The Other Iran Crisis

July 19, 2007; Page A14

While the world focuses on Iran’s centrifuges, the regime in Tehran appears to be in the midst of one of its most ferocious crackdowns on dissent in years. The government has focused on labor leaders, universities, the press, women’s rights advocates, a former nuclear negotiator, Iranian-Americans and even civil servants who demanded higher salaries. Iran’s cruel treatment of its own citizens is yet another sign that it can’t be trusted to respect the welfare of other nations.

The crackdown has two causes. First, the hard-line administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces rising popular pressure for failing to deliver on promises of greater prosperity from soaring oil revenue. Iran’s economy is so stressed right now that, although Iran is the world’s second-largest oil exporter, it recently began rationing gasoline. At the same time, the nuclear standoff with the West threatens to bring new economic sanctions. Hence, Tehran is using American support for a change in government and the possibility of a military attack as a pretext to further liquidate its opposition.

Just last week, Iranian security forces responded to a sit-in at Amirkabir University marking the anniversary of the mass student protest that started on July 9, 1999. Police broke into a university dormitory and stormed the offices of a pro-democracy student group, killing one person and injuring 20.

But the crackdown is not just targeting political opponents. Iran’s judiciary has confirmed that a man convicted of adultery was stoned to death in the province of Qazvin on July 9. Jafar Kiani, a man in his late 40s, had spent the last decade in jail. His sentence was carried out despite a moratorium on stoning declared by Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, in 2002. Kiani’s stoning was defended by the head of the judiciary’s human-rights committee, Mohammad Javad Larijani, who said it was justified “based on Islamic Shariah.”

At least those stories have been reported. The untold ones are taking place within the walls of Iran’s prisons and leaking out only thanks to opposition activists and bloggers. One such story is that of Khaled Hardani and his family, members of Iran’s Arab minority who tried unsuccessfully to hijack an airplane in 2001 to escape Iran. Mr. Hardani was under intense pressure to sign his order of execution. While in prison, he established a prisoner group that attempted to disclose information on Iranian prison conditions. As a result, he was charged with “battling God” and an execution date was set for July 4. Nothing has been heard from him since.

Nasser Khirolahi, an Iranian civil servant, was jailed in March 2003 and has been tortured repeatedly while being denied representation. His crime was an attempt to unveil corruption he observed when he worked in the mayor’s office in the city of Isfahan. He was forced to resign and a short time later was arrested by Isfahan intelligence services. Mr. Khirolahi — who has been observing a wet hunger strike for more than three weeks — has been transferred from the regular political prisoner section to an area where murderers and other violent offenders are held. Although his four-year term is nearly over, prison officials told him last week that he will not leave the prison alive.

Haleh Esfandiari is an Iranian-American academic and the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. She has been held in solitary confinement since her arrest last December. After visiting her ailing 93-year-old mother in Tehran, Ms. Esfandiari was robbed at knifepoint by three men and consequently arrested en route to the airport. She was charged with “acting against national security” and “spying on behalf of foreigners.” Ms. Esfandiari was arrested alongside three other Iranian-Americans: Parnaz Azima, a journalist who had traveled to Iran to visit her family; Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant to the World Bank and the Open Society Institute; and Ali Shakeri, a businessman and political activist who had been working with the Center for Citizen Peace Building at the University of California. All four have been banned from leaving Iran.

The accumulation of stories of political intimidation by incarceration, torture and death threats is longer still, and growing at an alarming rate. Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, has complained to Iran’s judiciary that even sex criminals are treated better than political prisoners — which is notable in a country ruled by Islamic law. In a letter last month to the head of the judiciary, she pointed out that the bail for an accused rapist was set 50 times lower than that of a detained reporter.

The world appears to be not watching. Yet a country brazen enough to kidnap, torture and liquidate its own people is an unlikely partner for a new world order. While diplomacy in the nuclear standoff and for the sake of political prisoners may yet move forward, we must ensure that these individuals are given just and humane treatment.

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