Mansour Farhang: Zarif and the Pursuit of Rights and Respect (Commentary)

Dr. Mansour Farhang

(November 22, 2013) – “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” The endurance of this remark by Sir Henry Wotton, a 17th century English diplomat, is due to the fact that it contains an element of truth. Politically astute diplomats, however, know the limits of such practice.

They are aware that credibility cannot be sacrificed if they are to be effective in what they do. Mr. Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has produced a YouTube video in which he asks all countries, particularly his negotiating partners in Geneva, to trust the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. To the extent that this appeal is viewed as public diplomacy intended to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the nuclear dispute, his initiative is welcome. The problem with Zarif’s performance in the video is that he goes far beyond what “an honest gentleman” must do to serve his country. Indeed, the disconnect between his claims and the reality inside Iran today demands a response.
Zarif asks, “What is dignity? What is respect?” The government of Iran must not know, for it affords neither to its own citizens. Dignity is the right to free expression—without being arrested for voicing criticism of the state and forced, under torture, into making public “confessions” of crimes “against national security.” Respect is the right to engage in peaceful dissent, without disappearing in the middle of the night—and emerging days later in a body bag, beaten to death by interrogators for blogging articles critical of the government. Yes Mr. Zarif, you are right, dignity and respect are not negotiable, which is why there are still many in Iran who continue to stand for human rights—including mothers who have spent years in prison while their children grow up without them, because they did their job as lawyers to uphold the law and represent imprisoned human rights defenders.
Zarif proudly states that free will “has been the essence of the collective demand of us Iranians for the past century.” Yet this reference back to Iran’s Constitutional Revolution in 1905 brings into sharper relief the tragedy of the continued thwarting of democracy in Iran, where only candidates deemed acceptable to the Supreme Leader are allowed to run, where peaceful protests over the disputed 2009 presidential election were met with the ruthless state violence, and where opposition leaders remain under extrajudicial house arrest, without charge, for almost three years now.
Iran’s theocrats have divided the population into “insiders” (those who unconditionally submit to clerical dictatorship) and “outsiders” (those who criticize it). The outsiders, consisting of the vast majority of the population, are deprived of the most basic civil liberties, and subjected to torture and imprisonment if they dare speak their mind. In his interviews with Western media, Zarif has claimed that there are no political prisoners in Iran and that there have never been political executions in the Islamic Republic. Yet numerous independent human rights and United Nations organizations have documented the hundreds of political prisoners who remain behind bars in Iran. Arrest and prolonged detention without charge, torture during interrogation, trials without counsel or due process, and convictions based on evidentiary standards grotesquely below international norms are all routine in the Islamic Republic. And Iran is not only one of the few countries to carry out public executions, it has been frequently censured by the United Nations for its routine practice of carrying out executions “in the absence of respect for internationally recognized safeguards.”
Zarif asserts, “We are all endowed with free will, with the ability to determine our own destiny.” Yet it is this very free will, this ability to determine one’s own destiny—even one’s own beliefs, speech, and activities—that is denied in Iran. Iran’s theocrats do not allow free will in either the personal or political realm. A Muslim who converts to another religion is an apostate, punishable by death. Christian converts, Sunni Muslims, and Sufis all face severe persecution in all walks of life, and the Baha’i are not permitted to pursue higher education and risk imprisonment and torture, even execution, if they openly express loyalty to their religion. The reality is that the Iranian theocracy is one of the most intolerant governments in the world. Only Bashar Assad of Syria and Kim Jong-un of North Korea can match the surrealism of Zarif’s claim that the Islamic Republic is against tyranny. For their part, the Iranian citizenry have not been fooled: some three million Iranians have left or fled the country since the theocrats came to power, one of the highest rates of brain drain in the world.
Zarif states that “Rights are not granted, and since they are not granted, they cannot be seized.” The harsh truth is that they can—and have—been seized in Iran, and only if the government is willing to confront the widespread human rights abuses it has committed, in violation of international human rights law and Iran’s own constitution, will it be likely to change course and respect the rights of its own citizens.
“We always keep our promises,” Zarif says in the video. The first promise he must keep, if he wishes to demonstrate his credibility to the international community, is the one his own administration has made to the Iranian people: the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has pledged to protect the people’s rights and respect the rule of law in Iran. It is the height of hypocrisy for Zarif to demand rights and respect from the international community before granting them to his own citizens.
At the end of his YouTube appeal, Zarif addresses the international community and says, “Choose a path based on mutual respect and recognition of the dignity of all peoples.” What Zarif seems to have missed in his studies in American universities is that the only enduring way a political regime can gain respect in the world is to respect the humanity and civil liberties of its own citizens.
Mansour Farhang is a professor of political science at Bennington College.
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