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Liberal Iranian
Liberal as in Liberty and Freedom. Iranian as in Cyrus and Ferdowsi.
Friday, August 18, 2006
Defusing the Cover of Conflict
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In two different articles, the New York Times considers the effects of the hike in tensions between Iran and Europe and the US. What has sparked these new articles appears to be that "[u]nder cover of the international furor over its nuclear activities and its support for Hezbollah, Iran is trying to silence its most prominent human-rights activist, and, by extension, all of the Iranians who speak for fundamental rights." It is argued that "the regime's moves against government critics have recently intensified." Recent examples include the banning of Shirin Ebadi's Center for Defense of Human Rights and the death of Akbar Mohammadi, a student activist, in Evin prison in Tehran.

In the second article, Lionel Beehner gives a detailed account of the current dominant view in the intellectual circles of the West about the human rights situation in Iran and the role the West can and should play. On "Why is Iran's human rights situation worsening?" he quotes Bill Samii of Radio Free Europe: "Because of Ahmadinejad's conservative stance on cultural issues and embrace of strict Islamic law." He then informs us that Ghaemi and Ebadi had opined, in a February 2005 New York Times op-ed,
[T]he threat of foreign military intervention will provide a powerful excuse for authoritarian elements to uproot [human rights organizations] and put an end to their growth... .
Moreover, he reports that "experts say" Europe and the US have "not much" leverage on human rights in Iran, and that
[T]he best U.S. policy should be, like the doctor's oath, "to do no harm."
It is clear that by "harm" it is meant any challenge to the regime in Tehran since it gives, the theory goes, the regime a "cover" to increase its crackdown on human rights activists. But does this theory stand the test of reason? The short answer is, no!

First, the abuses of human rights in Iran and the pressure on its activists have not increased; they just have become more official. We cannot forget that many such activists were murdered under the rule of the past two "moderate" presidents, many more were jailed and tortuted, and still more beaten and threatened to silence during the same time. The fashionable story these days that Ahmadinejad's ascent to presidency has had a dramatic effect on worsening this situation is but a false, and at best useless, representation of the facts.

Then, let us ask this simple question: if, according to this theory, the conclusion is that we shall not challenge the regime so we do not give it a "cover," then what is the purpose of even bothering with the issue of human rights inside the country? By standing by and doing nothing, we defeat the purpose of concerning ourselves with human rights in Iran in the first place. Simply put, this is an irrational conclusion.

The truth is, the claimed "cover" is not provided only by a confrontation, but also by detaching the resolution of the conflict from the regime's human rights record. Such a conflict gives the regime two birds with one stone: they use it to justify their grip on power in the face of an "external enemy" while they continue to abuse the rights of their citizens at no cost. The second part is what has to be changed: the regime shall not only be challenged, but any possible resolution of the ensuing conflict must be tied to improvements in its human rights record.

It is not difficult to see that this provides the West with a huge leverage on human rights in a tyrannical regime, contrary to what "experts" say. A tyrannical regime cannot rely on the creativity of its citizens for its survival, for it cannot trust them, and for they are not given the freedom necessary for such creativity. So it inevitably has to convince outsiders to help it directly or indirectly on financial and economic issues. By levying a cost on the regime for abusing the rights of its citizens, it will not only face an unsolvable existential dilemma, but also human rights activists will be further boldened in their just demands. The regime is thus deprived of both those birds it would get for free otherwise.

It is only in this simple way that the "cover of conflict" is defused. But at the moment it appears, sadly, that understanding, let alone demanding, this simple policy requires a grasp of reality and an intellectual honesty beyond what the "experts" can afford. 
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