Iranian leaders are masterful in manipulating the true reality on the ground in their country and obsessively addicted to taking advantage of any political opportunity to strengthen their own narrative of events. This week’s Non-Alignment Movement Summit in Tehran was one such occasion.
Trapped in two major crises–one Iran’s nuclear program and the subsequent series of sanctions adopted by the UN and the US, the other a series of UN resolutions against the country’s human rights record, which together have not only weakened Iran politically and economically but also created an oppressive image of the regime–Iranian leaders wanted to show they are still thriving.
As Tehran planned the summit, officials made sure to bring in as many heads of state from as many countries as possible, even those insignificant to Iran’s economy or national security, to fabricate a fairytale of influence and popularity between nations. In orchestrating the show, the presence of two men was pivotal: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
In the opening ceremony of the summit, Morsi, the first Egyptian president to travel to Tehran since the 1979 Revolution, harshly criticized Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime and said it has lost its legitimacy. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seated beside him, became so uncomfortable with these words that he started playing with the translation buttons in front of him, pretending not to listen. Iranian television, well-versed in damage control and spinning facts to match the official narrative, totally misled its audience by changing the lines in which Morsi slammed al-Assad, Tehran’s closest ally in the region.
The president of Egypt left Tehran a few hours later, his speech having challenged Iran’s carefully crafted projection of unity and support from a powerful regional Muslim country in the Middle East. The Secretary-General was not nearly as bold.
He did not visit any of Iran’s prisoners of conscience, he did not obtain any guarantee from Iranian officials that they would respect their obligations, and he did not publicly pressure Iranian officials on their human rights record.
Given that Iranian authorities have done everything in their power in recent years to undermine decisions made by various UN bodies, from the Security Council to the Human Rights Council to the General Assembly, Ban Ki-moon’s presence in Tehran was not necessarily expected. Iranian officials have repeatedly attacked the motives behind UN mechanisms, questioned the independence of the decision-making process in the UN, and downplayed its role on the international stage.
In keeping with this policy, Iranian officials have ignored the vast majority of communications from the UN thematic mandate holders and have refused to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran to even enter the country. And yet, Iranian officials welcomed the UN Secretary-General to the country with open arms, hoping that in such tough times for Tehran, he lends them legitimacy–precisely at a time when they want to show the rest of the world their anti-UN campaigns on both the human rights and nuclear fronts. But Ban still decided to go to Tehran.
This put the highest-ranking UN diplomat in a very delicate situation with high expectations and raised a simple question: could the Secretary-General, while in the country and meeting the highest-ranking Iranian officials, gain anything substantial regarding Tehran’s two major crises, in return for the boon his presence in Tehran granted the Iranian propaganda machine?
Right before his departure from New York, hundreds of Iranian activists and academics, in a letter submitted to his office, asked Ban to visit the two Iranian opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest for more than a year and a half, while in Tehran.
Reports from Tehran indicate that the majority of Ban’s criticism of Iran was around the country’s nuclear program, the Supreme Leader’s allegations against Israel, and Tehran’s role in the Syrian conflict. Although his spokesman said that he raised the issue of human rights in the country, it appeared that was not at the top of his list.
Evin Prison, which holds the majority of the prisoners of conscience in Iran, is just a few miles away from where UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stood to take pictures with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and yet he did not take the opportunity to visit the facility.
On Tuesday, August 28, Ban’s spokesperson assured the international community that he “intends to discuss human rights with the Iranian authorities, including at the highest level,” according to the Guardian. On Wednesday, August 29, Ban announced, “We have discussed how United Nations can work together with Iran to improve the human rights situation in Iran. We have our serious concerns on the human rights abuses and violations in this country,” according to the AP. But the only public mention the Secretary-General made of human rights was in remarks aimed at the larger audience of the Non-Aligned Movement, never targeted to Iran: “Listen to the appeals of people–for justice, for human rights, for dignity.”
On Thursday, August 30, speaking at the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s School of International Relations, Ban said, “I have urged the authorities during my visit this time to release opposition leaders, human rights defenders, journalists and social activists to create the conditions for free expression and open debate. I also urge Iran to strengthen cooperation with the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations, in particular the Special Rapporteur. I have discussed this matter with your leadership.”
But a few sentences to a group of professors stating that Ban urged Iranian officials to do such-and-such was too little, too late. If Iranian leaders don’t care about resolutions signed by dozens of countries, why should they really care about remarks made behind closed doors?
In his visit to Tehran, the Secretary-General had an excellent opportunity to discuss serious human rights issues with Iranian officials, not only behind closed doors–where Iranian officials excel at making promises and promptly forgetting about them in public–but transparently, before the eyes of the world.
It is not clear to what extent, if any, the Secretary-General has been able to discuss the situation of human rights in Iran, whether he has made any progress in holding authorities accountable, in asking Iranian officials to cooperate with UN human rights bodies and to ensure cooperation with its mechanisms, or in guaranteeing any such agreements take effect.
After this visit, Iranian officials have no incentive to change their policies or their behavior with regards to human rights violations, as they have already seen that they can score political points and have the leader of the largest international organization in the world lend them legitimacy without having to cede any ground or making any compromises.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon missed a great opportunity to use his trip to influence the situation of human rights in Iran. The least he can do now is to tell the world what discussions he actually had with Iranian officials, what they promised to do to change the course of the human rights crisis, and whether he was able to secure a visit to Tehran by UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed. And what about visiting the captive opposition leaders?
Shedding light on those discussions and openly calling for Iranian authorities to take a number of concrete steps toward respecting their international commitments may be a way to salvage the scraps of this squandered opportunity.
August 31, 2012 Leave a Comment
Huffington Post, Posted: 7/5/11- Less than a week after the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed former Maldivian Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Iran, Head of Iran’s Judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, in a TV interview said, “accepting the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights is not our policy.”
In March, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing a monitoring mechanism for Iran and appointing a Special Rapporteur. Last month, three candidates were considered for this position. The Iranian side, knowing that a Special Rapporteur would be immediately appointed soon, sent a message to Geneva that the Rapporteur on Iran should have three qualifications: Be a man, be a Muslim, and not be from an Arab country. One of the male candidates didn’t seem to cause any controversy for Tehran; Ahmed Shaheed’s appointment met all of Iran’s requirements. Read more
July 5, 2011 Leave a Comment
Huffington Post,Posted: 01/31/11 - In a recent article for the Atlantic, Middle East expert Reza Aslan writes that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not be the hard-line president outside observers actually thinks he is. Based on unverified WikiLeaks documents and remarks by the president himself, the author concludes that Ahmadinejad is, in fact, in favor of greater social and political freedoms and the “Persianization” of Iranian society, but is isolated among others in Iran’s current ruling establishment:
[Ahmadinejad]… is actually a reformer whose attempts to liberalize, secularize, and even “Persianize” Iran have been repeatedly stymied by the country’s more conservative factions… But if you oppose the Mullahs’ rule, yearn for greater social and political freedoms for the Iranian people, and envision an Iran that draws inspiration from the glories of its Persian past, then, believe it or not, you have more in common with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than you might have thought.”
Here is why Aslan’s characterization of Ahmadinejad is flawed: Read more
January 31, 2011 Leave a Comment
Huffington Post- I recall a Muslim friend of mine once asking me what I thought of the United States? I responded that the US is the kind of country which after living there for only a few years, you could grow to love it in such a way that you could sacrifice your life for it. Today, the Quran burning phenomena and anti-Mosque movement has made a mockery of that image. How can we expect this episode and the intolerance around it to not translate into a growing sentiment of “Islamophobia” and violations of American Muslims’ First Amendment rights? How can it not result in discrimination and radicalism at home? It’s disturbing that, beyond the surface of public debates, Pastor Jones and those who are opposed to the building of a mosque near Ground Zero both see Islam and Muslims behind the 9/11 tragedy or somehow responsible for it. Read more
September 13, 2010 Leave a Comment
HuffPost- It took more than six months for the White House to “strongly condemn” the excessive use of force against the protesters in Tehran, and God knows how long it will take President Obama to conclude that compromising universal values, including human rights, at the expense of erratic negotiations with the Iranian government. It will not change the behavior of the Iranian government although it will undermine America’s moral authority. Read more
December 29, 2009 9 Comments
HuffPo-The Iranian government has announced that they will try the three American citizens who strayed across an unmarked border into Iran in late July. But the question remains how can the U.S. government help free them? And what should the families do to make this perplexing story be over?
Considering similar patterns in the past, it’s almost clear that the three young adventurists are not spies. In fact, if the Iranian authorities had any evidence in this regards, they would have presented it months ago in a public trial to embarrass the U.S. government; something they thrive on.
At this time the families are facing two scenarios. Read more
December 16, 2009 2 Comments
HuffPo- After watching Frontline World’s “A Death in Tehran” documentary, I can say, undoubtedly, that if we want to pick one picture or short video of 2009, in terms of impact and influence, it’s the video that documented the moment Neda, a 27-year-old Iranian, was shot during the post elections unrest on the streets of Tehran last June; a video that penetrated layers of censorship and unmasked a government. The documentary beautifully exposes the Iranian government’s fierce but failed endeavors to manipulate the truth. Read more
November 26, 2009 2 Comments
HuffPo- The foreign media and western states are confused and puzzled as to how to interpret the Iranian election on June 12th. Over the past few days I’ve been speaking with many journalists in Tehran who normally go there for one or two weeks on assignment. Many of them, initially, believed that Ahmadinejad’s declared re-election was similar in nature to his first term election in 2005. Meaning that he had successfully mobilized his base of poor people and conservatives and that the reformists and Iranian middle class had, once again, lost the election. But recent development tells us that this is not the real story.
So, what are the sources of confusion? What went wrong and why are people angry and un-accepting of the results? Here are some essential questions that one might ask in order to fully understand the issues at hand: Read more
June 16, 2009 3 Comments
President Obama’s decision to give a speech in Egypt on June 4th, one of the most authoritarian regimes and unpopular governments in the Middle East, was surprising, no doubt. Many thought he would choose Indonesia, the biggest moderate Muslim country. But what should the President say, and do, in Cairo to make the best of his trip?
First of all, President Obama has to show that Egypt is the right choice. Many say it’s not. On May 8, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, called Egypt “the heart of the Arab world”. That’s right. But Arabs constitute approximately 10 percent of the Muslims worldwide. Also, as Olivier Roy, the prominent French scholar of Islam told me, “Muslims belong to different nationalities and have different interests. From Indonesia, as the biggest Muslim country, to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia and Muslims in the United States and Europe, they have different interests and concerns.” Plus, all Arabs are not Muslim. Obama should clarify whether he meant to address the issues of the Arab World, which Egypt is rightly the biggest and certainly the most influential country amongst them, or the Muslim world?
June 1, 2009 19 Comments
For President Obama, who already has shown his desire to talk to Iranian leaders, there is no foreign policy lesson more helpful than that of Roxana Saberi’s case of arrest and release. It shows how the Iranian government functions and could teach the United States how to speak to hard-liners in Tehran. These lessons are:
1- Everything in Iran is impossible, and at the same time, anything is possible. One day you can be accused of espionage for no apparent reason, go to prison and three months later you could walk free, simple as that. On the contrary, you can go to prison under the same conditions and reason (like the case of Silva Harotonian who has been jailed since June 2008, simply, for working for an American NGO) and stay in prison for years. It all depends on many different factors. Uncertainty rules! Read more
May 31, 2009 2 Comments
In response to a piece in which I thoroughly criticized the Iranian Intelligence regarding the arrest of American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi, I was contacted by an Iranian diplomat who asked, me; if it’s all about human rights, why isn’t anybody talking about the three Iranian diplomats who have been taken hostage by the U.S. forces in Iraq since 2007?
What was he implying? What is the connection with the arrest of a journalist in Tehran and those three Iranian diplomats in Iraq? And is that the reason why the United States has been tragically unsuccessful in helping to release Saberi or other American-Iranians in prison? Read more
April 30, 2009 1 Comment
HuffPost-The Iranian intelligence services are constantly announcing the capture and arrest of spies that gather classified information for the Western countries. Roxana Saberi, an American-Iranian journalist is the latest person to be facing such a charge.
Most people who have been accused of spying are detained without access to a lawyer or any other fair and free judicial process including a just trial. Usually they are released from prison after a few months. Surprisingly, most of these people then leave Iran within a few more months. This has made the government in Tehran the only government on the earth that catches and releases its spies.
The authorities have announced that Roxana has accepted all of the charges. No surprise! Many prisoners do accept all the charges after spending a few months in solitary confinement under huge psychological and physical pressure. To understand why, here is a joke that masterfully tells the story of how Iran’s intelligence service operates: Read more
April 13, 2009 2 Comments
HuffPost-As expected among the foreign policy community, Dennis Ross was appointed Iran’s “special advisor” and curiously not the “special envoy”– which begs the question of whether or not he will be the major voice in Washington on US-Iran relations.
Appointing an envoy or advisor to Iran has posed a challenge to the U.S. administration, considering the complex involvement of this country with most of the U.S. conflicts in the Middle East. The main concern has been to appoint a diplomat who can talk to Tehran, a regime that Washington loves to hate despite its significant influence on most of the U.S. foreign policy priorities in the region. Read more
March 7, 2009 1 Comment
(HP-Feb 11, 2009)-President Barack Obama said in his inauguration speech that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.” But the question remains; what are the characteristics of this new leadership and how will it take itself out of the ditches inherited from his successor in post George Bush era? Read more
February 13, 2009 1 Comment
(Huffingtonpost, Jan 26, 2009)-In his inaugural address on January 20, President Barack Obama said, “to the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” But, without further defining ” mutual respect”, how can the President’s remark be anything but words or a vague and indefinite platitude?
Early last December, The New York Times reported that President Obama wants to make “a major foreign policy speech from an Islamic capital during his first 100 days in office”. These signals to the Muslim world are positive. Yet, Obama faces enormous challenges in imbuing mutual respect into policy shifts, new ways of communicating, and conveying the values of this country’s great people and constitution. Read more
January 26, 2009 3 Comments