By Hamid Yazdan Panah
On January 28th, the President of the Iranian regime, Hassan Rouhani traveled to the EU to pursue a supposed new era of relations with the West. Rouhani has been dubbed a moderate by the West, and has been accommodated in every way possible by those who seek to profit from a new relationship with the regime. Despite this climate of appeasement, protesters were out in full force to confront Rouhani and condemn those who sought to make deals with a brutal dictatorship. Rouhani’s trip was noteworthy, not because of his diplomatic accomplishments, but as an indication of the true nature of this regime.
The lengths to which certain powers in the EU went to accomodate Rouhani drew both interest and criticism. Italy went so far as to cover up nude statues to supposedly not offend Rouhani.
However a closer examination of Rouhani’s record, and the facts on the ground leave little doubt as to his actual credentials and capacity to promote change in Iran. While EU member states have clamoured about the need to “preserve European identity” in light of the current refugee crisis, they seem to have no problem in hiding their own heritage in order to pursue business deals.
Rouhani received a different type of greeting by thousands of protesters who denounced the dictatorship in Iran and its egregious human rights violations. Thousands of Iranians rallied in support of democratic change in Iran and an end to executions. Members of the women’s rights group FEMEN staged a mock execution, while Rouhani was busy signing deals with major corporations.
All of this begs the question; is Rouhani actually the moderate that he claims to be? For arguments sake let us put aside Rouhani’s long and documented history within this regime. We can choose to forget his background as a key official for the regime over the last 30 years.
We can also ignore his past and present involvement with human rights violations. We can pretend he did not have a role in the suppression of student protestors in 1999, or his silence with regard to the massacre of political prisoners in the 1980’s. It may be difficult, but some can even choose to disregard the fact that Iran has executed more than 2,000 individuals during his term in office, at a rate higher than his predecessors. We can even disregard the fact that the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Ahmad Shaheed noted that “the overall situation has worsened” with respect to human rights under Rouhani.
We can even pretend that his administration has not fomented violence in Yemen, instability in Iraq, and aided war crimes in Syria. It may be difficult, but one can imagine that his unyielding support for dictator Bashar al-Assad, and the aid provided to his regime was somehow part of Rouhani’s moderate charm.
Let us put these issues aside and assume the best possible scenario.
Rouhani got what he asked for. The trust of the West, an open hand by the regime in Iran, and now we give him the benefit of the doubt as to his intentions as a moderate. So what should his next step as a moderate be?
Rouhani can use all of the political capital he has earned to pursue an agenda of moderation and progress. The first place to start would be reforms to the Iranian judiciary. Rouhani could announce a moratorium on executions, particularly those which involve “non-serious” crimes, and are illegal under international law. He could call for the abolition of capital punishment for juvenile offenders, and end Iran’s role as one of the last executioners of children. He could critique the lack of due process with respect to political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and call for a review of unfair and disproportionate sentences. He could call for an investigation into the mistreatment, torture and medical neglect of prisoners within Iran, particularly those who are denied access to proper medical care.
Rouhani’s reign as a moderate could include the promotion and protection of civil liberties within Iran. This includes protecting freedom of speech, association, religion and political opinion. He could implement institutional reforms to protect the rights of women, ethnic and religious minorities, and those disenfranchised by the current political system of Iran.
He could remove Iran’s stubborn backing of the dictatorship of Assad, effectively ending the civil war and solving one of the largest problems in the region, and one of the chief causes of the refugee crisis. He could reign in the regime’s policy of supporting terrorist organizations, from Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Shiite militias destabilizing Iraq. These policy changes would stabilize the region, end the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and stop the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia which is inflaming the region.
The stage for Rouhani is set, and he will enjoy the full protection and freedom of expression of Europe to announce this agenda. Through this Rouhani could solidify his legacy as a moderate, and effectively show his strategy to Iran and the world. Imagine the applause and adoration as Rouhani hails a truly new era for Iran.
Sadly, none of these things are likely to come to pass. No matter how hard we try to forget his past, or how much hope we have for the present, Rouhani is who he is; the President of a ruthless theocracy, without a popular base, and spreading terror and instability throughout the region. The illusion of moderation is just that, an illusion without a real connection to policies or facts. It takes quite a lot of imagination to forget who Rouhani was, and to be blind to what his policies are in Iran right now.
As Iran’s “elections” approach, and the regime begins to disqualify candidates, censor information and crackdown on activists, we will once again return to the reality of life in Iran, whether under Rouhani or Ahmadinejad.
The real moderates in Iran are those who are imprisoned within the regime for fighting for democratic change. For believing that they have the right to choose their own President, without the approval of a Supreme Leader. To live in a secular and democratic country which does not execute people in public. The real hope for change in Iran was present in the EU on January 28th, but it was not Rouhani, it was the Iranian people who stood up to this regime and called for an end to its brutal and undemocratic reign.
Hamid Yazdan Panah is an Iranian-American human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay Area.