As Europeans Push for Human Rights, Iran Pushes Back Against “Cultural Infiltration”

The letter echoes many similar statements by politicians, NGOs, and citizen activists, especially around the time of state visits between Iran and its prospective Western trade partners. Staunch critics of the Iranian regime, such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, decried European participants in such visits for failing to address the issue of Iran’s human rights abuses in the context of discussions with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his colleagues.

The Eurasia Review article reminds readers that in one instance, in March, the Rouhani administration cancelled a planned visit to Vienna because the Austrian government refused to obstruct a planned NCRI protest that was to focus on human rights issues. Yet the following month, eight European commissioners led by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini traveled to Tehran to explore new trade deals, without precondition.

But such a precondition is exactly what de Gucht, Michel, and others have urged. The letter calls for Europe to make expanded relations with the Islamic Republic dependent upon a verifiable improvement in human rights conditions, including a suspension of the death penalty.

On July 9, the NCRI held a major international gathering near its headquarters outside of Paris. In it, speakers from dozens of countries called attention to evidence that far from improving, the human rights situation in Iran has only deteriorated in recent years. The most prominent such indicator is the rate of executions, which UN assessments have found to reached levels not seen in more than 25 years.

This trend continues to the present day, as evidenced by the website Iran Human Rights. On Monday it reported that over the previous seven days, at least 30 people had been executed in Iranian prisons, the vast majority of them for non-violent, drug-related crimes. The site also reported that 10 prisoners in a single prison, Rajai Shahr, had recently been transferred to solitary confinement to await their executions, which could take place imminently.

The violent enforcement of drug laws is arguably a symptom of increasingly stringent efforts on the part of the Iranian regime to exert control over civil society. This trend also points to the difficult that European governments would likely face in trying to influence Iran’s human rights record, even if they were making serious efforts to do so.

This is to say, Iran’s general crackdown has included not only the execution of nonviolent criminals and the repression of domestic dissent, but also paranoid resistance to what the regime describes as cultural and economic “infiltration.” On Tuesday, IranWire indicated that one of the latest examples of this was an attack on the use of English or other foreign words and non-Persian script in commercial signs and other public spaces.

The report indicates that Iranian locations of the Nutella Bar and other franchise businesses have been informed that they must remove all their signs, in accordance with existing laws against the use of foreign names and idioms. The requirements, like many other restrictive Iranian laws, are explicitly defined as matters of “public morality,” and have apparently come to be enforced much more strictly in the months since the Iran nuclear deal was implemented.

That deal, concluded last July and put into effect in January, was regarded by some as a possible sign of broader opening between Iran and the West. But Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other hardliners were quick to lash out against that perception, thereby helping to lead to a situation in which the regime is no longer making reasonable accommodations for the relevant laws. In the past, for instance, untranslatable proprietary names have been allowed to remain on Iranian signs. But this appears to no longer be the case, as the regime goes to greater lengths to prevent Western culture from being visible in Iranian society.

This, however, is a difficult prospect in light of the high level of demand for Western goods and Western lifestyles. As a result, the regime is apparently seeking a strange sort of compromise in some cases, formally allowing such goods only on the condition that government authorities can control or monitor their use. This appears to be the case with iPhones, which are not currently sold legally in Iran, but which are available and widely obtained via the black market.

As Fortune reports, the Iranian regime has moved to accept the devices into the open market by ordering Apple to register those that it sells to Iran. This would presumably allow the cyberspace division of Iran’s security forces to more effectively monitor individual users of smartphone applications, which have been a headache for Iranian efforts to control the flow of information and prevent the public expression of dissent.

Tehran has declared that if Iran doesn’t register its products with the Iranian government, it will ban iPhones in the country. But it is not clear how the government would enforce the ban in light of the fact that the devices already in use in the country were almost all illegally obtained.