New York Welcome

Upcoming visit is an opportunity to highlight continued repression


New York Welcome
by Omid Memarian

In late September 2012, the United Nations in New York will host Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his annual visit as president of Iran - the last such occasion, since the election of June 2013 in Iran will see Ahmadinejad's successor take office. Much attention will, understandably, focus on Iran's nuclear ambitions and the danger of an armed attack on Iran. But it is important also to register the current conditions inside Iran, including the condition of human rights in the country, an issue that has been relatively neglected since the widespread protests against the declaration of Ahmadinejad's victory in the election of June 2009.

The Iranian official media regularly features news of the discovery by the regime’s intelligence forces of international crime-rings and nefarious anti-government plots. The headlines suggest these are law-enforcement victories, something for all Iranians to be proud of; but read further, and evidence of wrongdoing is hard to find - for those arrested were targeted because of their ideas and identities - as intellectuals, secularists, evangelical Christians or members of the Bahá'í religious minority, gay people, feminists, or communists.

Iranian government officials and state-sponsored media routinely accuse groups they dislike of committing crimes and posing security threats. Over many years, such charges rarely have proven true, yet Iranians have also tended not to challenge these narratives. Today, a cultural shift is visible, as discussions within civil society about human rights increasingly contest the old, dominant perceptions.

A shifting ground

A notable trend, for example, is the marked rise in Iranians' discussion of previously taboo topics such as the Baha’i faith. The government’s propaganda against the Baha’i - the largest non-Muslim religious group in the country - has portrayed any connection to this community a "security issue", but two major incidents have contributed to a more open debate in human-rights circles.

The first occurred when Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel prize-winning lawyer, took on the case of seven Baha’i leaders who were arrested in 2008. This provoked a storm of attacks on Ebadi by state-sponsored media, but it also laid the groundwork for public dialogue, especially online. The second incident involved the activities of students expelled from universities. These young people, some of whom had been denied higher education because of their political activities and others for their religious beliefs (as in the case of the Baha’i), campaigned side-by-side for their rights.

The sympathetic attention over this issue was so significant that Mohammad Javad Larijani, the government’s representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council, publicly denied that Baha’i face any discrimination in Iran and told the council that all Baha’i in Iran have access to education and other rights. Even the public mention of Baha’i by a senior government official was in itself the breaking of a traditional taboo, and a reflection of how much the public discourse around Baha’i has shifted. As a result, more Iranian journalists and analysts started publicly to talk about the rights of Baha’i.

Another previously forbidden issue that Iranians have begun to talk about is gay rights, something unheard of only a few years ago. This subject may still be on the extreme end of social discussion, but it has slowly entered the discourse of Iranian civil society. This has forced the government to acknowledge the existence of gay people in the country.

President Ahmadinejad, in an infamous speech in 2007, claimed that Iran had no homosexuals. Now, however, the ground is shifting, and Iran has slowly begun to acknowledge homosexuality - albeit typically in a context not favourable to gay rights (for example, in the criteria for military service in Iran, there is now an article excluding gay people from service).

A new voice

In the past two decades, dozens of prisoners have written critical letters to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. More recently, Iranian political prisoners have written open letters to the Iranian public, and made available love-letters exchanged with their spouses, which have been distributed on broadcast and satellite networks. The publicity around these letters has "humanised" prisoners, prompted discussion about the current political situation, and undermined the regime’s portrayal of human rights in Iran.

Activists, lawyers, journalists and the families of detainees have used the power of the internet - including blogs, online news outlets, and social media - to amplifiy public discourse over human-rights violations and thereby spread awareness and confidence. The effects have been flet in the way that more Iranians are willing to take risks and challenge the authorities in international forums, which has contributed to the failure of Iran’s human-rights diplomacy at the UN.

For example, Iranian victims of human-rights abuse living in Iran were willing to speak to Ahmed Shaheed, the UN. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, and this was crucial in enabling him to write a comprehensive and reliable report earlier in 2012. This report resulted in increased pressure being put on the Iranian government from UN human-rights bodies, including the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

These trends have emerged following the surge in repression that followed the disputed election of 2009. They demonstrate a growing spirit of independence in Iranian civil society, and an intensifying struggle with the state concerning human rights. Iranian citizens are giving voice to the voiceless; addressing previously taboo issues; and, most importantly, making Iran's human-rights situation increasingly hard for President Ahmadinejad to ignore with impunity. During his visit to New York, the international community, including the United States, needs to demonstrate its solidarity with the pioneers of Iranian civil society by holding him responsible for his abysmal record on the persecution of many Iranian citizens.

First published on Open Democracy.

Omid Memarian is a journalist who writes for the IPS (Inter Press Service) news agency and the Daily Beast, and whose work has been published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2005, he received both Human Rights Watch's Human Rights Defender award and the Hellmen Hemet award. In 2007-09, he was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is currently working on a multimedia project on the condition of "American Muslims in the Obama Era", and teaches journalism at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). His website is here


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by Liberated on

Lets blame all of our problems on the Jews,

I am getting sick of IRI agents with their Israel rants.  Stop distracting what the real problem is.  Just like Germany in 1939, this cheap version of Hitler is blaming all of their failures on Israel. 

For lasting peace in Iran their is a need to establish a secular democracy.  Ahmadinejads tribe without war and conflict have no real identity. 



Khamenei's Malijak is back in town....

by Roozbeh_Gilani on

Kissing the rear end of Obama, hoping  to have himself and khamenei forgiven for their dreams of a "Tokhmi Bomb"

"Personal business must yield to collective interest."


I wish

by MRX on

we lived in a semi normal world. This jack ass murderer should be arrested the moment he lands in New York city and hand over  to hague to face crimes against humanity charges, nothing more nothing less.


Thank you

by Mashala on

Thank you


دمت گرم، آقا امید


Thanks so much for such a well-written article.  As the respression of minorities, free press and political dissent within Iran intesifies, the foreign agents of this murderous regime continue to spread their poison via the free media in the West in order to detract from their own criminal activities. Iranians beware!!


Omid, why don't you ever highlight Israel's repression?

by MaryamJoon on

Israeli and US pattern of terror against Iranians:

Excellent video showing threats to Iran & their sources

Israeli lobby caught spreading Iranophobia on video and hijacking Iranian democracy movements:

Delirium the Movie: "Iranian Satanism," the Israeli Lobby, Democracy, & Defamation 

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Admission by 40 years veteran of Bahai movement and former leader of Bahai Assembly regarding Iran:  

Bahá'í Brainwashing Corporation

Plight of Iranian ethnics in Republic of Aliof-bademjoon

Iranian Ethnic Groups Under Pressure in Republic of Azerbaijan

 NATO/Israeli Death Squads in Syria;

Al-Qaeda "Free Syrian Army" with NATO equipment / crucify man