Similar comments in recent weeks and months have come from various officials including other Revolutionary Guards and ranging up to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said after the lapse of the previous nuclear deadline that the Western powers had tried and failed to “bring Iran to its knees.” The extension of the talks was characterized by Khamenei and others as a victory by Iran over the West, and this rhetoric has been accompanied by public dismissals of the Middle East activities of the US and its allies, especially including bombing campaigns against the Islamic State.
US President Barack Obama has reportedly reached out unsuccessfully to Khamenei in pursuit of partnership against that common enemy. Iran, for its part, has suggested that with the help of a few regional actors it could effectively replace the US-led coalition against the Islamic State and prosecute the war on its own. Independent analysts generally conclude otherwise, noting that Iran’s forces and funds are stretched thin across several battlefields and have been insufficient to make real progress in Syria.
But the rhetoric and the material reality of the situation indicate that Iran will continue to pour its own resources into Iraq over the long term, unless outside pressures check its advance. This is the conclusion presented on Monday by Christian news source The Trumpet, which recalled the death in Iraq of IRGC Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi.
Crucially, the justification for Iran’s involvement is primarily related to the nation’s religious identity, insofar as Tehran claims that its soldiers in Iraq have died defending Shiite shrines. Concordantly, Iran’s approach to the conflict has heavily involved recruitment and financing for Shiite militias, giving the entire crisis an increasingly sectarian quality.
One could expect that Iran’s promotion of Shiite militancy beyond its borders might also reflect upon the nation’s domestic policies and upon social trends among its staunch Shiite supporters. Providing evidence in favor of that conclusion, on Saturday that Iranian security had blocked members of its Sunni minority from accessing a Sunni prayer site on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
Interestingly, this move came on the last day of Shiite-Sunni “unity week,” an observance that the Iranian government uses to claim that it is tolerant of its largest religious minority. But of course, as a theocratic government, Iran heavily privileges Shiite Islam and is infamous for varying levels of persecution against its several minority faiths. Yet despite this and despite a consistently poor human rights record as determined by the United Nations and international activists, Iran publicly claims to defend the rights of its citizens, including those who are members of minorities.
These claims progressed on Monday when, according to Tasnim News Agency, the deputy head of the Iranian Judiciary’s Human Rights Council claimed that far from being guilty of rampant human rights abuses, the Islamic Republic is one of the world’s leading defenders of human rights.
“Most advanced laws for the protection of human rights are enforced in Iran,” Kazem Gharibabadi said to attendants of a ceremony at Tehran University, adding, “Iran is placed in a privileged position in the world in terms of its structure for the protection of human rights.”
Gharibabadi also praised Iran for the status of free speech in the country, citing the volume of publications and news agencies while disregarding the fact that a number of these are state run and others are tightly controlled. Iran is known to be one of the world leaders in imprisonment of journalists, and in early January the regime shut down 17 foreign-based satellite television networks as part of an ongoing effort to limit sources and types of information in the country.
Of course the main focus of these efforts is now the internet, and it is well known that Iran has officially banned access to Facebook, Twitter, and a variety of other sources of information deemed undesirable by the Shiite clerical government. This month it was claimed that those restrictions would be somewhat loosened as the regime began to implement a “smart filtering” system that would allow access to all sites but filter out objectionable content.
Indeed, even after the smart filtering plan was announced, the Iranian judiciary ordered the wholesale ban of three more social media apps. Far from becoming freer, the internet stands to potentially become even more restricted in Iran, and the International Campaign finds that a system is being developed whereby each internet user would be personally identifiable, allowing the regime to filter content for specific groups that it designates.
This is in keeping with the Islamic Republic’s past approach to the issue, which has not only maintained vigorous censorship but has also maintained double standards, with government officials having accounts on the very same social networks that are banned for citizens.
The prospective enhancement of restrictions may well be spurred on by the regime’s dismissal of foreign threats and influence and the general lack of pressure on this issue from the US and other governments. In its coverage of Susan Power’s comments to congressional Republicans, the Associated Press points out that she raised the issue of Cuba alongside that of Iran. But it was only in the former case that the UN ambassador brought up the issue of human rights abuses.
The release of Cuban dissidents, Power said, “does not resolve the larger human rights problems on the island.” Meanwhile, at least three Americans remain imprisoned in Iran – Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, Christian Pastor Saeed Abedini, and former US Marine Amir Hekmati – and there is no indication that their release has been pursued as a prerequisite for a nuclear agreement or further diplomatic relations between the US and Iran.