On Wednesday, UPI reported that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had appointed women to three of the country’s 12 vice presidential positions. Each such posting is associated with a separate agency but is lower in status than the 18 ministers who make up the core of the presidential cabinet. The three women will hold the titles of vice president for family and women’s affairs, for legal affairs, and for civil rights, but two are holdovers from Rouhani’s first term in office, which ended Saturday with his second-term swearing-in ceremony.
UPI implied that the trio of appointments may have been made partially in reaction to recent criticism over the lack of diversity in Rouhani’s much-anticipated cabinet appointments. Seventeen of the 18 appointments had been announced as of Wednesday and all of them were Shiite Muslim men. Only one woman has served as a cabinet minister since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and that was during the second term of Rouhani’s hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The current president’s reelection campaign involved various promises of reform, of which an end to the overwhelming male dominance of government was one.
Various reports have indicated that Rouhani has already turned away from those reformist campaign promises. During his campaign, he claimed that a stronger mandate would allow him to follow through on his first-term promise of freedom for the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, but soon after winning reelection on May 19 he distanced himself from these assurances and noted that such matters would remain largely in the hands of the judiciary. But even after this reversal, some of Rouhani’s supporters continued to express hope that cabinet appointments would point the way along a course of moderation.
Then, on Monday the New York Times reported that following Rouhani’s second-term inauguration, he was reportedly consulting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on all cabinet appointments, thus implying that he was quickly ceding ground to hardliners at the expense of his progressive-sounding campaign rhetoric. The lack of female cabinet appointees deals a significant blow to those who had remained optimistic about the country’s prospects under a second term for Rouhani. The expansion of female vice presidential positions from two to three is certainly not enough to appease those who are contributing to popular calls to reform, though it may generate some positive headlines in international media.
The dissatisfaction of reformists should be especially obvious in light of the fact that the regime as a whole is deep in the midst of a crackdown on reformist voices including women’s rights activists and advocates of secular, arguably Western lifestyles. The consistency of this crackdown was made obvious last week by the release of an Amnesty International report detailing dozens of specific instances of lax prosecution of human rights defenders. The report explains that these prosecutions continued with increasing levels of impunity throughout the first four years of the Rouhani presidency, thus casting early doubt on the prospects for moderation under his leadership.
With respect to women’s rights in particular, the National Council of Resistance of Iran reported recently that Tehran’s Friday prayer leader Kazem Sadeghi had given a speech emphasizing the notion of confronting women over perceived violations of the country’s mandatory veiling laws, even in cases where those violations take place while women are alone inside their cars. This comes after months and years of the regime escalating its enforcement of public segregation of the genders and of other measures that especially affect women.
Toward this end, the regime has also expanded the powers of security organizations including the intelligence wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij civilian militia, which is under the control over the IRGC. The crackdown on women’s rights has coincided with stringent efforts to confront supposed pro-Western social views, and these two trends frequently overlap. Accordingly, IRGC officer Hamid Damghani recently boasted of the arrest of four young men and two young women for the teaching of Zumba, according to World Bulletin. The Latin dance-based fitness regime was targeted for supposedly encouraging a change of lifestyle, and Damghani also accused the teachers of promoting “a lack of hijab.”
It is not clear whether Rouhani’s female vice presidential appointments will distract attention from these or other enforcement measures, but it is easy to imagine this as part of the president’s rationale. Interestingly, the appointments came just after the news that Rouhani had replaced one of his controversial first-term cabinet choices. The ouster of Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi had been another cause championed by Rouhani’s pro-reform supporters, mainly on account of his leading role in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
Last year, after Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, release a recording of his father condemning then-colleagues in the Iranian establishment for these killings, Pourmohammadi publicly acknowledged his role in Tehran’s “death committee” and declared that he was proud to have helped carry out “God’s command” of death for anti-theocratic dissidents like members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
Ahmad Montazeri was among those who used Rouhani’s recent reelection campaign to call for Pourmohammadi’s removal, and unlike some harsh critics of the Iranian regime he seemed to hold out hope for the president to make a significant gesture of reform on this point. But although Rouhani appeared to respond to such calls by replacing the existing Justice Minister, the new appointee possesses a record that is remarkably similar to that of Pourmohammadi.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, which maintains the People’s Mojahedin as its main constituent group, released statements in the wake of the appointment of Alireza Avai, explaining that the incoming Justice Minister had served on the local death commission in Khuzestan Province and thus had contributed to the 1988 massacre. The killings that are known to have been carried out under Avai’s watch include hangings of persons under the age of 18 – a violation of international human rights conventions.
The execution of minor offenders is a prime example of international standards that the Islamic Republic has repeatedly rejected outright. This trend continued in the immediate aftermath of the Avai appointment, when Amnesty International issued an urgent action statement regarding the imminent execution of Alireza Tajiki, who had been arrested at the age of 15 and sentenced to death at 16 following an unfair trial that relied upon evidence that had allegedly been extracted under torture.
Amnesty notes that 88 other minor offenders remain on death row in Iran, and it describes this situation as an example of the Islamic Republic’s “callous disregard” for human rights. The report also indicates that domestic and international pressure previously convinced the Iranian government to undertake “reforms” in this area, but that these only served to deflect criticism while failing to address the problem in any meaningful way. Various minor offenders have had their executions delayed and their sentences reviewed in recent years, but in the vast majority of cases the hardline judiciary has upheld the death sentences, affirming that the teenaged offenders were sufficiently mature to be subject to capital punishment.
The regime’s dismissive attitude about execution of minor offenders is evidently reflected in similar attitudes about large scale crimes against humanity like the 1988 massacre. The NCRI reported on Wednesday that Iran’s Basij News had expressed consternation over the efforts of the Iranian Resistance to continue promoting public awareness of that massacre following Ahmad Montazeri’s release of his father’s recordings. The report recalled attention to the fact that figures including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had persisted in justifying the killings and decrying the “Justice Seeking Movement” that has grown up around the issue.
That movement has sought to secure a full account of the scale of the massacre and to identify the locations of secret mass graves in which the dead are buried. Naturally, it has also urged international charges for leading participants in the killings. Yet Khamenei has maintained that advocacy for this movement mistakes the victim for the oppressor. Meanwhile, the NCRI has taken to describing this rhetoric as indicative of the regime’s fear of the movement’s growth.
Similar awareness seems to be growing around other past Iranian crimes, apart from the 1988 massacre. Further NCRI human rights activism has called attention to a series of “chain” murders that took place in Europe and the Americas in the 1990s, targeting dissidents and opposition activists. And on Wednesday, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty indicated that similar killings had taken place much closer to home, also under the direction of high-level Iranian officials.
Specifically, that report pointed to a documentary broadcast on Tajikistan’s state television, which implicated Tehran in a series of assassinations that took place in that country in the 1990s, as part of the Iranian government’s support of an Shiite Islamist Tajiki political party. The broadcast alleged that in addition to supporting that party politically and financially, the Islamic Republic also helped to foment a civil war in Tajikistan and trained terrorist operatives for activities including the political assassinations.
With tensions over these past crimes mounting, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was not among the attendees at Rouhani’s re-inauguration on Saturday. However, that swearing-in ceremony was otherwise well attended, with the guest list including European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. This fact led to severe criticisms of Mogherini and other Western officials over their perceived disregard for Iranian human rights violations and the Rouhani administration’s general lack of moderation. In the wake of cabinet appointments that are disappointing to reformists, these criticisms are certain to only intensify, unless Western powers take measures to send a critical message to Tehran.