For those of us working for human rights in Iran, the news of recent months has brought mixed emotions.
The death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, a domestic and regional terrorist organization, was not a cause for grief—particularly in the midst of a crackdown in which as many as 1,500 Iranians had been killed, and thousands more detained since the outbreak of protests in Iran in mid-November.
The international media focused more on the masses of Iranians that came out to mourn for Soleimani’s death. Indeed, many did set out in the streets to engage in state-sponsored mourning ceremonies, not dissimilar to what many of us recall from Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989.* Nevertheless, many Iranians stayed at home and did not participate because they did not consider him a hero of any kind. Soleimani, whom even many of his critics considered a military genius, was arguably the most integral figure behind the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Shia expansionist military operations in the Middle East, most importantly Syria and Iraq. Domestically, many speculated that he may have had the highest chance of becoming the next supreme leader, given his relatively young age, his influence and the trust and admiration of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But regardless of where they stand on the question of whether Soleimani was a hero or a villain, Iranians, including me, fear the possibility of a war with the U.S. The fact that the United States took the liberty to kill him in Iraq increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran and created fear of an imminent war, the outbreak of which would be a historic catastrophe.
This is the tension we constantly face—how to keep international pressure on a murderous regime without endorsing aggressive policies from the Trump administration which could only make the situation worse.
Just as Soleimani’s life resulted in death for so many in the region, his own death killed still more. First, 56 Iranians died in the national mourning demonstrations held to honor his life and achievements. Then, 176 lives were lost when Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger flight departing from Tehran on Jan. 8. The government has not offered an official apology to the families of any of these victims. Instead, it is reportedly harassing the families of Iranian, dual-national Iranians and non-Iranian victims to keep them from speaking with the media or making too much noise about the incident. Justice has not been served for those responsible for the catastrophe and most likely won’t be.
None of this is surprising to those of us who’ve lived under this government’s repression. The scale of the crackdown beginning in November may have been unprecedented in terms of the number of victims. But the Islamic Republic of Iran has been one of the most persistent and brutal violators of human rights worldwide for decades. To take just a couple recent examples: in August 2019, Reporters Without Borders declared Iran as the top jailer of female journalists; as of 2018, Iran executes more people than any country except China. Iran has a long history of harassing and arresting journalists, lawyers, members of ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQ+ persons, women who don’t abide by the standards of mandatory veil, human rights defenders and civil society activists, labor rights activists, artists, university students and so on.
With or without the Trump administration, the Iranian human rights community has always worked hard to persuade the international community to pressure Iran to stop its grave violations of human rights. We understand well that the regime would only be more violent in the absence of international attention and pressure regarding its misuse of power. Therefore, at least in my circles of human rights defenders, there is no doubt whatsoever that we need the international community’s support in order to hold the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable, and to somehow minimize and ultimately stop the regime’s disregard for human rights.
The current U.S. administration, and Donald Trump himself, are certainly vocal about human rights in Iran. For instance, on Jan. 12 the president tweeted a message directed at the leaders of Iran as protests erupted following the shooting down of the airline: “[T]he USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!” But while Iranian protests and human rights defenders need the support of the world to overcome the atrocities committed by Iran’s government, this administration’s approach hardly puts us at ease.
First, the current administration brought the U.S. and Iran to the edge of a war. As someone who grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, I do not believe that another devastating military conflict can help the country. During the war, while it sent children and youth to die at the frontline, the Islamic Republic of Iran established its dictatorial authority and justified its grave violations of human rights for many years to come. This is the kind of regime that thrives on war. Outright military conflict with the United States will give it a new life. Even if the regime is ousted, its most hardline supporters will emerge as highly destructive nonstate actors, making a transition to stable democracy impossible.
Second, human rights defenders cannot defend the suffering caused by U.S. economic sanctions. It may be true that these sanctions are only partially responsible for the country’s economic crisis, which is mainly the result of the widespread economic mismanagement and corruption of the ruling elite. But still, we cannot endorse sanctions that make the already difficult lives of ordinary citizens even more difficult.
Third, Trump’s unpredictable policies could also mean that one day we will wake up to the US and Iran negotiating over various key matters for the U.S. including a new nuclear agreement and limiting Iran’s meddling in the region. As with Trump’s approach to North Korea, this is likely to be done with complete disregard for the many atrocities committed and being committed by Iran domestically, since highlighting those would no longer serve U.S. interests.
Fourth, Iranians are among the most vocal immigrants in the U.S., and globally. Given the limited opportunities and the disregard of the Iranian regime for human rights and the human dignity of women, youth, minorities and others, many Iranians, including myself, have had to find a way out, and now live as immigrants abroad. This has resulted in one of the worst brain drains in the world. Therefore, the anti-immigrant policies of this administration, and especially the Travel Ban which appears to target Iranians categorically, has made many Iranian-American citizens feel unwelcome and unappreciated in their second home, the United States. This was a strategic mistake on the part of the Trump administration, and one that deepened a sense of distrust in the diaspora community.
But still, this does not mean we should hope for a pacifist U.S. administration with cultural relativist mentality and a high level of tolerance for human rights violations in countries like Iran. Whether or not we like to admit it, we still live in a world where the disregard of the U.S. and the EU and other powerful democracies for human rights violations in various countries in the Middle East is considered a win for the perpetrators.
Many of Trump’s opponents, especially those consumed by U.S.’s domestic partisan politics do not seem to truly understand what is at stake for Iranians in their home. It sometimes appears as though the only way to oppose Trump is to offer the exact opposite of the current administration’s approach toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. If not carefully crafted, a reversal of Trump’s “maximum pressure” could turn into an apologetic set of policies toward a government that does not shy away from harassing, detaining, torturing and killing its own citizens.
What we need instead is bipartisan and consistently assertive—but not war-like—rhetoric highlighting the regime’s abuses, along with instruments of diplomatic pressure that are less directly harmful to the people than the current economic sanctions.
To date, no U.S. administration has managed to find this balance, whether Democrat or Republican.
In the end, justice will ultimately have to prevail, and the country’s authorities will have to be held accountable. Iranians will one day overcome a regime that has questioned and violated their dignity for decades. It is just that no one knows how and when. My hope is that, as we are busy analyzing the role of the U.S. in all this, young, grassroots Iranian leaders are quietly emerging. These ordinary individuals standing up not only for their own rights, but the rights of their neighbors and fellow Iranians across the country, will be the real leaders of the future of Iran. Only they have the legitimacy and the ability to take Iran through a peaceful transition towards justice and democratic values. In this struggle, foreign observers must support them without taking advantage of them for their own purposes.
Correction, Jan. 31, 2020: Due to a copy-editing error, this post originally misstated that Ayatollah Khamenei died in 1989. It was Ayatollah Khomeini.
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