By Edward Carney
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times published a report that criticized the US government for neglect of Iranian refugees, specifically Christians who have fled the country as a result of its systematic and apparently escalating persecution of religious minorities.
The report indicates that in February alone, the Trump administration denied the applications that had been filed by 87 different Iranians under the Lautenberg-Specter program, which specifically serves to facilitate the relocation of persecuted minorities, having been first put into place to assist Jews in fleeing form the Soviet Union.
The Times describes the program as having an acceptance rate very near 100 percent, making the mass denials over the past year “unprecedented.” In the first quarter of 2017, the US admitted 1,061 Iranian nationals, but a total of just 35 have been admitted so far this year, according to the Refugee Processing Center.
It is a situation that has been attributed partly to President Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, and partly to his administration’s failure or unwillingness to address changes in refugee processing procedures in order to prevent further slowdowns in the resettlement of asylum seekers.
As the L.A. Times indicated, this flies in the face of Trump’s assurances last year to the Christian Broadcasting Network that his administration would make a priority of providing assistance to Christians suffering persecution overseas.
This speaks to the fact that the president and his foreign policy officials are certainly aware of the escalating religious persecution and the broader human rights concerns prevailing in the Islamic Republic.
These concerns were, in fact, the focus of a recent Voice of America News video purporting to explain the rationales behind current US policies. The video highlighted public statements from such administration officials as UN ambassador Nikki Haley and State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, which called attention to “daily human rights violations” by the Iranian regime and called upon all of the United States’ global partners to join in exerting pressure on Tehran over this issue.
But the administration’s refusal of Iranian asylum seekers arguably has a detrimental effect upon the example that the US is setting for those partners, some of whom could be faced with the choice to either provide the assistance that is not coming from the US or else facilitate the return of refugees to a country where they could be imprisoned or executed because of their decision to flee.
This situation could still be resolved, as the L.A. Times reports that a final decision on the 87 applications from February is still due this month. But in the meantime, the relevant individuals remain stranded in Austria for much longer than the three to six months usually associated with the process.
Compounding the danger of potential deportation, the current location of these refugees may raise alarm bells in its own right, following the revelation in July that a leading Iranian diplomat in Vienna had served as the mastermind of a foiled plot to bomb the annual rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran just outside Paris on June 30.
Although two Iranian nationals were recently indicted in the United States on charges of spying for Iran, the NCRI and other critics of the Iranian regime have argued that the danger of Iranian espionage and associated terrorism is greater in Europe, where the Islamic Republic continues to maintain diplomatic-cum-terrorist networks through its consular buildings, which were closed in the US at the outset of the hostage crisis in 1979.
On the other hand, the maintenance of Iranian-European diplomatic relations arguably puts the European Union and its member states in a better position to exert certain types of pressure on the Iranian regime, in line with the Trump administration’s calls to action.
Furthermore, those calls are not emanating only from the White House but also from non-governmental human rights groups, some of which have been warning for years that key aspects of Iran’s domestic situation have only gotten worse since the 2013 election of so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
An article published on Thursday by Charity Today quoted Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research and Advocacy Director, as saying that Iran is currently in the midst of a “blatant attempt to silence those advocating for human rights in Iran.”
Luther was referring, in particular, to the arrests on Friday and Saturday of three human rights lawyers and a women’s rights activist.
The Charity Today report identified those arrests as part of a “wider crackdown” on persons with similar professions and political backgrounds, and it includes a timeline of related arrests, many of which are seen as targeting individuals who have attempted to defend anti-government and women’s rights protesters in the wake of the nationwide uprisings that spanned the last days of December and the first two weeks of January.
The report named seven prominent activists and lawyers who had been arrested between June and August. But this is by no means an exhaustive list of those who have been targeted as part of the ongoing crackdown.
Additionally, their arrests are only part of the story, as a number of recent arrestees and longstanding political prisoners have faced new pressures in recent weeks. Such pressures include threats against detainees’ family members, as in the case of the renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, whose husband Reza Khandan was arrested on Tuesday when agents of the Intelligence Ministry raided his home.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran confirmed that this was part of a broader pattern of behavior by regime authorities. “Intelligence agencies in collusion with the judiciary are ratcheting up their harassment of family members—and trampling on the law—in order to silence any questioning of their actions,” said the organization’s Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi.
Khandan’s arrest may be a direct response to his protests outside of Evin Prison or his outreach to independent media, or it may be part of an effort to compel Sotoudeh to end a hunger strike that began on August 26.
While it bears noting that the harassment of her family and friends predates the protest and is one of the factors motivating it, it is also true that the regime has a long history of taking drastic measures to interrupt hunger strikes, since these have frequently proven effective in generating public sympathy and facilitating the further spread of activist measures.
Although Sotoudeh’s domestic and international renown may make her hunger strike an area of particular concern for the regime’s repressive authorities, there are others who may pose an equally serious challenge to those authorities because their protests have already been going on much longer.
CHRI reported on Tuesday that Farhad Meysami, a physician who was arrested at the end of July for his participation in protests against the detention of other civil rights activist, is refusing to end his hunger strike more than a month after it began.
“I’m on hunger strike out of respect for my own human dignity and that of all other individuals who have been detained on false accusations and interrogated without access to their own chosen lawyers,” Meysami said of the protest action that began immediately after his arrest.
He has since been transferred to the prison infirmary several times, although he was also held for 20 days in solitary confinement and was reportedly beaten during his interrogation, audio of which was played over anonymous phone calls to his mother.
Solitary confinement, physical violence, and denial of proper medical treatment are all familiar tactics used by authorities in Iranian prisons, either as forms of extrajudicial punishment or in order to compel compliance from political prisoners.
And in recent weeks there have been numerous examples of these tactics being used not only to further the crackdown on human rights advocates but also to expand the associated crackdown on religious minorities and other perceived threats to the hardline Islamist identity imposed on Iran by the clerical regime.
Another CHRI report pointed out on Wednesday that guards in the Great Tehran Penitentiary had attacked about 30 imprisoned members of the Gonabadi dervish Sufi order who staged a sit-in on August 29.
The violent incident resulted in broken bones as well as the transfer of several of the dervishes to solitary confinement, where they have now remained for more than a week. A source told CHRI, “The authorities say if the dervishes want to return to their previous wards they have to express remorse, but they have refused to do so because they believe they did nothing wrong.”
In other cases, mistreatment at the hands of prison authorities has been used in order to put pressure on members of religious minorities to convert. These are the kinds of hardships from which Iranian Christians have been fleeing as they seek resettlement in the US under the Lautenberg-Specter program.
And although the overall problem of persecution and human rights violations must be addressed inside the Islamic Republic via coordinated pressure from domestic activists and foreign diplomats, critics of current American policies might argue that such coordination is more attainable if the US is perceived as willing to open itself up to those who are seeking to lawfully escape the currently worsening conditions in Iran.