Tehran Taking Measures to Guard Against Western Influence & Human Rights Activism

The possibility of this boycott had already been raised earlier in the week, with Iranian state media and hardline officials describing the invitation as a deliberate slight against Islam and an “anti-cultural action.” Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses has been banned in Iran since its publication in 1988 and the author was the subject of a three million dollar bounty and a fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for his death.

This order remains in place, but according to The Guardian it is not taken seriously by the vast majority of Iranians, who instead view it as one instance of the theocratic government’s propaganda, aimed at portraying Iran’s Muslim culture as being under fire from foreign powers. It is precisely this sentiment that is behind Khamenei’s order for avoidance of negotiations, which had been preceded by various statements urging Iranian officials to guard against Western political, cultural, and economic influence in the wake of the July 14 nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

That order seems to represent an escalation from Khamenei’s prior attempts to withhold explicit judgments about the nuclear deal. Furthermore, there had been some disagreement within the regime about the appropriate response to the Rushdie speech, with some officials saying that protest was appropriate but that a full-scale boycott would do more harm than good. The announcement of such a boycott seems to indicate that advocates for complete disengagement with the West have prevailed in the debate.

This is in keeping with an broad-based conservative crackdown that has been observed since the nuclear negotiations were nearing their end. The Iranian government has, for instance, taken steps to empower civilian militias to more aggressively enforce fundamentalist Islamic laws and customs, and it has maintained tight censorship over media, cultural activities, and gatherings thought to be progressive or pro-Western. As part of these efforts, authorities have cancelled at least 11 concerts in the past six months, with other performers being forced to cancel on their own under pressure from hardline groups.

At the same time that authorities are pushing back against such non-religious cultural expressions, they are also working to tighten the already repressive religious rules imposed on the country. In many instances, this constitutes an assault on women’s rights, as by encouraging militias to confront women for being improperly veiled, or enforcing the bans on women’s attendance of men’s sporting events, as well as other co-mingling of men and women in public.

In the latest example of this trend, several male students in the sixth grade were forced to withdraw from their school in the village of Mazandran on the day that classes were set to begin, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency. The incident stems from the school’s implementation of strict gender segregation, following the example set in recent months by regional authorities, who have applied this segregation to government offices, to the workplace in general, and even to public parks.

Parents of some students at the Mazandran school complained that the decision requires them to send their male children to school in entirely different villages, creating a financial burden that they cannot afford.

Meanwhile, the Iranian government has precipitated serious financial burdens for teachers, as well, and it has done so across the board and throughout the country. The national budget for the current Iranian year included a 30 percent increase in the budget for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps but a reduction in the real value of teacher wages, leaving the vast majority of people in the education profession below the poverty line.

This has in turn precipitated a series of protests by teachers, which continued on Thursday in Tehran and several other cities, according to a report from the National Council of Resistance of Iran. These protests dealt not only with poor standards of living but also called for the release of teachers who have been imprisoned for their organizing activities and former protests. The NCRI report indicates that an official in the Iranian Ministry of Education admitted in August that the number of imprisoned teachers had exceeded 1,000.

These sorts of political prisoners, along with persons held for actual criminal offenses, face a high likelihood of abuses in Iran’s notorious prison system, either at the behest of political authorities or merely at the hands of poorly trained and arbitrarily aggressive prison guards. This situation was detailed in a report by IranWire on Thursday, which included quotations from Iranian prisoners alleging that physical and psychological abuse is commonplace and sometimes severe enough to lead prisoners to attempt suicide.

This abuse constitutes only a fraction of Iran’s reported human rights abuses. The full range of those abuses was raised in a meeting of the European Parliament’s Friends of a Free Iran on Thursday, according to another NCRI report. This gathering essentially urged European governments to push for exactly the type of influence that Khamenei and other hardliners are striving to guard against with the order for no further negotiations, the withdrawal from the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the continuance of domestic repression.

Members of Friends of a Free Iran, who reportedly represent a wide range of political parties, warned their respective governments against neglecting the human rights issue while sending delegations to Tehran to discuss the expansion of trade relations in the wake of the nuclear deal. The NCRI notes that 115 members of the European Parliament signed a letter to the body’s President Martin Schulz, ahead of his planned visit to Iran. It said in part that the parliament “has a duty to put human rights as a top priority for any expansion of relationship with this regime, setting an example for our EU governments.”

Gerard Deprez, the chairman of Friends of a Free Iran, added that if it does not do so, “in the eyes of the people of Iran, it would look as if Europeans are just after business and that they do not care about their sufferings.” But Khamenei’s present anxiety about Western influence seems to indicate that as of now, the Iranian government does not believe that European nations will leave such issues alone.