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March 1999 cover of Payam-e Emrooz magazine in Iran:
Article V of the U.N. Human Rigts Charter against torture.

160 degrees
A reversal of sorts in attitudes towards human rights

By Hossein Bagher Zadeh
March 11, 1999
The Iranian

The following paper titled "Human rights & the Current Political Discourse in Iran" was presented last month at the BBC World Service seminar on the 20th anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a member of the board of Iranian Human Rights Working Group.

Human rights have never been a favorite topic in Iranian politics. Here, I am not referring to the records of the governments alone. It is the attitude of political parties towards this issue that is my concern.

I would also refrain from referring to the events following the 1979 revolution. Suffice to say that though violation of human rights started immediately after the revolution, almost none of the main political groups of the day took a firm stand against it. Indeed, many while opposing the new regime, had no hesitation to support these violations at the same time - and then had to find themselves at the receiving end when the same oppressive measures were used against political opposition of all colors and creeds.

It is against this background that I want to look at the current political discourse in the context of human rights. Two distinct strands are visible.

The first runs amongst the opposition groups. Most of these groups have been driven outside the country by ruthless suppression of the regime during the eighties. As a result, and as yet, they have no direct part in the current political discourse inside Iran.

Looking at the attitude of these groups towards human rights, one gets the impression that almost all of them have become true believers in democracy and human rights. This is not entirely superficial. Indeed, it seems that many of them have learnt the hard lessons of the aftermath of the revolution, and have come to appreciate the importance of human rights in the future political developments in Iran. This is reflected in their constant references to human rights, their non-confrontational political language, and their willingness for civilized dialogue with their opponents. But of course all these can be dismissed as symptoms of a weak opposition rather than a real change of attitudes towards human rights. However, there are concrete evidences that the latter has also taken place.

One example is the question of capital punishment. Two years ago, our group (Iranian Human Rights Working Group) issued a call for this form of punishment to be abolished. Apart from arguments against it on human rights, social, legal and moral grounds, we put the Iranian political parties to a test: support the call as a sign of your commitment that, given the chance, you will never use this from of punishment to crush your opposition. In the year or so that followed, a number of opposition political groups, of a wide spectrum, from Workers-Communist Party of Iran to the late Forouhar's Iran Nation Party responded to our call and committed themselves to this aim. This is in sharp contrast to the dominant attitude after the revolution which was best reflected in the popular slogan "...e'daam baayad gardad" (so-and-so must be executed) heard in most political gatherings.

Now lets look at the political discourse in the licensed press and political factions inside Iran - a much more profound development, involving larger sections of the society and with far deeper effect.

The phenomenon is usually traced back to the election, in 1997, of President Khatami. Since then, a sharp increase in the licensed press has equally been marked by a new discourse in the political debate. Subjects, hitherto regarded as taboo, are being gradually introduced into the debate - from human rights and civil society, to questions of separation of state and religion, to the will of the people being the source of power.

The pivotal themes of the ongoing debates in these developments are civil society and the rule of law. Both these themes are used by their proponents as instruments to discredit violence - the latter being a hallmark of the revolutionary power since the foundation of the Islamic Republic. And the remarkable thing is that they seem to be actually winning the argument. Today, even the most hard-line elements inside the regime are trying to forward their positions by resorting to the principle of the rule of law, and rejecting violence in words - though not in deeds.

This in itself is a major achievement: the language of violence is being discredited under the Islamic Republic. Today, not only the reformists, commonly known as the "2nd of Khordad Front", condemn violence and lawlessness but also their opponents are increasingly trying to distance themselves from any act of violence.

The universal condemnation that followed the recent killings of dissident political figures and writers is a clear testimony to this development. This is in sharp contrast to even a couple of years ago. Then a series of similar killings and suspected deaths did not go beyond brief reports in the local papers. Also, it was only two years ago that Faraj Sarkuhi was abducted and threatened with his life while the then President Rafsanjani publicly participated in a bizarre cover-up story to make him "disappear" - with a loyal press faithfully reporting the story with no comments. Now, even the Supreme Leader had to join in the chorus of condemnations that followed the recent atrocities.

Before going further, it is essential to note that the whole current debate is going on among the "insiders", the "us" people - the loyal adherents of the Islamic Republic and its strict system of beliefs. It is part of the "us" people that has now started to challenge its own past and break with it. It is the ex-sepahis, basijis, intelligence ministry officials, para-military groups, state functionaries, hostage-takers, members of the infamous Cultural Revolution Council and ayatollahs with revolutionary credentials, who are now spearheading this drive. It is a revolution from within - and hence almost next to impossible to stop it.

The reformists are continuously pushing back the boundaries of debate with taboos being broken at a remarkable rate. To start with, they have broken the established dichotomy of "them" and "us". The old guard is furious at the disregard shown by the reformists for the sacred rule that essentially meant that only those who had proven their loyalty to the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Republic had the right to speak. The reformists are gradually eroding this precious privilege - even though what is allowed to be said by the "them" people is in no way revolutionary.

Then, various questions of fundamental rights are brought up again and again for discussion - albeit with some issues being kept strictly off-limit. Rahe-e no magazine, shortly before it was shut down in September 1998, had even questioned the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. Quoting Ayatollah Khomeini's rejection of the pre-revolution constitution on the grounds that "our parents" who had voted for it earlier this century "had no right to determine our destiny", the magazine pointed out that the majority of the population now were under 35 who had not voted for the Islamic Republic constitution, and so by the same logic could demand a chance to vote for a new constitution. Or as recently as last week (early February 1999), the daily Sobh-e Emrooz effectively invalidated most of the elections of the past two decades. Rejecting the notion that IRI is a democratic regime just because it had carried out so many elections since its foundation, the paper argued that an essential element of a democratic election was its freeness in the sense that nobody should be barred from being elected on political or belief grounds. It then went on to say that except for few exceptional cases out of "tens of elections", the process had never been truly free.

The current discourse is also very much "people-oriented". The people's verdict, instead of religious edicts or pronouncements from above, is increasingly being used as justification for what is acceptable or not. This is not surprising in the light of the fact that it was the popular vote that put President Khatami in power in 1997 against the candidate openly favored by the Supreme Leader and religious authorities. Today (late February 1999), the country is preparing itself for the most grassroots level election that has ever been experienced in the land. This in itself is a by-product of the new political discourse. It is also a measure of how much people's choice has gained currency in the fast developing political market in today's Iran.

It is not only in the elections that popular participation matters, but also newspaper circulation is used as a criterion of how much press control should be relaxed. While the stalwarts of the old guard, including the supreme leader, cry foul for the "promiscuity" of the press, the official in charge, Ahmad Bourqani, who resigned last week revealed that altogether newspapers had a circulation of only 2.3 million. He found this a great disappointment and said that his objective in relaxing the control on the press had been to raise the circulation to at least 6m - a modest objective in a country of over 30m readers.

The reference to the pronouncement, few months ago, by Ayatollah Khamenei against the press provides us with an assessment of how far and deep the new developments have gone. His attack against the liberal newspaper of the day, Toos, was reminiscent of a similar pronouncement of the late Ayatollah Khomeini against Ayandegan daily soon after the revolution. However, the effect was quite different. True that Khamenei's attack did result in shutting down Toos, arresting its editorial staff and even threatening them with execution, but the similarities with Khomeini's attack on Ayandegan ended there. The latter meant the end of the free press in the Islamic Republic and the start of the bloody suppression of the opposition. However, few months after Khamenei's attack, the state of the press is such that as if his attack had never happened. The Toos journalists were released, other newspapers of similar nature have since started publication, and the press shows the same vitality and resilience as experienced before his outburst.

All in all, the current political discourse in Iran is characterized by its rejection of violence and reference to people and their basic rights. It has, however, a long way to go in order to have a definitive effect on improving human rights in Iran. There are quite a number of burning issues which the press has so far not dared to touch. One of the no-go areas, and the most sensitive of all, is the catalog of gross violation of human rights, including the perpetual mass killings, which went on under the IRI for so long.

It is questions like this that if ever raised may prompt the dreaded backlash from the old guard (not to say from some of the reformists too). Such a development may happen sooner rather than later, and in ways and at times least expected. It is then that the maturity of the current discourse will be tested. Can the reformists anticipate this eventuality, and in time, prepare for it? Have they thought of how to respond to the popular demand for justice and freedom, and to prevent the pre-emptive resort to violence by the perpetrators of past crimes, instinctively used in self-defense? There is, as yet, no sign that the reformists are prepared for it, or that the current political discourse can lead to a peaceful transition to full democracy.

Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form

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