March 1999 cover of Payam-e Emrooz magazine
Article V of the U.N. Human Rigts Charter against torture.
A reversal of sorts in attitudes towards human rights
By Hossein Bagher Zadeh
March 11, 1999
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
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