On Friday, a spokesperson for the Western-backed Syrian opposition suggested that the Saudi acceptance of Iran’s presence in the talks was actually aimed at exposing the Islamic Republic’s unwillingness to cooperate. If this was correct, the motive was arguably vindicated on Monday when Tehran threatened to walk away from the talks amidst assertions that Saudi Arabia was playing a “negative role” and that the talks would turn out to be “not fruitful.”
The bulk of these remarks came from Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, one of four foreign ministry figures in attendance at the talks. But according to the Huffington Post, this round of Iran’s verbal aggression toward Saudi Arabia was made distinctive by the clear participation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was apparently referring to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir when he said, “An inexperienced young man in a regional country will not reach anywhere by rudeness in front of elders.”
Rouhani had formerly encouraged dialogue with Iran’s chief regional rival, and this was one of the foreign policy initiatives that helped him to cultivate a moderate image in the eyes of some Western observers. But his contribution to negative commentary on the Syria talks may signify his increasing willingness to openly side with the hardline, as represented by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
As the international dialogue on the Syrian crisis is a new development, Khamenei has had little to say on that point as yet. But similar to other officials’ threats to walk away from those talks, Khamenei has previously threatened to terminate the nuclear agreement that was reached on July 14 after more than 18 months of negotiations. That agreement has been formally adopted by all participants and is now moving toward implementation, but still faces obstacles, especially in the form of disparaging remarks from hardliners including the supreme leader.
The New York Times reported on Monday that Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, claimed that the country had begun preliminary work on implementing the nuclear agreement, as by decommissioning some enrichment centrifuges and converting the Arak heavy water plant. But the Times also reported that there was some pressure from inside the regime to suspend these activities pending the formation of a committee that Khamenei had called upon to oversee Iran’s fulfillment of its responsibilities under the deal.
While the Times reports this hardline perspective as coming from a relatively small faction of the Iranian government, there are other examples of the same uncooperative mentality which have clear support from the majority of regime officials. Case in point, Agence France-Presse reported on Monday that a majority of the Iranian parliament had voted that the slogan “death to America” would remain in use in spite of the seeming change in US-Iranian relations following the nuclear deal.
And this is only a small part of a broader trend of continued Iranian aggression toward the US and aversion to cooperation with it and its close allies. Statements in support of this aggression and non-cooperation have come from a number of officials, but in many respects they have been led by Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Boogeyman of ‘Infiltration’
Fox News reported on Monday that the supreme leader had expanded upon his prior warnings against American political and economic “infiltration” following the nuclear deal. In October he called for avoidance of negotiations with the US on any topics other than the nuclear deal. On Sunday, his official website apparently sought to both diminish Western influence and undermine the benefits of the deal for the West, as his statement called upon Iranian businesses to avoid importing or distributing any American consumer goods.
The statement sought to link Western business relationships to the threat of moral decay and the undermining of the Islamic revolution. In this respect, it is part of a much larger project of demonizing the US as a foreign aggressor in order to shore up patriotic support for Khamenei’s regime. This perennial Iranian project was explained in detail on Monday in an editorial that appeared in The Guardian.
That article looked at a series of speeches that Khamenei has delivered in recent weeks in order to identify common elements including the tendency to make vague reference to alleged supporters and agents of the United States inside of Iranian society. The Guardian notes that regime officials tend to attribute most progressive domestic activism to foreign infiltration, thus delegitimizing it in the eyes of conservatives and loyal citizens.
The Guardian goes on to say that the current surge in anti-Western rhetoric will likely lead to more persecution of domestic reformers, whom the judiciary may torture and otherwise pressure into confessions that they had acted as agents of the United States.
The article also points to the high profile conviction of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and the more recent arrest of fellow American citizen Siamek Namazi as examples of this trend of portraying a threat of infiltration. Around the time of Rezaian’s conviction, various hardline officials aggressively pushed for the broadcast of his alleged confession to being an American spy.
Lack of Western Response
It is interesting to note that at the same time domestic victims of politically motivated arrest and human rights abuses are being linked to foreign governments, those same foreign governments are subject to criticism that they are paying too little attention to the human rights situation. This sentiment has been expressed repeatedly, by a range of human rights organizations and individual activists. But it was most recently addressed by Iranian exile and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, whose interview was excerpted in the Los Angeles Times on Monday.
Ebadi expressed general opposition to the Iranian nuclear program, repeating the familiar claim that there is simply no reason for the country to maintain such a program purely for the purposes of energy. Nonetheless, she warned that Western governments had put too much emphasis on this issue, at the expense of human rights. She added that in the wake of the nuclear agreement, the human rights situation has actually deteriorated, with the regime making a show of power in order to dispel any notion that it had compromised with the West.
In this way, Iran’s domestic policy shares apparent motives with its warnings against cooperation with the US and its allies. What’s more, the two issues overlap in other ways. Some critics of the Obama administration’s Iran policy have accused it of handing leverage to the Iranian regime in exchange for the nuclear deal. Some of the same critics worry that Khamenei has employed this leverage by threatening to walk away from the deal if the US takes any new action on sanctions, even if only on sanctions related to Iran’s human rights violations or support of terrorism.
This is relevant because Ebadi used her interview to recommend a policy of new sanctions, but only of a sort that specifically target the assets and travel privileges of persons directly connected to past and ongoing human rights abuses. It remains unclear whether the Obama administration would be willing to consider such a policy in light of Khamenei’s warnings.
Victims of Ongoing Crackdown
But there are good chances that Ebadi’s recommendations will gain traction among other human rights advocates, especially in light of the accumulating evidence that she, the Guardian’s editorial author, and others are correct in foreseeing a worsening human rights situation. Iran News Update has also repeatedly pointed to evidence of a hardline crackdown, with one of the latest examples being the arrest of two poets, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Medhi Mousavi, who have been sentenced to long prison sentences for writings that had formerly been approved by Iran’s censorship authorities.
More and more activists are advocating for their release, and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported on Monday that 110 poets and writers had signed a letter personally urging Khamenei to pardon them. However, there are many other writers and artists who are serving similar sentences, or have cases pending, or are under imminent threat of arrest. Indeed, Iran regularly makes the list of world’s worst jailers of journalists, and this practice appears to be worsening in light of the current crackdown.
On Monday, the Express Tribune reported that prominent journalist Isa Saharkhiz had been arrested by Iranian authorities in a characteristic example of the judiciary specifically targeting persons who had served sentences as political prisoners in the past. Although once a deputy minister of culture, Saharkhiz was caught up in the crackdown on dissent in the wake of the 2009 Green Movement and served four years in prison for “insulting Iranian leaders” and “undermining national security.” His current charges are virtually the same, namely, “insulting the supreme leader” and “propaganda against the regime.”
Still other journalists and activists are targeted purely on the basis of group affiliations and face even more severe penalties. For instance, Rudaw reported on Monday that Kayhan Yosfi, who has worked with a number of Kurdish newspapers including one specifically focused on human rights activism, is facing the possibility of deportation from Sweden, where he is seeking asylum. Yosfi explained in an interview that if he returns to Iran he will be arrested and that he fears he could even be killed.