Although Shaheed has found that there has been more willingness to engage with the UN system in the wake of this past summer’s nuclear agreement, his report also identifies several areas in which the human rights situation has failed to improve or has even gotten worse. These include the area of Iran’s liberal application of the death penalty, which has led to something in the vicinity of 800 executions so far this year, putting the country on track to easily exceed 1,000 judicially sanctioned killings by the end of 2015.
Shaheed expects that limited improvements in the near future will be attributable to the end of economic sanctions under the nuclear deal. The influx of capital to the Islamic Republic has been a source of worry for many opponents of the regime who believe that a great deal of that money will be channeled into terrorism and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is understood to be a major arm of the regime’s mechanisms for foreign intervention and domestic repression. But Shaheed evidently accepts that the change could nonetheless improve the situation for some Iranian citizens, as by reducing shortages of life-saving medicine.
Such medicine was exempt from sanctions enforcement but nonetheless failed to reach the Iranian people in many cases, both because of foreign company’s wariness of doing business with Iran and because of the regime’s manipulation of exemptions for the sake of financial gain instead of their intended purpose.
In light of this, it may be that Iran’s ostensible willingness to selectively provide information to Shaheed is motivated primarily by an interest in emphasizing the human rights impact of sanctions relief without actually changing any of the regime’s behavior as it directly relates to human rights.
Indeed, Shaheed and various other human rights defenders continue to recognize a crackdown on Iranian civil society, of which the increased rate of executions is only one part. It has also entailed a range of politically-motivated arrests, apparently targeting persons and activities that were tolerated in the past. Case in point is the arrest and conviction of poets Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi, who were profiled again by the Associated Press on Tuesday.
The two recently received sentences of 11 and nine years, respectively, on charges that their work served as propaganda and “insulted the sacred.” But each defendant’s works had previously been licensed for publication by the heavily restrictive Iranian Ministry of Culture. Their convictions seem to reflect hardening standards, which are being enforced retroactively. And these standards relate not only to cultural expressions but also personal behavior, as evidence by the fact that the two have also been sentenced to 99 lashes each for shaking hands with members of the opposite sex.
The exact same behavior was used as a pretense for punitive charges against Atema Farghadani, whose case was the focus of an editorial published on Tuesday in Newsday by political cartoonist Matt Davies. Farghadani is now serving a 12 year nine month sentence drawing and posting to Facebook a cartoon depicting Iranian members of parliament as animals, in order to protest against crackdowns on women’s rights.
When she was later charged with illegitimate relations with her lawyer because she shook his hand, “the judiciary proved that her cartoon depiction of Iranian authority was accurate,” according to Davies.
The editorial concluded by saying that Farghadani’s case and others like it demonstrate that what the Iranian regime is most afraid of is a free exchange of ideas. Much of this fear is apparently related to the fear of foreign influence, as evidenced by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s edict barring his subordinates from any further negotiations with the US following the nuclear deal.
A number of observers have speculated that the arrest and conviction of Ekhtesari and Mousavi was motivated in large part by the fact that they have social contacts in the West and have had their books distributed there.
But of course Farghadani’s case shows that there is also a strong current of domestic activism which the regime is reacting against. Some media outlets have even suggested that regime hardliners are worried that this trend may acquire sympathizers inside the government.
AFP reported on Tuesday that the Iranian parliament had barred politicians from publicly endorsing candidates in upcoming elections. Such moves have been interpreted by some analysts as an effect of fear among hardliners that they will lose their current hold on civil society. It is unclear whether the ban on endorsements would actually apply to the supreme leader, who is the ultimate authority in all Iranian affairs. If not, this could be seen as another instance of consolidating control in his hands.
A previous example of the same trend came last month when internet policy was placed under the exclusive control of a committee directly answerable to Khamenei.
This in turn speaks to how the current crackdown has affected the media. As part of an attempt to eliminate all references to dissent or opposition, Iran’s official state media recently edited images of Grand Ayatollah Ali Mortazeri out of archival footage of a 1984 speech by Khamenei. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty explains that Mortazeri helped to found the Islamic Republic alongside Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but later became known as a dissident cleric and supported the 2009 Green Movement shortly before his death at the end of that year.
In addition to scrubbing Mortazeri from official footage, the regime has reportedly shut down publications for the crime of running features related to his views and legacy. Such controls on the media appear unaffected by the “marginal optimism” expressed by Ahmed Shaheed regarding some other aspects of the human rights situation.