Indeed, Rouhani has actually played a noticeably different role on that issue, compared to the country’s superior authority. But Iranian dissidents and other strict opponents of the Iranian regime have tended to dismiss Rouhani’s outreach to the West as merely a different strategy for pursuing the same hardline goals over the long term. And this perception has arguably become more plausible over the past week or two, as Rouhani has joined Khamenei in spreading serious anti-Western rhetoric, even as the nuclear agreement is pending implementation.
For instance, Arutz Sheva reported on Friday that Rouhani had effectively repeated the exact threats that Khamenei had expressed in the past regarding the limits of Tehran’s willingness to comply with the deal. Both have now declared that Iran would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action if the US imposes any new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, even if those sanctions are unrelated to the Iranian nuclear program.
The JCPOA only addresses nuclear sanctions. The White House has repeatedly emphasized that sanctions related to Iran’s human rights violations and support of terrorism would remain in place even after the deal was fully implemented. Consequently, nothing in the text of the nuclear agreement bars the US from expanding those sanctions in response to further deterioration of Iranian behavior.
Arutz Sheva also pointed out that critics of the Obama administration, including Texas Senator and Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, have insisted that Iran’s different activities cannot be separated, and that it is impractical to think that one element of Iranian behavior could be sanctioned, but not another.
At the same time, many critics of current Western policies have been urging the US and the European Union to take more aggressive action against what is widely perceived to be a worsening Iranian human rights situation. This advocacy has been especially visible in the run-up to Rouhani’s visit to Italy and France, which will take place from Saturday to Tuesday.
On Thursday it was reported that 100 French members of parliament had signed a letter asking the French government to make improved relations with Iran conditional on a moratorium on executions, general improvement of human rights, and a halt to attacks on foreign communities of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. On Friday, a PR Newswire release pointed out that a majority of Italian senators had issued a similar statement.
The PMOI’s parent organization the National Council of Resistance of Iran is housed near Paris, and consequently activists in the area have planned a week of human rights-oriented protests to coincide with Rouhani’s visit. It was not immediately clear how these activities would be affected by Friday night’s terrorist attacks in central Paris. But the NCRI can be expected to adopt those current events into its message, however that message is expressed. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, the NCRI pointed to such terrorism as being representative of the type of fundamentalism for which Tehran is the world’s “prototype.”
It is not clear whether this message or the descriptions of Iran’s ongoing human rights abuses will gain traction among the governments of France and Italy, but if they do they may serve to counterbalance the current incentives for expanded relations with Iran, which are entirely economic. Immediately after the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, there was a rush of European delegations and state visits to Iran aimed at setting the groundwork for trade deals and foreign investment once sanctions are removed.
Iran has tended to use this eagerness to justify bold claims about the prospective recovery of the badly damaged Iranian economy. It has also insisted that its economic recovery would quickly lead to greater traction and leverage on the international stage. For example, PanArmenian reported on Friday that Iranian Communications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi had boasted on Thursday that Iran could become the eighth member to the Eurasia Economic Union, which was founded in part by tentative Iran ally Russia, just last year.
But the economic recovery that makes Tehran so confident in these developments is still forthcoming. And the factors in that recovery could still be withdrawn. France and Italy are eager to collaborate with Iran largely because they are working to remain ahead of other would-be investors like Germany. But many business entities throughout Europe remain waring of doing business with Iran, as Live Trading News pointed out on Friday.
If the US or other purveyors of international sanctions became convinced that Iran’s behavior was worsening or was generally in need of a more aggressive Western response, doing business with the Islamic Republic could begin to look even more risky. Thus, worse Iranian behavior, if given adequate international attention, could still damage the recovery the Iran is clearly counting on.
Many recent reports have pointed to a surge of anti-Western rhetoric and its connection to a worsening crackdown on Iranian journalists and political dissenters. But other reports are less clear about the long-term trajectory of these activities. IranWire reported on Friday that according to the Freedom on the Net report, Iran’s censorship score has marginally improved relative to the prior year. Nevertheless, it is still tied with Syria for the second worst score in the world, only one point behind China.
Furthermore, while the report indicates that things like the introduction of 3G service in Iran have incidentally given the population more access to information, the Iranian regime has a clear interest in modeling its censorship after China in the near future. Toward that end, the two countries are actively collaborating and Iran is steadily gaining access to sophisticated censorship tools that could still allow it to much more reliably filter undesirable information out of the country’s internet.
Even the growth of 3G poses risks, as many of the emerging service providers are owned or largely controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has a vested interest in expanded repression.
Activism among European politicians and Iranian dissidents will attempt to keep attention focused on these and other developments. If it succeeds, Tehran’s domestic activities may create larger obstacles to rapprochement that has apparently been driven mostly by the Western powers alone.