Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: Iran’s fictional moderates

Characterising Iran’s leadership as moderate ignores its continuing human-rights abuses and support of oppressive leaders elsewhere, writes Mosa Zahed

Al-Ahram Weekly

As the Iranian people continue to suffer under a religious dictatorship, many in that oppressive leadership are still unjustifiably being dubbed as “moderates”. But those who are convinced that there are “moderates” within the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran who can reform it from within should perhaps be branded as willfully ignorant, particularly in light of last week’s events.

The selection of hardliner Ahmad Jannati to chair the country’s Assembly of Experts, the body that elects the supreme leader, seems to be a bold message from Tehran to the rest of the world that Iran is not ready to embrace moderation. This is despite the expectations that were raised following the national elections results in February, which affected the body’s composition and were depicted by some as a victory for the “moderates”.

Jannati’s chairmanship ensures that during the future election of a new supreme leader the ultra-conservatives will dominate the process and select a candidate who adheres entirely to the principle of the guardianship of the Islamic jurist (velayat-e faqih).

Furthermore, by embracing Jannati, who is known for his anti-Western sentiments, as the new head of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical establishment in Iran has effectively expressed its true intention, which is far from changing the country’s relations with the West.

The term “moderation” has little meaning in Iran, where the supreme leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, has the final say on all matters. In the lead-up to the so-called presidential elections in June 2013, which saw Hassan Rouhani assume the presidency, Western officials were quick to release statements that underlined their willingness to engage directly with a new “reformer,” although at the time the UK foreign office also took the opportunity to remind Rouhani of his obligation to “improve the political and human rights situation for the people of Iran.”

Three years into Rouhani’s presidency, human rights groups have raised the alarm regarding rights violations during his tenure. According to the UN special rapporteur on Iran, “at least 966 persons, the highest rate in over two decades, were executed in 2015,” including alleged juvenile offenders, thereby distinguishing Iran as the world’s top executioner of children and as the country which has the world’s highest per capita execution rate.

The rights group Amnesty International reported in its Iran 2015-2016 briefing that “the authorities severely curtailed the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, arresting and imprisoning journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists and others who voiced dissent, on vague and overly broad charges.”

Last week the Iranian authorities once again reaffirmed their mediaeval nature by flogging 35 young men with 99 lashes each because they were holding a graduation party in Qazvin, north of Tehran.

Under “moderate” Rouhani, Iran was recognised as the world’s biggest prison for women journalists in 2016, and the leadership continues to systematically violate the rights of women and minority groups. Those who stand up against repression face heavy repercussions, as was demonstrated last month when the authorities sentenced the already-imprisoned human rights activist Narges Mohammadi to serve 10 years of a 16-year prison sentence.

The leadership unashamedly fabricated new charges against Mohammadi due to her campaign against the death penalty and for having met with Catherine Ashton, the then EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, in the Austrian Embassy in Tehran in March 2014.

The Iranian leadership has also stepped up its cyber-warfare, seeking to accomplish its domestic and foreign policy objectives through its cyber arsenal. In the past and prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic Republic, and his adherents did not shy away from using such modern technology while in exile to steer events in Iran against the repressive leadership of the former shah.

Khomeini, who recognised the power of technology, recorded his messages on cassette tapes and video tapes which his followers would smuggle into Iran, distributing them among the people in the hope of achieving grassroots mobilisation for Khomeini’s cause and aiming ultimately to tighten his grip on power.

In the current era of evolving mobile technology and the Internet, Tehran has identified digital media as a serious threat to the establishment and thus has formed a cyber-army under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), using technology as a tool in order to pursue its reactionary agenda.

To this end, the IRGC’s Centre for the Investigation of Organised Cyber-Crime (Gerdab) runs a surveillance programme called “Operation Spider 2” that effectively tracks and cracks down on social media users and has so far resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of many on charges such as “insulting Islam,” “publishing immoral and corrupt material,” and “encouraging individuals to commit immoral acts.”

According to the international rights group Reporters without Borders, during Rouhani’s tenure a total of 100 online commenters have been arrested and imprisoned by the intelligence services of the IRGC. Just last month, the IRGC cyber-crime unit cracked down on Iran’s fashion industry by arresting seven of the country’s leading models on charges of “promoting Western promiscuity” for posting pictures of themselves without a headscarf on social media sites.

Given these domestic realities in Iran, where the brutal repression of the population by the authorities has continued unabated, it does not require any strenuous effort to comprehend that what the Iranian people are subject to can in no way be equated with moderation. Perhaps it is by labelling Rouhani and his cabinet as “moderates” or “reformers” that the leaders of the international community hope to justify their engagement with a leadership that has a grim human rights record and is recognised as the leading state sponsor of terrorism.

Since Iran had agreed to curb its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of international sanctions, following negotiations in July 2015 with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, there was optimism that Iran would once again become part of the world community.

However, Tehran appears to be unmoved and is rather more concerned with upholding its “revolutionary” credentials than living up to the expectations that were raised following Rouhani’s charm offensive in the wake of his election. The mullahs continue to prop up the leadership of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, thereby prolonging the five-year conflict that has resulted so far in an estimated death toll of 400,000 and created the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

They remain steadfast in their support for Shia militias in Iraq that, under the supervision of Iranian Al-Quds Force operatives, are committing atrocities with impunity against the local population. Furthermore, Tehran continues to destabilise the region by sending weapons shipments destined for Houthi rebel forces in Yemen and by testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, thereby violating UN Security Council resolutions.

Moreover, Iran’s increasing sophistication in cyber warfare constitutes a grave danger to the infrastructure of its adversaries and, as it has demonstrated in the past, it is capable and willing to sabotage their facilities.

Instead of condoning the activities of the leadership in Tehran, which jeopardise global peace and security, the time is now ripe for the international community to recognise what the mullahs’ leadership really is — a religious tyranny that brutally represses the people internally and remains determined to create havoc externally.

There is nothing moderate about it.

The writer is founding director of the London-based Middle East Forum for Development.

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