How To Talk Human Rights with Iranian Leaders

Last week, I came across an article in Iran Wire which seems to have been long overdue called ‘How to Talk to Javad Zarif About Human Rights“. The article outlines 8 specific points that journalists interviewing Iran’s foreign minister on the issue of human rights and hopefully some journalists will actually implement these suggestions. These suggestions were meant for journalists who want to interview Zarif but they are also relevant for interviews with other Iranian leaders such as President Hassan Rouhani, speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani, chief of human rights in Iran Javad Larijani and chief of the judiciary Sadeq Larijani, to name a few.

The issue of human rights in Iran is a slippery one because any accusation of problems in human rights in Iran is usually met with dismissals, denials, “sugar-coating”, hypocrisy and lies as well as counter-accusations of politicization of the issue and problems of human rights in the US or in Israel.

Let’s face it, the state of human rights in Iran will never be on par with the Western world simply because all issues of human rights in Iran are subject to Shariah laws as would befit an Islamic State as is explained by Sadeq Larijani: “We only accept the Human Rights that is based on our religious teachings…we cannot abandon the Quranic teachings for the sake of your human laws that are being implemented in European countries”.

But pressure form outside Iran on improving human rights does work: Once Tehran realizes that horrid human rights impede political and economical ties with the West, change is possible. In order to do so, one has to understand how to speak about human rights to the Iranians.

How do Iranians leaders view human rights?
According to many Iranian leaders,  Iran doesn’t even have a problem with human rights. Here are a few quotes by these leaders regarding human rights that exemplify the massive hypocrisy surrounding problems of human rights in Iran.

  • In Iran, “the government follows the people, not the other way around”.
  • “The will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the government”.
  • Tehran “genuinely and meaningfully” involves its citizens “without any discrimination of any kind”.
  • Iran creates and maintains the “necessary measures for the protection of the rights of the vulnerable groups” (especially women and children).
  • All Iranian nationals are “equal before the law”, “have the right to choose their own lawyers” and can count on “the presumption of innocence”.
  • Tehran has “continuously worked for the promotion of human rights ” (with the UN).
  • Tehran continues to “fully participate” for the “promotion and protection of human rights”.
  • Tehran adheres to a full separation of powers (executive, legislature, judiciary).
  • The Iranian police has a “most immaculate record” and is “free of racial discrimination and ethnic impartiality”.
  • Tehran prohibits the use of torture and arbitrary arrest.
  • “Iran doesn’t jail people for their opinions”.
  • Tehran never “targets Baha’is just because they are followers of this faith”.
  • “If an individual commits a violation, it has nothing to do with Shiites, Sunnis, or others in Iranian society”.
  • There are no forced legal marriages of children in Iran.
  • “That they say we execute homosexuals is not more than a lie”.

All of these statements do not reflect the dire truth in Iran in any way and are an affront to all the victims of human rights abuses in Iran. In Iran, criticizing the regime, the regime’s operating bodies such as the IRGC/Basij, Islam, the Supreme Leader etc… is a “sin” which leads to vague but harsh charges of “insulting Islam/the Prophet/the sanctities/the Supreme Leader”, “spreading propaganda against the regime”, “collusion to commit crimes against national security”, “spreading corruption on earth” etc…These charges hold penalties that range from long jail sentences (12 years in jail for cartoonist Atena Farghadani who lampooned the Iranian members of parliament) or execution (Sohel Arabi for sharing a criticism of the regime on his facebook page).


How to prepare for an interview?

Here’s the list of suggestions as well as some more tips.

  • The first suggestion is that journalists should not worry about angering or embarrassing Zarif in public. Many journalists fear that if they ask hard questions, they will not be allowed to interview prominent Iranian leaders in the future but the point is that Zarif needs the Western media more than the Western media needs Zarif. Unfortunately, The fact that Zarif holds the status of a political superstar in Iran and the world impedes on the journalist’s duties to discover the truth.
  • The second suggestion is to not allow Zarif to pass the blame on to Iran’s judiciary. Unlike Western countries, the government, the parliament and the judiciary are not wholly separated and are in fact deeply intertwined through the regime’s revolutionary bodies such as the IRGC whose powers are evident in all three bodies. The simple fact that the brothers Larijani hold top jobs in parliament, human rights and the judiciary highlights the problem. Many innocent people are imprisoned for their political value such as the house-imprisonment without trial of Mehdi Karroubi  and Mir Hossein Mousavi since 2011, the imprisonment of Iranian Americans such as Jason Rezaian, Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, journalists such as Afarin Chitsaz, Eshan Manazandarani, Eshan Safarzaiee…all jailed for political purposes.
  • The third suggestion seems obvious but most journalists don’t implement it: read up on specific case studies. Questioning Zarif on human rights in general or even the imprisonment of journalists or Baha’is in particular is a sure way of getting nowhere. Journalists have to pose specific questions about specific people – the name of the person, the circumstances of the arrest, the behavior of the interrogators, the list of formal charges, the ability to confer with a lawyer or to have family visits, the length of the trial, the name of the judge sitting at the trial, the details of the sentence, his/her welfare in prison etc…Hard facts and statements by the “criminals” are harder to dismiss then general inquiries.
  • The fourth suggestion is to ask about specific results of so-called improvements in human rights in Iran. Zarif, Larijani (all three of them) and Rouhani like to point out that the state of human rights in Iran is improving but when it comes to specific improvements, they tend to keep it as vague as possible. A case in point is the problem of drug-related executions which represent approximately 80% of the executions in Iran. All of the leaders mentioned above have at one time or another justified these executions as a means to ease the problems of drug addiction in Europe and are eager to point out that some EU countries are actually supporting Iran’s war on drugs financially in order to attain this goal. But when it comes to facts or even estimations regarding the benefit of these executions on drug addiction in the EU, there are never any answers.
  • The fifth suggestion deals with the problem of “double standards” in relation to other countries with bad records of human rights. Iranian leaders faced with accusations of poor human right in Iran are quick to point out that problems of human rights exist in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and, specifically, Israel. While these counter-accusations may hold merit, they serve as an escape route from dealing with the accusations themselves. Journalists should press men like Zarif to choose between positioning Iran as part of the problem or as part of the solution since it is always easy to look good by placing oneself in comparison with others who are worse. Furthermore, journalists should press on about Iran’s double standards: If Iran wants to be compared with countries with worse human rights records, does that not place Iran in a double standard of its own?
  • The sixth suggestion focuses on the Iranian understanding of the word “respect”. Respect is a very loaded word in Iran since the whole essence of the Islamic Revolution is based on being respected and proud. The whole regime thrives on respect but this respect is usually a one-way street. Tehran strives to be respected but it holds no respect for its critics in the UN, the West or within Iran. The multitudes of cases of “disrespect” to critics of the regime is endless and includes arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without formal charges, sham trials, forced “confessions”, inability to meet with lawyers and family members, torture and abuse in prison, lack of medical attention etc…Here’s a small anecdote on the level of respect that the regime holds for its citizens: A judge sentenced an Iranian man to death for drug-related charges which the defendant continued to deny fervently. The judge listened to the defendants pleas of innocence and then reportedly said that the sentence would stand and that if the defendant was really innocent, he would then go to heaven. Respect? None.
  • The seventh suggestion relates to the lack of transparency on the issue of human rights in Iran. A special rapporteur was designated by the UN to oversee the issue of human rights in Iran but Iran has barred its doors to the special rapporteur since 2005 because Tehran felt that the assignment of the special rapporteur was politicized in the first place but that did not stop the rapporteurs from issuing scathing reports through third party information. If the state of human rights in Iran is so good, why doesn’t Tehran open its doors to showcase it? And why does Tehran get into a fuss whenever Western diplomats try to meet with local Iranian activists? And why does Tehran punish prisoners who manage to communicate their predicament to the UN, to NGO’s or to the media? Just as Tehran signed the JCPoA which is based on more transparency on its nuclear activities, why can it not produce the same level of transparency for its judicial system?
  • The eighth and final suggestion is the place of human rights in Iran’s “brand”. Rouhani and his government have worked hard to reposition Iran as a great partner in business, in “fighting terrorism” and in “helping” its neighbors. Iranian leaders are quick to point out how technologically advanced Iran is in many fields and how it is the strongest military power in the region. What the guys in Tehran find so frustrating is that Western businessmen and diplomats eagerly nod their heads in approval for all of these successes but remain critical of Iran’s state of human rights which is well below the standard of Western countries. Western businesses, in general, have grown a conscience which reflects the collectives consciences of their clients who want to minimize the oppression of human rights by choosing to purchase products and services from businesses and countries with strong human rights ethics.



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