Iran UprisingNuclear Program

Address nuclear threat, rights abuses in Iran

Des Moines Register, December 1, 2008

Alireza Jafarzadeh (Foreign Affairs Analyst)

President-elect Barack Obama spoke frequently during the campaign of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran and a new U.S. policy to neutralize it. The status quo is no longer tenable as it is now believed that Iran may have enough nuclear material to make a single bomb.

To be effective, however, this new approach must also deal with the ayatollahs’ appalling human-rights record. Here is why:

Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons is intimately intertwined with its multifaceted suppression of the citizenry at home. They all serve to empower the ruling establishment. Without an end to human-rights abuses, any promise of cooperation on the nuclear front is a sham at best.

Since coming to power in 1979, the ayatollahs have used their unique blend of religious demagoguery and abundant barbarity to sow fear, confusion and doubt in the minds of ordinary people. For all their populist claims, the ruling clerics are neither willing nor able to fulfill the Iranian people’s legitimate social, economic and political demands. Well aware of this inherent weakness, they have built their regime on suppression at home and crisis-making abroad.

In a shocking confession that provides a glimpse into the ayatollahs’ barbarity, Reza Malek, a former deputy at the Ministry of Intelligence and Security recently admitted that there are between 170 to 190 mass graves for political prisoners murdered in 1988. Malek revealed that the “mass graves included 11- to 12-year-old children and pregnant women,” and said that in Tehran alone, 100 secret prisons and torture chambers are affiliated with the ministry.

There has been a dramatic rise in executions in recent months, many of them juveniles. This latest spike is apparently part of a wider effort to quell an increasingly disenchanted citizenry and growing anti-government protests. Dissident groups and international human-rights organizations insist that Tehran regularly executes political activists claiming they’re armed robbers and drug addicts. In late July, 29 individuals were executed on the same day as “criminals,” while several of them were in fact arrested during anti-government riots the year before.

In March, the U.S. State Department reported that in 2007, Iran’s “poor human-rights record worsened, and it continued to commit numerous, serious abuses… The law criminalized dissent and applied the death penalty to offenses such as apostasy.”

The ayatollahs have failed to terrorize the opposition into submission, however. Student activists, women, laborers, journalists, bloggers, ethnic and religious minorities and bus drivers risk arrest and mistreatment. They remain undeterred, to the distraction of a regime already beset by infighting and growing international isolation.

Although there is a groundswell of dissent and desire for change, Iran’s democracy movement has been hamstrung by the blacklisting of the main opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. A western journalist wrote from Tehran last year, “The Iranian rulers are very concerned and alarmed, not about an unfeasible foreign military attack, but because of the people’s support for the [PMOI]. Today, [PMOI] is highly capable of attracting the young people born and raised after the revolution.” In late October, Abdolreza Rajabi, a PMOI member, died in a notorious prison in Iraq as a result of torture, according to United Press International.

Until now, successive U.S. administrations have essentially vacillated between outright appeasement and inconsistent containment. But the ayatollahs’ admitted fear of the enemy within presents the incoming administration with a clearer choice.

The Iranian people and their movement for democratic change can provide the international community with the leverage needed to bring about real change. Anything else would be business as usual.