Iranian Regime’s Assault on Civil Society

Iran’s Assault on Civil Society

May 31, 2007

The good news is that Iranian civil society is booming. Women’s groups and labor unions, environmental organizations and students groups—even anti-land mine nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—all ply their trade in abundance, in striking contrast to many of Iran’s Arab neighbors. As this new Backgrounder explains, the bulk of these groups took root during the reformist years of former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

But the hard-line regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has brought with it bad news for such groups: a new era of repressiveness, shuttering NGOs and arresting activists. The basij, the Iranian regime’s enforcers of Islamic religious codes, routinely stop women for failing to wear proper headdress, and they and other agents of the regime harass ethnic minorities, bloggers, political activists, and homosexuals, too. Iranian author Nasrin Alavi, writing in PostGlobal, likens it to a “ second cultural revolution,” forcing academics with Western ties into early retirement and replacing “longstanding veterans throughout state institutions with inexperienced ideological allies.” This Backgrounder looks at Iran’s worsening human rights situation.

The latest setback for civil society was the arrests of three Iranian-Americans with close ties to Iran-based NGOs on dubious charges of espionage. Specifically, the detention of a sixty-seven-year-old academic and grandmother, Haleh Esfandiari, has set off a firestorm of criticism in the United States. Human rights groups like Reporters Without Borders have called for an end to these types of detentions. Others, including CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, decry the fact (CSMonitor) that Washington and Tehran can hold bilateral talks on Iraq while Esfandiari sits in prison.

The reasons for the arrests and clampdowns are multifold. They may reflect the weakness of the Iranian regime, which is worried that Western academics are plotting to stage a “velvet revolution.” Or it may indicate a political internal battle between Islamic hard-liners and those who favor more engagement with Washington and an end to Iran’s isolation. “There’s a small but very powerful clique within Iran, among the political elite, who actually have entrenched political and financial interests in retaining Iran’s isolation,” Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman.

Others suspect an effort to stave off a U.S. foreign policy with the implicit intention, they charge, of regime change in Iran. More specifically, they cite the U.S. government’s recent push to fund Iranian civil society groups. Yet even Iranian activists are suspicious of U.S. intentions. “Iranian reformists believe that democracy can't be imported,” (IHT) write the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi and the University of Southern California’s Muhammad Sahimi.“It must be indigenous. They believe that the best Washington can do for democracy in Iran is to leave them alone. The fact is, no truly nationalist and democratic group will accept such funds.” In a recent Online Debate, Robert Lutwak of the Wilson Center and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute debate whether regime change should be part of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran.


Shrinking Rights in Iran


May 9, 2007

A spring clampdown on dress code violations, such as women with immodest headdress or men with Western-style haircuts, is something of a pre-summer ritual in Iran. News reports suggest this year’s crackdown (RFE/RL) has been particularly thorough, with over ten thousand women receiving warnings during a ten-day stretch in April. According to Human Rights Watch, Iran’s judiciary, which instigated the crackdown, is using national security laws to rein in Iran’s “ burgeoning” women’s rights movement.

The problem, of course, is not limited to hemlines or haircuts. Human rights have steadily eroded across the board under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Disappearances and deaths by stoning are now common, according to the State Department, as are extrajudicial killings, restrictions on civil liberties, and “violence by vigilante groups with ties to the government.” Last December the UN General Assembly also censured Tehran for various human rights violations, including its use of torture and press restrictions (BBC). Even al-Jazeera was recently banned from Iran’s Majlis for insulting a Shiite cleric. Arrests of political opponents are also increasingly routine; a former top nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, was arrested April 30 for reportedly spying and exchanging nuclear secrets with “foreign elements” (BBC). And an Iranian-American academic was recently nabbed in Tehran and briefly detained (IHT). These rights concerns, taken alongside heightened tensions over the nuclear issue and sanctions, have “created an unprecedented pressure which can make the society more vulnerable than before,” writes the Iranian blogger Mohammad Ali Abtahi.

Yet some experts complain that Iran’s human rights issues have not received more outside attention. “The nuclearization of U.S.-Iran relations has come at expense of other issues such as human rights, and that needs to be brought back to the table,” argues Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council. With talk of more normalized bilateral relations in the air, some reformists democracy activists remain skeptical Tehran would ever want to end its diplomatic isolation. “This would reduce state domination of an economy that is crippled by corruption and negligence, and loosen control of societal and political life by state institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and their allies,” writes Iranian author Nasrin Alavi.

It is also unclear what role outside powers like the United States should play to promote human rights in Iran. The Bush administration allocated $75 million to the cause but prominent Iranian activists like Akbar Ganji say “it will make the work of the pro-democracy movement more difficult” by tainting those who receive U.S. funds (ChiTrib). Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center agrees. “Some democracy activists have faced detention and interrogation over alleged complicity in a U.S. plot to foment a ‘soft revolution,’” he writes in this recent CFR.org Online Debate. Litwak says U.S. funds should only go toward pro-democracy groups based in the United States, whether American or Iranian-American, which then filter money less directly back to Iran. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute agrees Washington’s money can taint the activists it is intended to help. But debating Litwak, Rubin argues that “Tehran’s crackdown on dissent predated the congressional appropriation of $75 million,” pointing to the muzzling of Iranian dissidents like Ahmad Batebi and Mansour Ossanlou. This CFR Backgrounder examines the country’s deteriorating human rights record.


Some related posts:

- Middle East Human Rights 2007

- Iranians Struggle for Human Rights

- Iran's Waning Human Rights

- About Iranian Regime

- War on Iran Under Way

- Iranian Regime's Tyranny: Ethnic Question

- Totalitarianism, Violence and Terror


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