Political Motives behind Iran's Abuses

For years the officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran have feared and battled human rights activists, labeling them as a political threat to the national (or more accurately the regime's) security, and for years we journalists and analysts have tried hard to dismiss the allegations, calling them merely baseless accusations. Well, in this case we were proved wrong.

The recent Green Movement of Iran proved that human rights activism is indeed a threat to the security and existence of the Islamic Republic. In the summer of 2009, the movement managed to utilize an unprecedented social force against the regime, shaking its pillars.

Now the question is, how does the Islamic Republic look at the human rights issues, and what aspects of activism or belief does it see as a political threat? While some areas like freedom of press might be more apparent as a political threat, others might be harder to digest. For example, how do demands to abolish stoning as a sentence for adultery, or execution of minors, turn into a political issue for the rulers of Iran?

Crackdown on activism and the press

The political motive behind clampdown on political activists is apparently the most vivid of all in this discussion. The Islamic Republic over the years has shown a growing intolerance toward different political factions and tendencies. At the beginning of the post-revolution era of Iran, many factions and political blocs, including leftist groups and secular nationalists, were allowed to have their political presence in the country. Gradually this tolerance grew more and more limited, to the point where reformists have been completely ousted from the political arena.

Now even the cycle of conservatives is getting smaller every day, to the extent that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—one of the most prominent conservative figures and architects of the regime, a two-term president, two-term chairman of the Parliament and head of the Expediency Discernment Council—is being stripped of his power. Fear of rivalry is very common for totalitarian regimes.

With its intolerance for free flow of information, the country for years was dubbed as the biggest prison of journalists in the Middle East by media watchdogs. However, during the last two years the Islamic Republic managed to upgrade itself to the more prestigious title of the biggest prison of journalists in the world, as Reporters Sans Frontier put it. How information can challenge the dominance of a dictatorial power needs little explanation.

Due to the lack of political parties and confinement of activists, independent press organizations historically turn into political tribunes for dissidents and activists. This was projected during the short period of a relatively more relaxed approach toward civic freedom in reformist Mohammad Khatami's government, when dozens of independent publications virtually took the role of lacking political parties. The Islamic Republic has learned its lesson: Less press freedom equals fewer political disturbances.

Civil society activism

Civil society activism, with its diverse range of fields, is also one of the most targeted so-called enemies of the Islamic Republic, and perhaps the most complicated in terms of crackdown motives. Clampdown on civil society of course has a long history in Iran, but the trend was intensified during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency and particularly after the 2009 protests.

Apart from the more human rights advocates and lawyers, women's rights activists, student activists, or labor activists who might be known as the more hardcore players, more likely to ignite a challenge to the regime, other less challenging civil society activists are constantly suppressed in Iran as well. Among the latter group, child rights defenders, animal rights advocates and even HIV activists have been prosecuted, and in some cases have landed in prison for their activities.

Among the more hardcore activists, all the members of Iran's Center for Human Rights, which was headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, have been prosecuted and sentenced to prison. The same goes for the activists of the One Million Signatures Campaign, which seeks equal rights for women; labor and union activists; and the students movement, which has proved to be one of the most forceful movements of Iran in terms of staging protests against the Islamic Republic.

The political motive for the Islamic Republic to curb these movements is clear. During post-election protests, these movements played a crucial role in organizing protesters through their networks. But what about the people who are active with child rights or HIV? Why crack down on them? There are elements that the Islamic Republic of Iran fears beyond the general aspect of accelerating unrest.

One of the political reasons for Iran's regime to curb any kind of activism within the civil society is fear of portraying the true picture of its society. That's where activists get involved. Activists speak. They talk to the media about the challenges that they face. Many such activists—for instance, child rights activists—have been punished for talking with the media, for sharing what they see through their activities. Revealing how the Islamic Penal Code of Iran leaves children defenseless in the face of domestic violence from their fathers, will be translated into "blackening of the society" and will easily land the activist in jail.

A host of fears

Iran's foreign policy doctrine has partly been built on fear of the outside enemy, on the false notion that every foreign organization or NGO is ultimately seeking ways to topple the regime. From the supreme leader to smalltime officials, they regularly remind the people of evil forces that are trying to bring down the Islamic utopia, through soft war.

In June 2008 two well-known HIV activists, Arash and Kamyar Alaee, were detained on unknown charges. Six weeks after the arrest, Tehran's officials released the following statement about them: "They held conferences on such topics as AIDS, which drew the attention of domestic and foreign organizations and NGOs," and "they would organize foreign trips for people and train them. They were aware of what they were doing, and their training was of the nature of a velvet revolution." They were charged with "communication with an enemy government," which in this case would be the United States. Arash was given a six-year prison sentence, and Kamyar a three-year term, even though their verdict clearly stated that the conferences concerned HIV issues.

After a brutal campaign that demolished several different NGOs over the past four months, Iran's parliament has been working to pass legislation that would monitor the formation and activities of NGOs—a vivid setback from ex-president Mohammad Khatami's plans that aimed at supporting NGOs. The law will practically paralyze the activities of independent NGOs in Iran.

Civil society movements in Iran, like anywhere else, largely lean on networking and web communication. The capacity to communicate with a large number of people, and to campaign around an issue, is one of the most important reasons the rulers of Iran feel threatened by the power of civil society. Again, the Green Movement protests demonstrated the capacity to which mass networking can be utilized in organizing protesters on the streets. With the Green Movement, which was largely led through collective and voluntary campaigns, networking proved a vital threat for the rulers.

The role that the Internet and social networking had during the protests in Iran is undeniable. Nearly every action was staged through Internet communication. The Internet is not something taken for granted by Tehran. The slowing of Internet speed added to the trouble of already heavily filtered Web use to limit the capacity of networking during the angry days of the capital. This is where even Facebook turns into a political threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran, as officially stated in the Intelligence Ministry report.

A high-ranking aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ali Agha Mohammadi, recently announced that what he called "Halal Internet" would soon be established in the country—sort of a national intranet, with which they apparently hope to eventually replace the World Wide Web.

Ethnic minorities are another target of Tehran's regime. In a country built on a multiethnic population, the fear of disintegration and separatism is the main driving force for the rulers to deprive minorities from their basic rights. It is the same for religious minorities. One of the most interesting cases involves, ironically, not the believers of Christianity or Judaism, but certain Shiite Muslim believers: the Dervishes. Perhaps it would seem strange that in an ideological Shiite Muslim regime, believers of the same religion would be prosecuted. But the case for Dervishes is different.

Dervishes, with a long history in Muslim countries, generally believe in a spiritual and Sufi-like path of living. They praise poverty, and they avoid earthly power. Surprisingly this is the exact reason for them to be targeted by the Iranian regime. Advocating a spiritual, non-political kind of Shia in a theocratic system is assumed as undermining the political power of the religious regime. With the vast popularity of the Dervishes, the Islamic Republic fears some kind of rivalry in the popularity of its own version of political Islam. Within the past five years, security forces have repeatedly launched crackdowns on Dervishes in different cities, detained them and destroyed their worship houses.


Although numerous organizations and individuals both inside and outside the country have repeatedly condemned all of the mentioned abuses, the most serious human rights violation remains the use of capital punishment. A conservative figure recently published by Amnesty International credits Iran with at least 252 cases of executions, placing it just behind China. Most of the cases of execution in Iran are drug or murder related, and the punishment is performed by hanging, in many cases in public.

It is no secret that public execution is a method of public intimidation. One of the best examples of how Iran has used mass executions as a tool of public intimidation amid political tension is again the uprising of the Green Movement. On July 4, 2009, at the height of the protests, the judiciary suddenly announced that it had executed 20 criminals. When unrest continued, officials announced on July 24 the execution of 24 criminals. Another 24 criminals were reported to have been executed on the 30th of the same month. In 2009, figures show that Iran executed at least 388 people, setting a new record.

Grave human rights abuses in Iran extend beyond executions to include execution of minors and stoning. Human rights campaigns, requesting an end to stoning and child execution, are two of the largest and oldest campaigns in the history of post-revolution social activism. Many people believe that these cases represent a battlefield for the Islamic Republic to prove its superiority to civil society, to prove over and over again that the regime still has the final say.

Niusha Boghrati delivered this speech at the Metropolitan University of Prague during a conference named "Iran: Democratization, Civil Society and Human Rights." This is an edited version.

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