The FDD policy brief emphasizes that EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as “opening a window” for discussion of other matters of Iranian behavior besides the country’s nuclear program. But the brief goes on to categorically state that there has been no opening and that the EU, instead of acknowledging this fact, has unwittingly defended Iran’s impunity in the area of human rights, by vigorously and unconditionally defending the JCPOA.
Additionally, the brief highlights the contrast between American and European responses to protests that began with a nationwide mass uprising in the Islamic Republic at the end of December and the beginning of January. European officials have reportedly offered only tepid support, if they have commented on the situation at all, whereas various White House officials including the president himself have offered unflinching declarations of common cause with the Iranian people in their conflict with the theocratic regime.
This latter issue is perhaps especially important, in light of the fact that protests affiliated with the mass uprising are still ongoing. The initial demonstrations were spurred by worsening economic indicators, but the public response quickly took on a broader tone, blaming the regime in its entirety for the problems and demanding comprehensive change. The Center for Human Rights in Iran reported upon one of the latest such protests on Wednesday, noting that workers at the Haft Tappeh sugarcane company have not been paid since May and are accordingly on strike.
Although there was no indication that the demonstrations at the plant had turned political, they proved to be a case study in Iranian authorities’ unmitigated repression of all public protests. At least five of the workers were arrested and charged with national security crimes, and if convicted they will likely face multi-year prison sentences as well as a sentence of flogging. The December-to-January mass uprising set the tone for the regime’s broader repression, as an estimated 8,000 participants were arrested while roughly 50 protesters were killed in the streets and a further dozen were tortured to death while in the custody of security forces.
The connection between this prior repression and the ongoing repression of current demonstrations reflects a generally agreed on connection between the uprising and the various subsequent protests that have been sparked by a range of issues including water scarcity, government corruption, and workers’ rights issues. This connection has been acknowledged not just by protesters and opponents of the Iranian regime but also by the regime itself, albeit euphemistically.
Iran Human Rights Monitor called attention to this situation on Tuesday when it highlighted reports in Iranian state media that described the country’s ongoing economic crisis as contributing to the proliferation of protests through a “reduced social tolerance level.” IHRM adds that this phrase functions to stand in for the “people’s hatred and dislike towards the entire regime,” something that has been showcased in recurring slogans over the past eight months, including “death to the dictator.” The alternative phrase effectively allows the regime to acknowledge the existence of widespread protests while continuing to deny their source.
Naturally, though, this denial has been exhibited through more than just the regime’s own propaganda. Iranian authorities have also sought to repress political dissent even before it can organize or erupt into serious protests. As an example of this, the Human Rights Activists News Agency recently reported that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security had raided the homes of several civil activists, including the husband of prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is currently serving a five year sentence for espionage while also facing a potential expansion of her sentence in line with additional charges that were arbitrarily served against her as she was in prison.
Another report noted that on the same day, multiple lawyers and activists were arrested en masse as they held a peaceful demonstration in front of the parliament building in Tehran. One of the arrestees had previously shared a video promoting the event, and a fellow protester determined that authorities were building a case against him on that basis, suggesting a particular focus on discouraging the further spread of public unrest, or the dissemination of information about them.
Meanwhile, Iran Human Rights emphasized the arbitrary and ultimately illegal nature of the case against the arrestee in question, Ghasem Shole-Sadi. He and fellow lawyer Arash Keykhosravi had initially been charged with “disturbing public order” for their participation in the protest before parliament, but the charge spontaneously changed to “collusion against national security” before they could post bail, thereby allowing authorities to subject them to one month of “provisional arrest”.
The repressive atmosphere of recent months has not been completely ignored by Iranian officials, but to the extent that there has been conflict between different factions of the regime over this issue, it has only demonstrated that the hardline attitude toward domestic dissent is deeply ingrained and institutionally protected. For instance, CHRI reported last week that Vice President Isa Kalantari, the head of the Iranian Department of the Environment was roundly rebuffed by the judiciary after he inquired after the status of environmentalists who were taken as political prisoners in a far-reaching crackdown beginning in late January.
What’s more, well-connected individuals such as current and former officials are not immune from the current trend of repression. Another CHRI report pointed to the example of former Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, who was recently sentenced to one year in prison for the crime of criticizing Iran’s longstanding and costly involvement in the Syrian Civil War. The authorities characterized Karbaschi as insulting Shiite martyrs of that war through his remarks, but it is likely that they are more concerned about the popularity of his sentiment, as protesters in the January uprising and in more recent protests have been heard to demand that the regime “forget about Syria; think of us.”
Also familiar to those protests is the message that “the game is over” for both “reformists” and “hardliners” in mainstream Iranian politics. Dissident groups such as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran have long maintained that there is little difference the two factions, and this message has been underlined over the past several months by the regime’s repression of dissent against both the hardline supreme leader and the reformist president, as well as their various affiliates.
On Tuesday, it was reported that the actress Parastoo Salehi had been summoned by the judiciary and interrogated over her activity on social media, which she has used to “decry such issues as embezzlement, the drop in the value of Iranian currency, citizens being detained for political reasons, rape, cases of child abuse, and the Caspian Sea Agreement.” The report quoted Salehi as saying that the failure of Rouhani’s supposed reform initiative and the worsening repression under his tenure have made his administration “the worst Iran has seen in 40 years.”