As has been described in other articles at Iran News Update, Tehran has a demonstrated track record of neglecting foreign criticisms of its human rights record, calling them politically biased even in cases when those same criticisms come from multiple non-governmental organizations and a variety of mutually unaffiliated foreign governments.
The present case is no different, and being as it specifically involves a State Department report, it also demonstrates the pattern of Tehran trying to turn human rights accusations against the US in order to portray “arrogant” Western powers as hypocritical on human rights issues. Baaghi notes that the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, “It is imperative that the US administration end its violation of rights of religious minorities, particularly Muslims.” The Ministry apparently did not elaborate upon the nature of these supposed violations.
While civilian discrimination against ethnic and religious groups is a problem in virtually every nation of the globe, reports on the Iranian situation described institutionalized discrimination involving arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, lack of equal protection before the law, denial of government services, and active encouragement of vigilante activity by Iran’s theocratic authorities. Specifically, the associated violations include bans on access to higher education for followers of the Baha’i faith, police raids on Christian worship sessions taking place in private homes, and arrests of Iranians accused of proselytizing for a religion other than Shiite Islam or for “insulting sanctities” or “spreading propaganda.”
Early in August, 20 Sunni Muslim Kurds were hanged in what has been described as one of the worst mass executions in the country in recent years. Although they were accused of being involved in armed activities, it has been alleged that at least some of them were convicted on the basis of forced confessions extracted under torture. This raises concerns that the mass execution may in fact have been one of the latest Iranian contributions to regional sectarian tensions, as the Islamic Republic seeks to crack down on challenges to its Shiite Islamic identity.
That crackdown involves not just the continuation of attacks on religious minorities but also the strict enforcement of the government’s interpretation of Shiite religious law. One of the most noticeable examples of this has been in the realm of women’s rights, with the country’s morality police being increasingly proactive about forced veiling laws and the separation of men and women (and in some cases prepubescent boys and girls) in public spaces.
That gender segregation includes a wholesale ban on the women in sports stadiums – something that Iranian women have evidently been keen to protest, although they risk serious reprisals if they do so in their own country. In 2014, the Iranian-British law graduate Ghoncheh Ghavami was arrested and held in detention for five months after she had attempted to enter a stadium in violation of the ban.
On Monday, her case was highlighted once again by Spread It, in that website’s coverage of a protest by Iranian-born women attending sporting events at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. A group led by the Iranian-Belgian woman Darya Safai held attended a men’s preliminary volleyball match between Egypt and Iran and held up a banner that read, “Let Iranian women enter their stadiums.”
Safai says that she and her fellow protestors have plans to repeat the action, although they were forced to leave last week’s game and were told that if they did not do so willingly they would be escorted out by military personnel. She responded to the incident by saying of these types of authorities, “I think it is a pity they always listen to what the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran says.”
In light of this comment, the incident helps to highlight the inconsistent relationships between Iran and Western countries when it comes to human rights issues. Whereas the State Department religious freedom report arguably puts pressure on the Islamic Republic to either change its human rights behavior or manage its international reputation, the suppression of foreign protests may be seen as demonstrating Western willingness to look the other way on human rights issues when other interests are involved.
Several human rights organizations have suggested that international focus on Iran’s human rights has diminished in the wake of last summer’s nuclear agreement, which led to expectations of trade agreements and economic cooperation between Iran and various countries that had previously participated in the economic sanctions regime. In March, Iranian authorities attempted to exploit the desire for such agreements by asking Austria to obstruct a protest by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, ahead of a planned visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Although Vienna rebuffed the ultimatum, the Rio incident is one of several that suggest other authorities may be more willing to cooperate with the demands of the Islamic Republic. But although such incidents threaten to limit international attention to hot-button human rights issues, there are other instances in which the existing attention has led to international action that actually strives to counteract some of the effects of Iranian violations.
For instance, on Monday, Mercury News reported upon the ongoing efforts to provide Iran’s Baha’i religious minority with alternative routes to the lives they are ordinarily denied by Iranian authorities. For most of the life of the Islamic Republic, there have been informal institutions of higher education committed to providing Baha’is with access to instruction. Now, in an era when Tehran struggles to restrict civilian access to information technology, there are reportedly growing numbers of Iranian expatriates and foreign nationals who are participating in these institutions as instructors, running classes from as far away as California.
Whereas Iran’s response to the US State Department report suggests that exposing the regime’s human rights violations will do little to improve its behavior, the growth of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education illustrates the fact that global awareness can lead to meaningful global activities to improve life for Iranian citizens.