Analysis: Europe retreats from pressing Iran on human rights progress
By BENJAMIN WEINTHAL \ 12/01/2014/J.Post
Since the world powers reached an interim agreement to slow down Iran’s nuclear weapons program last year, there has been an astonishingly fast-paced change by some European countries and institutions to ignore the Islamic Republic’s wretched human rights record.
Put simply, a topsy-turvy situation is unfolding where an abnormal regime in Tehran is being mainstreamed as normal.
A telling example is an Iran-Italy conference this week in Rome titled “Protection of Human Rights in the Penal-Judicial System of Iran and Italy.”
The head of Iran’s Human Rights Council, Mohammad Javad Larijani, appeared at the event. This is the same Larijani who defended the stoning of women and denied the Holocaust at a 2008 German foreign ministry event.
According to a Sunday report by the Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Larijani said at the conference that Iran is “the most powerful and advanced democracy in the region.”
He lamented that “since the victory of the Islamic Revolution, there have been many discussions between Iran and the West on different topics, and unfortunately some of these topics have been misunderstood and misinterpreted due to a lack of information about the rational nature of the Islamic Republic system’s pillars and its mechanisms.”
Consider these statements against the background of Larijani’s call for the destruction of Israel at the 2008 German foreign ministry-sponsored event in Berlin. He said the “Zionist project” should be “canceled” and argued that Israel “has failed miserably and has only caused terrible damage to the region.”
Ever since Larijani’s genocidal rhetoric sparked outrage in some German and Israeli media outlets, he has been persona non grata in the Federal Republic.
Saba Farzan, a German-Iranian journalist and executive director of the Berlin-based think tank Foreign Policy Circle, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, “The recent joint Iranian- Italian conference in Rome is yet another shameful example of how much European democracies are throwing Iran’s civil society heavily under the bus. Europe needs to learn a political lesson urgently: human rights in dictatorships don’t improve when you sit down and discuss them with those dictators. On the contrary, as long as any kind of negotiations continue, the Islamic Republic can torture and kill innocent Iranians with impunity.”
She added, “Political sanctions aren’t enough to support Iran’s democracy activists as long as Iran’s leadership doesn’t go financially bankrupt. Therefore, tough economic punishment is needed as well so that Iranians won’t be punished anymore, but reclaim their freedom and country back.”
Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer in exile and the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, told the Saudi news outlet Al Arabiya on Friday that Iran’s human rights situation “has not progressed at all.” She delivered a stinging blow to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on a pledge of reformism, declaring: “All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice. Long live citizenship rights!” Ebadi, who advocates non-economic sanctions, including travel bans on Iranian human rights violators, said: “The government of Iran always claims that the issue of human rights in Iran is a domestic issue and not an international matter, and [that] it’s not up to other countries to talk about it.”
Yet, she asked, “why is it that Iran interferes in Iraq, in Syria and other countries?” Italy’s northern neighbor Austria sent a delegation to visit a sanctioned Iranian university involved in illicit nuclear weapons work. Peter Moser, vice rector of the Montanuniversitat Leoben, along with Hubert Dürrstein, CEO of the Austrian Agency for International Cooperation in Education and Research, traveled in November to Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology.
Stefan Schaden, a spokesman for the Vienna-based NGO Stop the Bomb, told the Post Iran exploited the visit “for their propaganda.” In short, Iran’s attempts to turn illegal nuclear proliferation activity into a normal part of its social fabric that the West must accept.
Schaden also was one of the few voices in Austria to note that Iran’s university system engages in ubiquitous discrimination against women, and against ethnic and religious minorities such as the struggling Baha’i community.
Erhard Skupa, a spokesman for Montanuniversitat Leoben, told the Post: “Prior to the visit, Montanuniversitat Leoben checked the legal situation and concluded that a meeting with researchers does not break the embargo.”
Skupa’s explanation hardly seems to be the point, according to critics who see a kind of institutionalization of a rogue regime in Tehran by European elites.
To be fair, at one point, Europe took the business of human rights seriously. In 2012, the European Parliament awarded Iranian human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh its Sakharov human rights prize.
The EU’s decision to publicize her case probably helped force Iran to release her early from prison in 2013.
She is now protesting the suspension of her legal practice and wrongful conviction in front of the Iranian Bar Association in Tehran.
Last week, she told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “If my sentence is not overturned, I will keep protesting until the end of the three-year ban.”
Iran’s regime had sentenced her to a six-year prison term for allegedly endangering national security, a term of which she served three years.
Iran’s security establishment briefly detained her last week because she protested acid attacks against women in the city of Isfahan.
Some European countries appear to have a short-term memory deficit. European human rights pressure targeting Iran’s regime could breathe change into the backward Islamic Republic. With or without an agreement to end Iran’s nuclear crisis, human rights will continue, absent external pressure, to be trampled.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.