Q and A: Omid Memarian on Human Rights

omid2insideIran.org- Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist, has helped Human Rights Watch document the post-election violence in Iran. In an interview with insideIRAN.org. Memarian shared his thoughts on the current situation of human rights in Iran and the international community’s responsibility to shed light on the matter.

Q: Iran’s lack of cooperation in the nuclear negotiations, coupled with the increasing human rights violations in Iran, are placing more pressure on the Obama administration to speak out against the torture and repression in Iran. What is your view? Do you believe that if President Obama publicly criticizes Iran this would provide the leadership with evidence that the United States is interfering in Iran’s internal affairs?

A: I agree that the Obama administration is in a tricky position. On one side, Iran’s nuclear program is a matter of international security and aims to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or moving toward any program that is easily convertible to a nuclear weapons program. This seems urgent in order to avert an arms race in the Middle East.I believe the United States will do whatever it can to make sure that Iran never goes nuclear. This also concerns the international community. On the other hand, the situation of human rights in Iran is appalling. At least 37 people have been killed on the streets of Tehran. Three of them have been killed inside prisons. Four thousand people were arrested after the elections just for peaceful protests. The Iranian people at the same time have asked the international community to help them, to support them. You might say the United States should not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. But we should not forget that one of the major elements of U.S. foreign policy is the United States’ desire to be the world’s moral authority.

It’s ironic that the United States has been criticizing the Iranian government for its human rights violations for almost three decades and all of the sudden, at the time the Iranian government has become violent again against its people, it is engaging the government in Tehran. So what should we think about the U.S. government? Should we believe that human rights, democracy and values like these are just excuses for the United States to put pressure on governments that it does not like? So President Obama is facing a dilemma: to be a hypocrite and close his eyes to the appalling systematic human rights violations in Iran, or continue what the Bush administration was doing—using human rights issues and Iran’s nuclear program as an excuse to eventually attack the country.

If President Obama is a different president who respects the fundamental values that this country is built upon, then he should apply those values to his policies. In order to improve the United States’ moral authority in the world, the Obama administration should make human rights the cornerstone of its foreign policy. And of course, even without interfering, the United States can find an effective approach to deal with Iran’s nuclear program as well its notorious human rights record.

On the Iranian side, regardless of where the United States stands on the issue of human rights, they accuse Washington of interfering in their internal affairs anyway. Anti-Americanism has become a part of the Iranian government’s identity. They are paranoid about United States’ activities against Iran. Once the United States makes universal human rights for all countries a priority, it will allow the U.S. government to argue that demanding human rights in Iran is consistent with its policy around the globe.

Q: Although historically Iran has never been a country that acts with aggression toward the outside world, it has been a country that commits violence against its own people. Do you think this violent period now is different than any other?

A: It’s different. The level of violence that was used by the Iranian police and the Basij was unprecedented. The post-election violence was systematic. High-ranking military and intelligence officials along with many politicians in charge, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made horrible decisions. They tried to cover up rape cases inside prisons. The fact that the Iranian government has been isolated in the international community seems to play into their hands. The leaders in Tehran think they can commit such crimes and escape any consequences. They have blocked U.N. human rights investigators, as well as any human rights organization, from entering Iran.

Luckily, the Iranian authorities were thinking in pre-Internet terms. If it was not for the Internet factor, they might have been able to cover up their planned use of violence. The people who orchestrated the symphony of violence and tragedy in Tehran were surprised when they saw videos captured by cell phones. This messed up their plans and basically made the Iranian propaganda machine dysfunctional. The Iranian government wanted to make its narrative of the events dominant. But the Internet, their new enemy, made the narrative of Iranian people dominant. Now we differentiate between the Iranian people and their government. Now we know that the people are civilized and ask for their demands peacefully, while the government is uncivilized and brutal to respond to people’s demands. All the above-mentioned factors make the post-election era an exceptional period in Iran’s recent history.

Q: Why do you think the leadership is torturing even those figures such as Dr. Saeed Hajjarian, who is obviously ill and needs medical care? What is their calculation, that he is such a threat that the criticism they are receiving is worth the price of intimidating him and others?

A: Have you ever had somebody close to you diagnosed with paranoia? The more advanced the disease, the tighter the circle of trust becomes. It’s funny that politicians like Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami who are former presidents of Iran, or Mir Hossein Moussavi, Iran’s former prime minister, now are considered serious opposition who are trying to initiate a velvet revolution. For many in Iran, the Islamic Republic is defined by these people, and if you delete the names of these people, including Mehdi Karroubi, Hajjarian, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Behzad Nabavi, Feizollah Arabsorkhi, and others, there is nothing left to call it the Islamic Republic of Iran. You cannot find any sane government on this planet that removes its opponents, many of them the pillars of the Islamic Republic, like what happened after the election in Iran. The Iranian leadership is strongly resisting people’s demands for a free and democratic society. Even former high-ranking officials, people who were close to Ayatollah Khomeini, such as Khatami, Hashemi–Rafsanjani, and Karroubi, have got this message. But they still resist. Why? For many reasons, transparency and accountability seem to be equal to suicide, and that’s why they have to pay such a huge price for their aggression.

Q: Do you believe the violations of human rights make the leadership un-Islamic in the eyes of Iranians?

A: Many ranking Ayatollahs in Qom have rejected the violent policies that have been adopted by the Iranian government and judiciary after the elections. Why? Is it because they are pro-democracy or secular? The answer is no. It’s simply because they believe that the government’s poor and brutal performance has severely damaged the image of Islam among the Iranian people. Islam is a religion of forgiveness and peace. But the version of Islam, which has been represented by the leaders in Tehran, has defamed religion. Iranian people are traditionally religious, at least many of them, but I don’t think they believe that the government can use religion to rape, imprison, and kill people. As Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s 2003 Nobel Laureate, has repeatedly said, Islam is compatible with democracy and human rights. But Iranian leaders do not believe in that, I assume.

Q: What do you think the United States and Western European states should do about the human rights violations in Iran?

A: The issue of human rights should be included in any negotiations they have with the Iranian government. The United States should find a platform in which it can put pressure on the Iranian government. The United States, the United Nations, and the European Union are important stakeholders, and their focus on human rights violation in Iran will surly have a huge impact. The United States can talk to the Iranian government on different issues and address the issue of human rights at the same. That might seem a tricky game, I agree, but it’s totally possible and will work.