It has now been one year since Hassan
Rouhani was elected president of Iran. Rouhani came into power with big
promises -- to tackle entrenched corruption, to grant Iranians basic freedoms,
and to unleash the constrained talents and aspirations of Iran's citizens. His
very mantra was one of hope and change.
These promises appealed to a wide array
of Iran's long-suffering minority groups -- Ahwazi, Baluch, Kurd, Azeri,
Christian and Baha'i. And they appealed internationally, where Iran purported
to extend the hand of friendship and co-operation, and offered an escape from
the downward spiral of zero-sum rivalry and regional turmoil. After the
obtuseness of Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this new language and tone was profoundly seductive to all those
who long pined for hope and change in the country.
But one year later, we must be
hard-headed, and ask ourselves: who has been accorded the dignity that
President Rouhani promised? The honest answer cannot be optimistic. Not the
Iranian defense lawyers imprisoned for defending the rights of their
fellow citizens. Not the political prisoners beaten
bloody by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) forces in Evin
Prison's notorious Ward 350. Certainly not Hashem Shaabani, a member of the
Ahwazi minority who was arrested, tortured and summarily executed for his
Indeed, Iranians hoping for moderation
were let down almost immediately upon Rouhani taking office. On the day of his
inauguration, Rouhani selected Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the former deputy intelligence
minister, as his sole nominee for the role of justice minister. Pourmohammadi,
as Iranians well know, was one of the key officials
responsible for the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran. Later,
in 1994, he was head of foreign counter-intelligence when the government of
Iran was implicated in court for the deadly bombing of the Israeli Cultural
Center in Argentina.
Now, joined in cabinet by old friends
from the MOIS, the new justice minister supervises a legal system that has
already put to death at least 470 prisoners
since Rouhani's inauguration, earning him the unofficial title of "Minister
of Murder." Even compared to Ahmadinejad, Rouhani's administration has
almost doubled the monthly rate of executions. Their legal processes are as
dubious as their purpose, with many charged under the pretext of
narcotics-related offences, or the supposed crimes of "enmity against God"
or "corruption on earth."
This disturbing trend is one of the
more obvious causes for concern. Others have been blurred and obscured by an
administration highly preoccupied with PR and perception. For example, to
coincide with Rouhani's highly-publicized appearance at the U.N. last year,
Iranian officials promised the release of 85 political prisoners as a tangible
demonstration of his moderation. The reality? Only a small fraction ultimately made
it out of incarceration, the news of which did not garner the headlines generated by the
Rouhani's administration then released
a Draft Charter of Rights, a campaign promise that was meant to symbolize the
new government's embrace of human rights. The reality of this document was that
it was widely discredited by legal experts, entrenched existing inequalities,
and did nothing to advance the rights of the Iranian people. The grand promise
of its title was further undermined with the introduction of a "political
crime" bill in Parliament last September, which would criminalize any
criticism of the state.
In the same month, Rouhani introduced a
resolution at the U.N. dubbed "World Against Violence and Extremism,"
supposedly an Iranian commitment to fighting extremism. Yet the reality of
Iran's unwavering moral, financial, political, and military support to the
Syrian regime has resulted in the death of over 150,000 people, a more deeply
entrenched extremism, and further destabilization of the region. Despite Iran's
long-suffering economy, it managed to supply Bashar al-Assad with a $3.6
billion line of credit and a mandate to continue the massacre of his own
people. Iran unleashed Hezbollah to protect Assad, to undermine Lebanon, and to
wage a clandestine sectarian war that impacts far beyond the immediate region.
Iran's campaign for international
legitimacy continued in April with its successful bid to be appointed to the
U.N. Economic and Social Council's Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a
body committed to women's empowerment and equality with men. Iranian women
cannot get a passport without their husband's permission, and are barred from
running for the presidency of Iran, yet their rulers purport to be advocates
for women on the international stage. Most shockingly, Iran's appointment to
the Commission came only a few weeks after the Rouhani government upheld the hanging sentence
of a 26 year-old victim of sexual assault.
Neither the special rapporteur on the
situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed,
nor the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, reported any tangible improvements with
regards to the human rights situation in the country in their March reports to
the Human Rights Council. According to the secretary general, "The new administration has
not made any significant improvement in the promotion and protection of freedom
of expression and opinion, despite pledges made by the president during his
campaign and after his swearing in," and Dr. Shaheed continues to be
denied access to the visit the country in order to carry out his mandate from
the international community.
Cynics may see unrealistic rhetoric and
unfulfilled promises as par for the course for politicians. But the chasm
between Rouhani's style and substance belies a more sinister truth. Under the
careful watch of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the organized machinery of
a clerical dictatorship remains in place. The Iranian regime's scale of
terrorizing its people at home and sponsoring terrorism abroad is staggering.
That continues to be Iran's reality.
Why does Canada care so much about how
Iran treats its own citizens and the citizens of neighboring countries? Because we believe those citizens deserve better. They deserve the dignity of
an economy free of corruption and cronyism. They deserve deep reform that
delivers jobs, not just empty propaganda or deceptive games.
The international community must be a
voice for those who are silenced by the Iranian regime. That means, as we work
toward a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue, the international community
must press Iran to respect human rights and to cease its support for terrorism.
Otherwise, Iranian recklessness abroad and oppression at home will continue to
feed regional destabilization and deprive a population of over 75 million
people their basic rights and freedoms.
Canada has been listening to the voices
of all those inside Iran who want to see a better future. Our support to
initiatives like the Global
Dialogue on the Future of Iran, which now has grown to reach over 4.5 million unique users
inside Iran, amplifies the suppressed voices seeking the basic dignity of a
peaceful and prosperous life, and those who defend democratic values and human
We are determined to respond to these
voices with more than rhetoric. Through Canada's leadership on the United
Nations Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, the world calls
Iran to account for its appalling human rights violations. Canada has also passed the Justice for Victims of Terrorism
Act, enabling victims to obtain redress for the awful wrongs done to them by
terrorist states like Iran. Plaintiffs recently won
a first case against Iran under this act in Ontario's Superior Court, but now
the government of Iran, the IRGC and the MOIS have decided to appeal the
verdict. To do this, they will benefit from the legal system of an open and
democratic country like Canada while at the same time suppressing human rights
defenders, jailing lawyers and demonstrating virtually no respect for the rule
of law at home.
Let us unite in reminding Iranians of
the limitless possibilities of freedom. That a woman who had been jailed and
tortured in prison could one day stand for presidential office -- and succeed.
That the halls of a notorious prison could one day be permanently closed to its
brutal guards and opened to those who wish to reflect on past tyranny. These
are not only the powerful true stories
of Brazilian President Dilma
Rousseff, or Cambodia's Tuol Sleng prison.
These could be the stories of someone
like leading Iranian human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and of the notorious Evin Prison that confined her and many other political
To be truly optimistic about Iran's
future, we must be realistic about Iran's present. Until we see reform rather
than rhetoric, Canada will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the
people of Iran in their desire for real hope and dignity.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images