In Iran, authorities are resorting to repressive measures to contain discontent as they prepare to mark the 31st anniversary of the overthrow of the shah's despotic regime. Meanwhile, American experts say that the resilience of the Iranian opposition movement is creating a way for the international community to exert pressure on hardline leaders in Tehran.
The February 11 national holiday in Iran could prove pivotal for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's neo-conservative administration. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, regime supporters went to great lengths to foster an image of national unity behind the government. To accomplish this, security forces carried out a new wave of arrests of suspected opposition activists. The crackdown was aimed at creating a climate of fear that would intimidate government critics into staying at home on the holiday, and not taking to the streets. Authorities also resorted to busing in throngs of supporters to Tehran from outlying regions to pad attendance at officially organized rallies.
The government's chief aim was to avert a repeat of the Ashura events in late December, when mass protests erupted on the Shi'a Muslim holy day. The widespread expression of discontent on Ashura proved deeply embarrassing to Ahmadinejad's administration
In the days leading up to the February 11 anniversary, American experts have gathered to contemplate developments in Iran, both past and present. One panel discussion in Washington, DC, organized in early February by the Center for American Progress (CAP), focused on ways to raise civil rights-related issues on the US policy agenda for Iran.
In recent years, American pundits and policymakers have concentrated their attention mostly on Iran's nuclear program, the panelists noted. But with nuclear negotiations at an impasse, the United States and European Union might find it easier to put economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran via the civil-rights issue.
One of the featured speakers at the CAP event, Hadi Ghaemi, the coordinator of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, expressed alarm that the "very serious human rights crisis in Iran" has been getting "worse and worse" since the June 2009 presidential election. He went on to note that the recent executions of two anti-government protesters on the basis of coerced testimony recalled the worst repression of the 1980s.
Geneive Abdo, another panelist and a fellow at The Century Foundation, described anti-government protesters as "determined and fearless," adding that since the June presidential election, the "green" opposition movement had developed into "a permanent force in Iranian politics."
According to Abdo, the opposition is divided on the questions of whether and how Washington should respond to the Iranian civil rights crisis. Some share the Obama administration's apparent concern that that overt US intervention could backfire and "taint" the green movement. Others worry that the US government will continue prioritizing nuclear and regional security issues. Instead these opposition activists want the US administration to challenge the Iranian government more directly on human rights grounds.
Ghaemi contended that the protesters would welcome greater international recognition of their efforts to expand their political, economic, and social rights. "Iran is a signatory to international conventions on human rights just like it is to NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and nuclear issues, and people [in Iran] are asking why the international community is not holding Iran accountable on those fronts," Ghaemi said. He went on to say that international silence on the continuing, systematic violation of Iranians' civil rights was "morally wrong and, policy-wise?counterproductive."
Abdo cited one example of practical assistance that some protesters in Iran want from Washington. In response to the protesters' use last summer of social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to mobilize anti-government rallies, Iranian security forces developed effective electronic counter-measures, including the widespread interception of emails. Some green movement supporters want the United States to take steps to help keep information flowing freely on the Internet.
A third panelist, Michael Signer, a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, called for a covert "mini-Manhattan project for the social networking piece for the street revolution that is brewing." The project would develop tools to help change "the process and structure of political communication itself that is aiding the Green Revolution to become more robust."
All the panelists favored the imposition of US sanctions that hampered the ability of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), along with other state security organs, to carry out repressive measures against the population.
Ghaemi asserted that "the key to addressing the human rights issue in Iran is multilateralism." He urged the Obama administration to abandon its "half-hearted" approach and lead "UN mechanisms to open up some form of investigation into what has been happening in Iran." Besides documenting Tehran's abuses, the endeavor could open some political space for the Iranian opposition by "bringing out the crimes" and "putting the government on the defensive."
Abdo and other panelists cautioned that the Ahmadinejad regime remained strong, and that it was unlikely that a drastic change in the Iranian political system would occur in the foreseeable future. But, Abdo noted, Iranian neo-cons seemed to be backing themselves into a corner, due to their own intransigence. "It's really difficult now to call Iran either a republic, or an Islamic state," Abdo said. "It has sort of failed on both of those grounds."