Will Iran's Human-Rights Failures Bring Down Its Reformer President?

President Hassan Rouhani after a cabinet meeting. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Siamak Ebrahimi

How it could affect Iran’s global reputation—and next year’s election.

Taking power in 2013, President Hassan Rouhani and his team considered the nuclear pact with the West, referred to in Persian by the acronym Barjam, as a first step in making a fundamental reorientation in Iran’s foreign policy and to normalize Iran’s relations with the outside world. As I explained in my previous analyses, limiting overt kinetic actions by the IRGC and economic recovery are next in importance to the normalization project.

The fourth dimension of Rouhani's normalization project has been improving the state of human rights. Though it is unlikely to be a total spoiler, the human-rights situation may tarnish the normalization project and make it harder for the custodians and their supporters abroad to maintain credibility.

The poor human-rights record of the Islamic Republic has concerned the international community for decades. Iran has been censured by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. In 1985, Iran was “the fourth country ever in the history of the United Nations” to be placed on the agenda of the General Assembly because of “the severity and the extent of [its] human rights record.”

Over the years, Iran has been accused of a wide range of violations of minority rights, gender rights, gay rights, religious rights, civil right and political rights. The regime has been notorious for its mistreatment and torture of prisoners, extrajudicial killings, excessive use of capital punishment and harsh sentencing guidelines, even for minors. During the tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, beginning in 2005, Iran’s human-rights record deteriorated badly. Human Rights Watch reported that executions increased from eighty-six in 2005 to 317 in 2007. There were long and arbitrary detentions of “peaceful activists, journalists, students, and human rights defenders,” often charged with “acting against national security.”

The United Nations General Assembly in 2008 voted to expressed “deep concern” for Iran’s human-rights record, particularly cases of torture, the high incidence of executions and juvenile executions, the persecution of women seeking their human rights, discrimination against minorities and attacks on minority groups like Baha’is in state media. Protests over the “stolen election” of 2009 saw scores killed, hundreds arrested (including dozens of opposition leaders) and wholesale suppression of the media.

Despite Rouhani’s promise to improve this lamentable record, things have hardly changed. According to Amnesty International, in 2015 the number of executions reached 977 people, compared to 743 the year before. Other forms of persecution and harassment have also increased. The statistics for the first half of 2016 seem to be even worse. On July 29, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, an independent institution monitoring human rights in Iran, reported 386 executions in 2016 so far.

In a telltale sign of oppressive practices, prosecution of so-called lifestyle crimes, including enforcement of the Islamic dress code for women, has increased. There has been a renewed push to enforce a ban on female sports fans in stadiums, an issue that has been debated since 1979. As a rule, intermittent attempts to prevent women from enjoying sports have been a barometer of attitudes toward the “Sharia-compliant lifestyle.”

In a more ominous turn, an increasing number of dual-nationality Iranians have been targeted. At least seven dual citizens have been arrested since October 2015, many of whom stand accused of spying or attempting to undermine the Iranian system. Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and Reza “Robin” Shahini were arrested on suspicion of crimes against the Islamic Republic on October 27, 2015, and July 11, 2016, respectively. A dual British-Iranian citizen, Abdol Rasul Dori Esfahani, a member of Rouhani’s nuclear negotiation team, was arrested for selling economic information to foreign countries. The arrests and trials of these and other dual citizens have attracted intensive attention in the West, and deepened the perception that Iran does not comply with international standards of human rights.

In another high-profile case on August 3, 2016, Iran executed Shahram Amiri, a former nuclear expert who defected to the United States. Under intense pressure, including death threats to his family, Amiri returned to Iran on July 14, 2010, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. But Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, the first deputy of the chief justice of Iran, insisted that Amiri had been sentenced to death by his original court. Analysts have speculated that his unexpected execution, covered extensive by the American media, was yet another ploy of the hardliners to undermine Rouhani’s normalization effort.