Islamic regime in terms of its nuclear ambitions is to consider Iran’s new era of civil resistance towards the Revolutionary Guard and the supreme leader’s will.

There is no doubt that if the three previous sanctions could not force the Iranian Islamic state to recognize global calls for halting its nuclear enrichment program, then the new sanction might not have a potential to achieve this aim. It seems that the post-election unrest in Iran is perceived to be a domestic issue by many countries. Moreover, Iranians interpret the lack of human rights discussion in the sanctions as an assertion of Western interests and agendas. This is the missing link within all three previous sanctions, including the new one. In order to comprehend the nature of this situation further, I draw attention to internal and external sides of what I refer to as Iran’s present ironic period.

While the Islamic regime tries to maintain that there is no major dissidence among the public, people have witnessed weekly threatening messages from officials for the last 12 months. There are many socio-political facts to suggest that the ongoing split between state and society will result in critical conditions. In this regard, many conservative figures have notified the supreme leader and government regarding the state's serious legitimacy crisis, a concern also raised by opposition leaders, Mousavi and Karoubi, or former presidents, Rafsanjani and Khatami.

A brief review of major events from last June till now reveals the repressive realities experienced in Iran. After declaring the result of election most Iranian major cities saw demonstrations that challenged the power of the government legitimacy, which in turn was not tolerated by the new government. The anti-riot police and Basij paramilitary force were directly authorized by the supreme leader to open fire on people wherever they faced resistance. A Human Rights Watch reported up to 100 names of those killed during the violence, while official sources recognised a death toll of 43 people, Another example of state control is found with the discrepancy in publically naming arrests.  For instance, while officials revealed 800 names as being arrested, Drewey Dyke from Amnesty International points out 5000 names who are jailed. According to this report, between June 12th  and August 5th at least 112 people are executed. Human Rights Watch ranks Islamic Republic of Iran as the first country for the rate of execution in 2009.  

Although it seems that after several months of street demonstrations (from last June to January) the brutal response of the regime has succeeded with eliminating this type of resistance. One might find enormous anger with the different layers of the society. Consequently, this has caused the opposition leaders to warn the state of the green movement’s shift from street ground battle to other public spaces like universities, factories and even economy.

At present, one can hardly find a week in Iran’s universities where students have not had any conflict with Basij members. On the other hand, female activists, many journalists and bloggers, artists, labours and even some parts of clergy systems seek opportunities to demonstrate against the government.

As pointed out above, there is no doubt that state’s reaction is zero toleration. Just in last month, May 2010, 19 people were executed in the name of national security. In early June only 26 people were hanged and the judiciary spokesman declared that there are 11 more people waiting to be hanged in this month. In the wake of the green movement’s first anniversary, the Iranian Islamic regime has revealed its plans for reprimanding those who participate in any kind of demonstrations and resistance.

Last week the high commander for the Revolutionary Guard, Mohammad Ali Jafari, declared that on June 4th, last Friday, they would gather 2 million members of Basij from different cities in Tehran. This would align with the 21st death anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic state. Although journalists and satellite photos suggest that the actual number was much lesser than that plan, such a plan in itself reveals the government’s fear of its dissidents. On the other hand even conservative news agencies, KhabarOnline and ISNA, reported that Ahmadinejad’s public support had dramatically decreased compare with his first term.     

In general, the Islamic regime is facing the most unique challenge ever in the past three decades. Notably, during the early years of Islamic regime, the supreme leader and Revolutionary Guard as the real power of Iran imposed their will on official structures like parliament and governments in hiding. Then the last presidential election shed light on them, which forced their visiblity and responsiblity for crucial decisions.  This is why the mainstream of demonstrations’ chanting shifted from government to the supreme leader and Basij.   

These conditions show that the UNSC members should take into account to the following: post-election events showed that the Revolutionary Guard was in charge of the state. This is a pertinent claim since all members of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, including himself, are members of Revolutionary Guard. Therefore, sanctions should target real power rather than the lives of ordinary people.

By ordinary life, I refer to how such sanctions regulate opportunities for Iranian students whose student visa applications reach the highest level of refusal. Based on an official report by the Education Commission of the Islamic parliament, more than 75 percent state’s high rank members offspring live and study in western countries. Ironically, most of them have received their visas during Ahmadinejad’s term.

Another example refers to when many western companies are denied working with Iran due to economic sanctions.  However, shortly after the election, when the Revolutionary Guard suppressed and arrested many activist journalists and bloggers, it appeared that Nokia and Siemens sold sophisticated surveillance equipment to the Revolutionary Guard.

These two examples reveal why for most Iranians, sanctions do not seem targeting the real powers in the country. Although many of western leaders clearly expressed their concern for Human Rights issues in Iran, no real attempt has been made to address this concern through these sanctions. Furthermore, western demand for Iran’s fossil fuel and its geo-political position in the region allow the Islamic state act with impunity towards the Iranian public. This fact generates a skeptical view among the public about the real aim of the western discourse on Human Rights.

In order to fill the gap between the Iranian society’s concern for Human Rights and the rest of the world’s concern about Iran's nuclear program, it is crucial for this new sanction to condemn the Islamic state's behaviour towards its people. Only then will it be possible to create a fusion between the Iranian public and the west's mutual concerns about threats from fundamentalists.

Although symbolic gestures from the UN in past years have recognised issues in Iran, in terms of this soon to be imposed new sanction, there is a unique opportunity for western states to practically send a message to Iran’s civil society that the world has not forgotten Iran’s new situation. This will not occur if the fourth sanction follows the previous path, irrespective of new circumstances, neglecting Iran’s circumstances since last year. If everything remains unchanged and the fourth sanction, as its draft suggests, does not consider Iran’s recent conditions, there is not much hope for the new sanction to achieve its goals.         

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