Specifically, Takeyh points to this month’s conviction of Washington Post correspondent and US citizen Jason Rezaian, and he cites this as part of a broader patter of arrests and torture of journalists, activists, dissidents, and other political targets. With this in mind, the editorial urges the US government to exert pressure on these areas of Iran’s behavior even as it continues to move forward with the nuclear deal.
While Takeyh’s remarks are certainly aimed in some part at the Obama administration, the foreign policy scholar also points out that past presidents from both sides of the political aisle have tended to act on human rights issues only when they faced pressure from the legislative branch of their own government. Thus, his advice is chiefly for Congress and especially for Republican opponents of Obama’s foreign policy. He recommends that lawmakers take such steps as designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization and setting up a human rights commission to investigate and take action on the situation in Iran.
Crucially, Takeyh highlights how previous presidents have empowered the forces of change in other rogue states by highlighting the cases of dissidents and bringing pressure to bear on abusive governments. Tacitly endorsing the efforts for regime change in Iran, he said, “No one has a greater ability to inspire dissidents than an American president embracing their cause.”
Of course, not everyone accepts that the utmost dissident goal is still necessary. And indeed, President Obama himself has repeatedly voiced the opinion that the regime might be capable of moderating from within. This notion has been aggressively disputed by dissident groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which cite worsening statistics on arrests and executions under the supposedly moderate Rouhani presidency.
But even some individuals who believe that the current Iranian government can be a reasonable negotiating partner still believe that the Obama administration’s policy should be more assertive. For instance, on Wednesday, Reuters published an editorial by Sarah Shourd, one of three American hikers who were arrested by Iranian security forces when they accidentally crossed the border from Syria.
Shourd argues that Jason Rezaian may be released as she and her fellow hostages were. She downplays the Rezaian conviction as an instance of a contested hardline faction of the Iranian government attempting to obstruct the improvement of relations between the countries. Nevertheless, she argues that Rezaian’s release will come only in response to continued international pressure, which critics of President Obama tend to believe has been missing under his leadership.
“When the pressure on and condemnation of the Iranian government reaches a critical point,” Shourd wrote, “the hostages become more trouble than they are worth. That’s how people get released.”
One might just as easily argue that that is how other change takes place, as well. And thus human rights organizations, the NCRI, and other dissidents have been steadily urging Wester powers to speak out against human rights issues like the escalating rate of executions in Iran, whereby more than 2,000 inmates have been hanged since Rouhani took office.
Iran News Update has repeatedly cited these statistics as evidence of a broader conservative crackdown on Iranian society, which has also led to enhanced restrictions on media and the internet, as well as attacks on various kinds of non-Islamic cultural expression.
Two new pieces of evidence for this were published on Wednesday. Motherboard indicated that Iran appeared to be carrying on with a project of attempting to monitor private communications through virtually all electronic media. The latest target of this is reportedly Telegram, a supposedly encrypted instant messaging mobile app.
Telegram CEO Pavel Durov claimed on Tuesday that the service had gone down in Iran after Iranian government pressured the company to provide censorship and monitoring tools that would allow authorities to spy on the app’s Iranian users, of which there are as many as 12 million.
On Thursday, Rudaw reported that the popularity of Telegram in Iran is partly due to the perception among some citizens that it is more secure than other alternatives such as Viber. But some citizens are far more skeptical, and Rudaw quotes one as saying that the very fact that Telegram and Viber are still generally accessible inside the country is evidence that the government has access to their data.
Other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are banned throughout Iran, and it may be difficult for citizens to understand why Telegram would not join their ranks unless the regime was able to use it for its own purposes. Indeed, Motherboard reports that the quality of Telegram’s encryption has been questioned, and the company has been criticized for complying with some previous regime demands, as by cutting off Iranians’ access to a feature that had been used to share pornography and satiric political commentary.
And at the same time as Iran is working to constrain or monitor political speech online, it is also apparently stepping up its efforts to control cultural speech in the real world. IranWire pointed out on Wednesday that censorship of music has recently been on the rise throughout the country. This has been manifested through the outright ban of at least 26 popular musicians and singers. Most of these bans were justified simply on the grounds of those artists having had contact with individuals in Western countries, or even having had their songs played, with or without their knowledge, on Western radio stations.
IranWire also reiterated that the problem has not improved in any discernible way under the Rouhani administration. In addition to overseeing new bans, that administration has refused to lift or question bans that had been put in place before Rouhani was elected in 2013 on promises of a more open Iranian society. Such reports support the notion that pressure on the domestic situation will not come from within the regime, but must come from dissidents and international backers if it is to come at all.