Representing the former tendency, the Organization of Iranian-American Communities will be holding a rally on the 28th in the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the UN headquarters. The protest will essentially be a repeat of one that took place in line with Rouhani’s visit to the General Assembly last year. As was the case then, its Iranian-American participants will hear speeches from a bipartisan group of American and European supporters, this time headlined by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
The details of the rally explicitly describe it as a call for regime change. They accuse Rouhani of being as culpable for human rights abuses as any highly placed Iranian official, noting that he has presided over a period of unprecedented executions totaling to approximately 2,000 since he took office in 2013.
While falling short of calling for regime change, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran similarly indicted the Rouhani administration for this and other abuses, via a message released on its website in the week leading up to his arrival at the General Assembly. The campaign’s executive director, Hadi Ghaemi noted that Rouhani himself attempt to evade blame by emphasizing that the Iranian judiciary operates independent of his presidency. But this does not mean that the administration lacks any power to influence the situation or that it has not materially contributed to a persistent climate of repression.
“His citizens are being thrown in prison for peacefully criticizing their government,” Ghaemi said, adding, “It is indefensible that Rouhani has been silent and inconsequential on basic human rights.”
The message of the International Campaign thus urged all world leaders to use “every interaction” with Iranian officials both during and after the General Assembly to pressure them to improve the human rights situation in their country. The message also advised the US and Europe to make the release of political prisoners and the acceptance of the right to peaceful dissent preconditions for the release of frozen assets under the nuclear agreement that was signed on July 14 and passed the US Congress just last week.
While somewhat different in tone from the press communications associated with the OIAC rally, the International Campaigns message serves the same basic goal of undermining the perception among some in the West that President Rouhani is a moderate player in Iranian politics and a potential source of un-coerced changes in Tehran’s general policies.
The International Campaign pointed out that the Rouhani administration has not only allowed repression to go forward via the efforts of the judiciary and the various government agencies that answer directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his hardline associates. Rather, the administration has actively participated in some repressions, and the International Campaign highlights journalist arrests and controls over the flow of information as key examples.
The plight of journalists in Iran received additional attention in recent days from Journalism is Not a Crime, the organization founded by Iranian-born journalist and former political prisoner Maziar Bahari. The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that this organization commissioned a number of murals in diverse neighborhoods of New York City to promote the cause of press freedom and publicize the fact that Iran is consistently the second largest jailer of journalists in the world, after China.
Notwithstanding the persistence of this situation and the prevalence of media censorship and Iranian propaganda, there are indications that the effectiveness of Iran’s control of information is slipping. Iran News Update recently ran a story on this exact topic, suggesting that the upward trend in repression of the press and public activism has been a direct response to the increase in citizen journalism and illegal access to objective online information.
While this may have engendered more of the same human rights behavior from Tehran, it may have also started the Iranian public toward more systematic rejection of the regime’s propaganda. An article published in IranWire on Tuesday about the plight of the Baha’i religious minority quoted one disenfranchised Baha’i as making this precise claim.
“Fortunately, I never lost a friend because I was a Baha’i,” said Sepehr Atefi, explaining that the social acceptance of Baha’is has improved during his young life. “Sometimes there were misunderstandings about Baha’is and their beliefs but they were cleared up after we talked. I think that in recent years ordinary people believe less in the propaganda by the Islamic Republic media.”
Unfortunately, this has not stopped the Iranian government from routinely denying Baha’is access to higher education, or arresting them for gathering in groups, or bulldozing their cemeteries. Speaking about his own experiencing being banned from Iranian universities, Atefi noted that he was able to get some low-level government authorities to admit that the order was wrong, though they also emphasized that they could do nothing about it because the order was “coming from the top.”
These sorts of stories indicate that there is an increasingly obvious disconnect between the Iranian regime’s official positions and the attitudes of the general public. And in the run-up to Rouhani’s visit to the UN General Assembly, rights groups are working to reach a wider audience with the message that the Rouhani administration is not receptive to these dissenting public views. Whether it will take action to curtail the corresponding repressions in light of pressure from the international community remains to be seen.
But in the meantime, any serious changes in Iranian society are sure to remain independent of the government. For instance, IranWire noted in an article on Wednesday that some women’s rights activists have responded to the high-profile case of Nilufar Ardalan by urging Iranian women to demand that the right to travel be written into each of their individual marriage contracts. Ardalan was recently removed from the roster of the Iranian indoor soccer team when her husband refused to allow her to travel internationally. She subsequently protested the restriction, setting off a national debate about women’s rights.
Emphasis on the content of individual marriage contracts may secure the right to travel for some women, if their prospective husbands are sufficiently progressive, but it does little to address the underlying, sexist double-standard. What’s more, a legislative fix for the problem seems quite impossible, as even members of the Iranian parliament’s women’s caucus have insisted that such restrictions are requirements of Islamic law. In fact, these very arguments have reportedly prevented the issue from being raised for parliamentary debate since a proposal for allowing women to travel was first defeated by the 2000-2004 parliament.