The opposition in Iran, as elsewhere, uses the language of human rights to assert its moral superiority over its enemies in their seats of power. Opposition spokesmen point to government kangaroo courts, rapes, beatings, electric shocks and imposition of the death penalty to convince the world outside that the regime is illegitimate. Vicious attacks on students by the modern brownshirts of the Basij militia further undermine the right of the clergy to govern.
Yet, amid the justifiable outrage at the punishments the Iranian regime metes out to those it suspects are trying to overthrow them, there are memories of a previous opposition movement that made the human rights case against the Shah in 1979. Then, Iran’s opposition groups, who were both democratic and theocratic, contended that torture and murder by the Shah’s secret police, the notorious SAVAK, proved that the Shah was not fit to govern. As soon as the clergy seized power, however, prisons and torture chambers in which the new rulers themselves had once suffered were overflowing.
Ayatollah Khalkhali sat in judgement day and night to send not only members of the ancien regime, but former revolutionaries, to the gallows. Born in idealism and supported by a broad base of democrats, secularists, leftists and prelates, the Iranian revolutionaries exceeded SAVAK in the use of intimidation, torture and killing. Evin Prison, symbol of the Shah’s hated police state, saw more torture and murder than the SAVAK had practiced. Moreover, the clergy did not take long to exceed the Shah’s cronies at siphoning off as much of the country’s wealth as they could stuff into the folds of their jellabas.
Iranian men and women, however, enjoy more rights than their fellow Muslims across the Persian Gulf in Saudi Arabia. Countries that support and trade with the Saudi monarchy lack credibility when condemning the Iranian mullahs for human rights abuses that are routine in Saudi Arabia. In both countries, women are made to cover themselves lest they invite the lust of men. Iranian women, however, enjoy legal protections that Saudi women have never known. They work in the professions, and they drive cars. They vote and stand for parliament, while their Saudi sisters have no parliament and must be driven by a male relation or retainer.
Iran holds elections that in the past have expressed the popular will, but the rulers clearly tampered with the results of last June’s presidential poll to avoid relinquishing power – not to the opposition – but to a man from within the ranks of the theocracy who had twice been a much-feared prime minister. Mir Hosein Musavi’s election would not have portended a counter-revolution so much as a partial reform, but even that was too much for the Supreme Leader and the system over which he presides. Denying Musavi the presidency – more importantly, denying the electors their choice or president – may have initiated the counter-revolution that the ayatollahs of Qum fear most.
As the regime fights for its life, Iranians suffer more abuse. Stories of those who have been released from prisons since the demonstrations against the fraudulent elections have been harrowing and well documented. Women and men have been raped in their cells. Beatings are routine. Policemen torture youngsters into informing on their friends. And there is nothing we in the Western world can do about it.
Even before the elections, Iran executed children: twenty-six under the age of eighteen with another 130 awaiting the death penalty. (Saudi and Sudanese courts also execute children for criminal offenses.) Iranian courts put to death more than three hundred adults, after trials that barely deserve the name, in 2007. Human Rights Watch reported that another 29 men were hanged in one day in 2008 without so much as disclosing most of their names. Detentions without trial are commonplace, and political activists often disappear into a security system that has no habeas corpus. This was routine before the regime felt threatened, and it can only increase as its opponents mobilize for their overthrow. A year ago, a few activists asked for reforms. Now, they are openly shouting, “Death to the Dictator.”
As the people lose their fear, that of the rulers increases. A frightened regime, like a wounded lion, is not interested in anyone’s rights.
Condemnations of Iran’s human rights abuses are justified. Coming from the United States, however, they are little more than hypocrisy. The US government’s use of torture and maintenance of torturers in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Colombia deny it credibility. American manipulation of separatists in the Kurdish, Arab, and Azeri regions of Iran further diminishes any role the US can play among the vast majority of the Iranian population who believe in national unity and fear civil war. Pleas by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other advocates of adherence to international law are welcomed by Iranian citizens who need to feel, as anti-apartheid militants in South Africa once did, that they are not alone in the world. However, the regime in Tehran is just as likely to ignore Amnesty as it does the US government.
Noam Chomsky said recently, “Putting aside the details of the election, about which we don’t know much, the whole structure of the regime is oppressive and authoritarian, and undermines basic civil and other human rights. Protest against it is not only honorable but courageous, because it faces extreme violence.” The question is less how to persuade the regime to lessen the violence against its citizens than how to encourage those who are standing up to its violence that they can prevail. The duty for its friends abroad is then to hold them to the ideals for which they are risking their lives now. Civil society in the rest of the world can demonstrate its support of Iranian democrats. It can also restrain the Israeli and American governments from launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities that will give the regime a new breath of life, a blunder that would equal Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 that saved the Iranian revolution by forcing all Iranians to unite around Ayatollah Khomeini.
Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, wrote in The Daily Beast in December, “No one can predict a revolution nor say with certainty when an authoritarian state loses its footing if not its grip.” The signs are, though, that resistance to authority is having an impact. Parsi added, “The State’s ability to use the language of religion to repress these developments is failing. Again and again religion has proven itself to be much better suited as a language of resistance than governance.” If the Resistance succeeds, it may embrace, as the mullahs have since 1979, religion as part of the state’s structure. It may also, like the mullahs, ignore our calls for it to respect the human rights of its own opponents.