Human Rights Developments
Commencing with the 1979 revolution, the militant clergy who seized power under the late Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini systematically crushed all forms of dissent or behavior which did not conform to their own proclaimed norms. Those who have suffered most have been secular-minded women, left-wingers, the People's Mujahedin opposition group and adherents of the Baha'i faith. But repression has not been confined to these groups. A pall of intolerance and fear, which President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's election in July 1989 has done little to dissipate, hangs over Iran's entire 55 million-strong population.
In 1990, the government went to some lengths to alter the Islamic Republic's pariah status in the world -- an isolation brought about, at least in part, by the regime's massive human rights violations. This desire for international rehabilitation was demonstrated in a number of different, but unmistakeable, ways. Among the signals were: permitting the first United Nations' human rights team to visit the country since the revolution, freeing two American prisoners, soliciting loans from the World Bank, supporting UN sanctions against Iraq and reestablishing diplomatic relations with a number of European countries.
Unfortunately, these signs of change toward the outside world were not matched on the domestic front, where conditions remained as deplorable as in previous years, or in the regime's tolerance of opposition, from whatever quarter. A crackdown on domestic unrest, the assassination of opponents abroad, the execution of political prisoners and drug-traffickers -- the latter on a large scale -- the use of torture and forced confessions, and the curtailment of basic civil and political freedoms all continued unabated.
An undeclared moratorium on action against the remnants of the clergy's above-ground opposition ended in June, when Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor ordered the arrest of more than 30 signatories of an open letter to President Rafsanjani. The signatories, many of whom were associates of former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, had criticized Rafsanjani's policies toward civil rights, economic reconstruction and foreign affairs. One grievance was the government's refusal to permit the operation of the Iran Freedom Movement, led by former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, and the banning of its affiliate, the Association for the Defense of Freedom and the Sovereignty of the Iranian Nation (ADFSIN),3 in violation of the government's own December 1988 commitment to reactivate a basic law on political parties.
Bazargan and his associates, many of whom had served in Iran's first post-revolutionary government, were accused of having "acted as a fifth column in the interests of the enemies of the Islamic Revolution and the Iranian people" during the Gulf war. Despite their advanced age and poor health, these prisoners were placed in incommunicado detention at an undisclosed location. The treatment they encountered served to underline the force of the charges contained in their open letter. Detained at the behest of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, rather than by the Justice Ministry, they were still being held at the end of 1990 without having been formally charged. Torture was believed to have been used on several to extract alleged confessions, one of which was broadcast on the state-controlled media. In late November, six detainees were released.
This was not the regime's first effort at staging a confession show. In April, the government announced that ten persons had been sentenced to death on charges of espionage for the United States. The "confessions" of some of their number had previously been broadcast at length on the government-controlled radio and television network, run by President Rafsanjani's brother. Middle East Watch was told in May by a senior official at the Iranian mission to the United Nations that the announcement had been only for deterrent purposes. At year's end, it remained unclear whether any of the death sentences had been carried out.
Iran's diplomatic drive for respectability abroad was only one arm of a two-pronged policy: in 1990, the regime continued its practice of liquidating exiled opponents through extrajudicial executions.4 In March, Mohammad Reza Akhavan-Jam, a former Tehran University professor who was the chief of the People's Mujahedin in Istanbul, was killed as he was driving to the Istanbul airport. In April, Dr. Kazem Rajavi, the Mujahedin's representative at the UN Human Rights Commission and an older brother of the guerrilla organization's leader, Massoud Rajavi, was assassinated in a suburb of Geneva. In October, Cyrus Elahi, a former professor of political science at Melli University who was the second-in-command of the Paris-based Flag of Freedom Organization, was slain in his home in France. Unlike the first two cases, in which police inquiries identified Iranian agents as responsible, proof was lacking in Elahi's assassination, but once again Tehran's hand was suspected. The vendetta against the regime's opponents continued with similar attacks in Sweden, Germany and Turkey.
Despite the government's proclamation about the right of political parties to operate freely, the list of bona fide parties was still limited to pro-regime or apolitical bodies, most of which were fronts for different factions of the clergy. The application of other parties that had filed for legal status met with outright rejection or bureaucratic procrastination.
Freedom of expression in Iran continued to be severely circumscribed. The Rafsanjani government upheld Ayatollah Khomeini's religious edict -- a death sentence -- against the British author Salman Rushdie, pronouncing it irrevocable. Regrettably, Britain restored diplomatic relations with Iran without securing concrete progress on either this case or that of Roger Cooper, a businessman jailed since 1985 on a variety of charges, including currency violations, espionage and -- most recently -- public morality offenses.
Censorship remained the order of the day in most cultural domains. Literature, publishing, theater, the press, music, radio, television and cinema continued to be carefully screened for their content by agents of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In an interview with the New York Times, Iran's preeminent film-director, Darius Mehrjui, spoke of the close community formed between his colleagues and the government censors in which the former "now know unconsciously what's allowed and what's not allowed."5 An Islamization campaign aimed at the "edification" of the populace lingered on, with no apparent end in sight. This pernicious brand of ideological censorship notwithstanding, Iran still possessed a lively print media which expressed often violently different points of view within the clerical factions. What cannot be published is material deemed critical of Islam or the rule of the clergy, including the concept of velayat-e-faghih, political leadership by a supreme religious figure. Nor is it possible usually to criticize the lack of freedom in Iran, or the treatment of women and religious minorities or to expound an avowedly secular point of view.
Capital punishment continued to be broadly applied. Since the introduction of a tough anti-narcotics ordinance in January 1989 which prescribed a mandatory death sentence for those caught carrying or smuggling drugs, hundreds of people have been executed on charges of being drug-traffickers or addicts. The government itself claimed that out of the 113 people it admitted to executing between March and October 1990, 71 had been involved in drug-smuggling.6 In at least one case, 46 people, some of whom were Afghan nationals, were executed in a single day, on September 5, in the northeastern city of Mashad, on charges of smuggling and distributing drugs.
Similarly, the perpetrators of such prohibited sexual acts as adultery, prostitution, pederasty, homosexuality, fornication and pimping have often been punished by such means as execution, public hanging, and stoning to death.7
Political prisoners, some of whom are nonviolent, have shared the brunt of executions with drug offenders. In addition, they reportedly have been subject to corporal punishment, mutilation, sexual abuse, and psychological torture. Thousands of political prisoners have had to endure arbitrary and indefinite pretrial detention, followed by secretly held summary trials, in which they were deprived of a defense counsel, the right to call witnesses and the right to appeal their sentences.8
In a country where women's subjugation has become one of its leading hallmarks, the year 1990 brought yet another round of harassment of women for violating the official dress code. The government implemented a new plan to enforce Islamic regulations on proper modes of attire. Those "charged" with wearing improper dress, the provocative use of cosmetics, or exposing their hair were subjected to indecent language, imprisonment, monetary fines or flogging. Women endured a multitude of legal and social restrictions concerning employment, education, child custody, divorce and inheritance.
Among the many minority communities that make up the ethnic mosaic of Iran, the Kurds continued to be severely punished for having waged an incessant war against the central government in support of a campaign for autonomy. However, a limited degree of Kurdish cultural expression is permitted, including broadcasts on state radio in Kurdish, and permission to publish certain books in the language. Circumscribed though it may be, this is more than was permitted under the monarchy. As for the status of such religious minorities as the Baha'is, Jews and Armenian Christians, the year 1990 contained mixed signals. Although the number of imprisoned or executed religious minorities continued to drop, flagrant violations of their civil, religious and cultural rights nonetheless persisted. The confiscation of property, dismissal from jobs, denial of pensions, educational restrictions, and the closure or forced takeover of religious schools constitute only a partial list of such blatant violations.9 On December 3, a Muslim convert to Christianity, the Reverend Mossein Soudmard, was hanged in Mashad after being charged with converting Muslims to Christianity, being an apostate from Islam, opening and operating a Christian bookstore and opening and operating an illegal Christian church.
Despite the cessation of military operations in August 1988, Iran and Iraq had still failed to release all of the 70,000 prisoners captured by both sides in their eight years of bloody fighting. At the year's end, at least 30,000 Iraqi prisoners were believed to remain in Iran's camps -- many of them unseen and unregistered by the Internationl Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The slow pace of the exchange of prisoners was in clear violation of the Third Geneva Convention on prisoners of war.
On the positive side of the ledger, the major event of 1990 was Iran's endorsement of the first external investigation into its human rights practices. A Special Representative of the UN Human Rights Commission, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, made two separate visits to Iran, in January and October. After the first visit, a 76-page report mildly critical of the Iranian government's record was released. While acknowledging the continuation of human right abuses at the hands of the government, this controversial report ruled out as "unsubstantiated" frequent allegations by opposition groups that political prisoners were being executed under the guise of being drug-smugglers.
His second mission produced a more critical report in which numerous and detailed allegations of human rights abuses were cited. It led, on December 4, to a unanimously approved resolution in the UN General Assembly's Third Committee calling on the Islamic Republic:
The resolution was approved by the full General Assembly ten days later.
By its endorsement of the resolution, Iran committed itself to implement this key, operative paragraph. It also accepted, grudgingly, the continuation for a further year of UN monitoring. In return, the Iranian government's improved cooperation with the Special Representative and with the ICRC was publicly recognized. The ICRC was invited to visit prisons in Iran, although the precise terms of its access to detainees had yet to be finalized. Middle East Watch has, likewise, been given permission in principle to conduct a mission to Iran in early 1991.
The UN resolution was a watered-down version of an earlier draft, which had singled out particular abuses noted in the Galindo Pohl report. Behind the scenes, Iran was believed to have exercised pressure on several of the resolution's West European co-sponsors, warning that their trade interests would suffer if the resolution proceeded in its original form. In a further demonstration of Iran's sensitivity toward international public opinion on this score, its UN Mission worked hard to ensure that there would not be an embarassing debate at the General Assembly over the resolution. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, the resolution's passage nonetheless represented a major step towards Iran's acceptance of international human rights standards.
Regrettably, in this delicate process of coaxing Iran back into the fold, the Bush administration appeard to be playing only a passive role. The US did not join the sponsors of the UN resolution, which included all 12 European Community nations, as well as Australia, Canada and several Scandinavian countries. Nor did it put its undoubted weight behind a similar resolution nine months earlier, at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Its customary argument for lying low on these occasions -- a thesis untested in the case of Iran -- is that to take a lead would be counterproductive to the goals involved.
Apart from a balanced overview contained in the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the only statement during 1990 by a US official on the subject of Iranian human rights came at the Geneva session. Expressing regret at Iran's lack of progress in moderating its "grave violations," a brief statement highlighted the plight of the Baha'i religious minority, a particular US concern. Apart from that, the only other pertinent announcement was a statement issued a few weeks later by the White House thanking both Iran and Syria for facilitating the release of an American hostage in Lebanon, Robert Polhill. About such outrages as the assassination in Geneva of Dr. Rajavi, or the round-up of Bazargan's associates, there was only silence. Taken together, the abiding impression was of an administration treading carefully, for fear of damaging a budding rapprochement with a one-time close ally.
US actions toward Iran -- many of which were of tangible financial benefit for the hard-pressed Rafsanjani government -- spoke much louder than its words. This was especially the case after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, when Iran's potential value as a regional ally against Saddam Hussein was underlined. The administration's refusal to block a $750 million World Bank loan to Iran through its weight on the Bank's Executive Board was one such step. Another was the release of part of Iran's assets, frozen 11 years earlier after the capture of the US embassy in Tehran. As of May, the two sides had settled more than 3,300 cases of financial claims against one another, lodged at the United States-Iran Claims Tribunal at The Hague, and an agreement on many other outstanding mutual claims appeared to be nearing finalization. In the summer, humanitarian aid was offered to the victims of a devastating earthquake. And, in November, the ban on oil imports from the Islamic Republic was relaxed. All of this took place against the background of stepped-up overtures to Iran by the Bush administration, mostly conducted through third parties.
Nowhere was it evident that the principles enunciated to Congress by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs John Kelly on November 9, 1989 were being applied. In the course of a major policy statement to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, Kelly had said that US economic sanctions would be softened only in response to changes in Iran's conduct. He added that the US would continue to speak out about human rights abuses such as torture and summary execution without proper trial. In Middle East Watch's opinion, few changes are yet evident in Iran's treatment of its own people or in its support for assassination overseas, while the Bush administration has conspicuously failed to speak out on abuses for which there was ample evidence.
The Iranian government's willingness to accept visits by such international bodies as the ICRC or the UN appears motivated more by political exigency than by a genuine moral transformation. The following political commentary published by the Persian-language weekly Keyhan Havai, with the clear blessing of the government, on the eve of Galindo Pohl's second fact-finding mission supports this view.
How authoritative this opinion was can be judged by the warning from Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, contained in the second Galindo Pohl report. According to the UN Special Representative, Velayati said: "International monitoring of the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran should not continue indefinitely. The country could not tolerate such monitoring for long."
What appears to have motivated the Iranian government in modifying its belligerent posture vis-a-vis the West is the need for Western capital, for post-war reconstruction and the assuaging of popular discontent. Deep discontent, fed by economic causes as well as the unending repression, threatens both President Rafsanjani's own position and the clergy's overall tenure of power. Western bankers, and the governments behind them, thus have the potential leverage to influence Iran's behavior toward the basic human rights of the Iranian people.
In the light of Iran's increasing apprehensions about world public opinion it is imperative that the Bush administration refrain from the flip-flopping policy of its predecessor. A policy of appeasement toward Tehran for the sake of its cooperation during the Persian Gulf crisis would have catastrophic consequences for human rights in Iran. Considering the abusive nature of the Iranian regime, the Bush administration must accord precedence to human rights concerns and apply effective pressure against Iran to restore basic civil and political rights to its citizens. A good starting point would be observation of the protections and rights enshrined in the 1979 constitution, as modified in 1989. The implementation of the rule rof law -- the issue at the heart of the Bazargan open letter -- is fundamental.
As the events of 1990 indicate, the United States' considerable influence in the world economy, international organizations such as the World Bank and the UN, and the global balance of power far outweighs its usual claim not to have much leverage with Tehran's clerical authorities. Iran presents a good opportunity for the Bush administration to reinterpret the dictum that "diplomacy is the art of the possible" in a positive, not a negative, sense. Given the reemerging importance of Iran on the regional and world stages after a decade of isolation, the US could -- and should -- be doing far more to promote the cause of human rights in that country.
The Work of Middle East Watch
Middle East Watch commenced the monitoring of human rights violations in the Islamic Republic in mid-1990. In May, it took up with the Iranaian authorities the case of ten alleged spies for the US Central Intelligence Agency, whose imminent execution had been announced by the state-controlled media. As previously noted, a government official responded by claiming that the executions were not, in fact, going to be carried out.
Following the first wave of arrests of some of the 90 signatories of an open letter to President Rafsanjani, in June, Middle East Watch appealed directly to the President, to intervene in the case. The Bazargan group had used purely peaceful means to press for respect by the government for constitutionally guranteed rights, such as freedom of speech and association, and adherence to the rule of law. A newsletter issued at the end of the month laid out the background to the case.
Thereafter, we continued to keep abreast of further grave develpments in the case, including the use of torture against at least half a dozen of the 30 detainees, and the televised "confession" of one of their number, Farhad Behbehani. Research was well advanced at the year's end into a planned newsletter on the longstanding Iranian practice of using extorted confessions from political prisoners to subvert the judicial process and to stigmatize, or ban, dissident political groups.
One of Middle East Watch's initial goals is to open a dialogue with the Iranian authorities, on the basis of the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights -- to which Iran remains a party -- and the freedoms guaranteed by the country's post-revolution constitution. This would be one of the tasks of a fact-finding mission to Tehran, provisionally scheduled for the first quarter of 1991. The mission would take the opportunity to gather information on the wide range of rights violations being perpetrated in Iran, for a major report to be issued later in the year. Research for this report among the two-million-strong Iranian exile community in Western Europe and the United States began in the fall of 1990.
3 ADFSIN was established in March 1986 by Mehdi Bazargan, Dr. Ali Ardalan (Secretary General) and a score of other liberal-minded political figures who called for the rule of law and respect for civil liberties. The association was never granted official recognition and its members came under harassment after calling for an end to the Iran-Iraq war.