US Pressure Increases on Iran, but Critics Demand More Attention to Human Rights

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The latest statement made specific reference to the Iranian regime’s “continued mischief” in the broader Middle East, and it made a point of emphasizing the separateness of the administration’s policies toward Iran’s government and its people. In recent months, following the outbreak of a nationwide uprising in the Islamic Republic last December, President Trump and his foreign policy principals have repeatedly made a point of expressing support for those protests and for the Iranian people’s overall conflict with the ruling theocratic system.

Mattis used the press conference to declare that that regime is “going to be held to account” for its “fundamentally” destabilizing influence and specifically for its support of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad – something that has been criticized in the context of many recent Iranian protests, wherein participants implored the Iranian government to “forget about Syria; think of us.” The Independent notes that Mattis did not specify the means by which the regime would be “held to account,” though it goes without saying that he was referring at least in part to the prospective effects of economic sanctions that began to go back into force earlier this month following their suspension under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the US pulled out of in May.

That effect may be greater than previously expected, according to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, which determined that Iran’s oil exports are set to decline by roughly one-third. The Iranian oil industry was not targeted by this month’s re-imposed sanctions, which instead focused on other export markets. A second package of renewed sanctions will come into force in early November, following another 90-day waiting period, with the aim of isolating not only Iran’s oil economy but also its banking sector.

Other measures may follow, and despite sharing Mattis’ vagueness on this point, National Security Advisor John Bolton declared last week that economic sanctions would not be the only means through which the US sought to change the behavior of the Iranian regime. But some commentators have questioned the breadth of the Trump administration’s focus on which specific behaviors have changed, even as it relates to their existing economic pressure tactics.

As one example, The Hill published an editorial on Tuesday that criticized the administration’s failure to direct sanctions against certain specific targets that have played a role in Tehran’s domestic violations of human rights. The article noted that in 2010 and 2012, the US sanctioned the entirety of the Iranian civilian militia known as the Basij, along with two different leaders of the organization and a deputy commander.

The current Basij head, Gholamhossein Gheibparvar, has not been subjected to similar measures, however. And the relevant article’s author, Tzvi Kahn, argues that this is clearly unacceptable in light of the worsening human rights situation that has emerged as the Iranian regime struggles to cope with domestic unrest and perceived threats of foreign political and cultural “infiltration”.

As part of an apparent effort to build up concerns over that infiltration, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi recently claimed, without citing any specific evidence, that security forces had arrested dozens of individuals, including many dual nationals, for spying on behalf of unspecified foreign states. In commenting upon this, Alavi also urged Iranian civilians to inform the government if they have knowledge of dual nationals – a surveillance role that is very much in keeping with the operations of Basij militants.

Khan says of that organization, “[its] omnipresence allows it to proliferate regime propaganda and conduct surveillance through the use of checkpoints and patrols, thereby embedding the organization into the very fabric of Iranian life.” He goes on to note that these features have allowed it substantially contribute, under the leadership of the “ruthless” Gheibparvar” to the violent crackdown on peaceful protests over the past several months.

The Trump administration’s failure to target Gheibparvar is not necessarily indicative of general disregard for the instruments of Iran’s domestic repression. Indeed, the White House targeted the previous head of the Iranian Central Bank specifically in response to his role in providing financing for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is the parent organization for the Basij and a major contributor to domestic repression in its own right. However, this and similar measures were reportedly focused on confronting the IRGC’s role as a supporter of international terrorism, a fact that underscores the Trump administration’s greater focus on Iran’s foreign policy than its human rights record at home.

Yet the editorial in The Hill points to the ways in which the contributors to that record are often also featured in the regime’s foreign belligerence and terrorist activities. It notes that the Basij often targets Iranians abroad, including the women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, who spearheaded the “My Stealthy Freedom” social media campaign that has since given rise to large-scale, coordinated protests against forced veiling inside the Islamic Republic. Khan also notes that in 2016, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s foreign expeditionary Quds Force, described the Basij as being essential to the export of Iran’s Islamic revolution.

These facts, together with the Intelligence Ministry’s recent appeal, speak to the possibility that a lack of pressure on Iran’s institutions of domestic repression could have consequences for Western nationals both inside and outside Iranian territory. Several Western nationals are already serving multi-year sentences in Iranian prisons, and the regime has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to exerting pressure on these individuals.

In one example of this, the British-Iranian political prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe recently had her furlough cut short three days after she was granted temporary release to visit her daughter, Gabriella, who was prevented from leaving the country at the time of her mother’s arrest more than two years ago.

Previous requests for furlough had been denied outright, despite such accommodations being granted to non-political prisoners with some regularity. The Tower reported on Tuesday that Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe returned to prison voluntarily, fearing that any delay would result in her parents’ home being raided in the middle of the night, in keeping with the pressure tactics she has been subjected to ever since she was first taken into custody.

The punitive denial of furlough has also been a feature of the case against Baquer Namazi, the octogenarian father of Iranian-American political prisoner Siamak Namazi. The elder Namazi is currently on an extended furlough related to his medical problems, but this follows the denial of numerous other requests for release to hospital, at a time when those problems were developing and worsening. In other cases, he was returned to prison before receiving specialized treatment, and this suggests that the lengthy nature of his current stay in the hospital has proven necessary to simply keep him alive.

Meanwhile, as the Center for Human Rights in Iran points out, Siamak Namazi’s requests for furlough continue to be rejected, and the harsh treatment of this and other political prisoners lends credence to familiar claims that the Iranian regime is exerting pressure on them for the sake of using them as bargaining chips, to reduce the escalating pressure coming out of Washington, at least where foreign policy is concerned.