Defending human rights, empowering civil society in Iran

Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, delivers a speech in front of two empty chairs during the Sakharov Prize ceremony awarded in Strasbourg


While the world’s attention is focused on Iran’s nuclear program, the European Union and European Parliament (above) have broadened the agenda to include Iran’s poor record on human rights in a way that has spurred new debate within the Islamic Republic, says Barbara Slavin a correspondent for Al-Monitor and the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.

The Iranian government is hyper-sensitive about criticism of its detention of political dissidents and civic activists - nearly 900 of whom remain in jail, and about charges that the regime discriminates against women and religious and ethnic minorities, she writes:

While Rouhani has prioritized the nuclear issue and cannot dictate policy to the judiciary, which is run by a cleric directly appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leadership as a whole does respond to international pressure and cares about its image abroad. It was no accident that the regime freed about 80 political prisoners last September just before Rouhani came to New York for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. Among those freed was Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer who was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought while she was in jail in 2012.

But Rouhani’s performance on rights still falls far short of expectations, says Akbar Ganji, the celebrated dissident.

In anticipation of the fourth anniversary of Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, the E-Collaborative for Civic Education will hold an inaugural Tavaana Teacher Summit April 2-6, 2014 in Bethesda, Maryland. The Summit is a gathering of Tavaana’s global faculty for the purposes of strategic planning to evaluate Iranian civil society’s needs and how Tavaana can best continue to address those needs. During the four-day summit, Tavaana teachers will together shape the e-learning institute’s future growth while engaging in exercises with expert facilitators on civil society capacity building, democratic classrooms, civic education and effective e-learning techniques for the Iranian context.  

Tavaana faculty members attending the summit include Arash Abadpour, Kamiar Alaei, Kazem Alamdari, Parviz Dastmalchi, Saghi Ghahraman, Nazila Ghanea, Mehdi Jami, Mehrangiz Kar, Mehdi Khalaji, Majid Mohammadi, Mohammad Reza Nikfar, Mansour Osanlou, Saeed Paivandi, Ramin Parham, Nima Rashedan, Saeed Sabzian, and Mohsen Sazegara.

Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, the flagship project of the E-Collaborative for Civic Education, supports active citizenship and civic leadership in Iran through a secure, Persian/English e-learning platform. Over 30,000 Iranians living throughout the country have applied to participate in Tavaana’s e-learning opportunities, with over 9,000 thus far having successfully completed e-courses, whether by correspondence or in live classrooms, on topics ranging from human rights advocacy to digital safety, leadership and democratic institution building, with millions more watching Tavaana content on satellite television channels.

Tavaana regularly publishes important e-books on topics ranging from liberal interpretations of Islam to Internet freedom to nonviolent civic resistance. The Persian/English e-learning portal features 100% free, open-access manuals, PowerPoint presentations, video lectures, and lecture podcasts as well as video interviews with prominent Iranian and international activists, case studies on civic movements for human rights and democracy worldwide, translations of democracy classics and texts written by Iranian civic leaders, animated public service announcements, an annotated e-library of Persian and English resources, robust, highly engaged social networks, and a digital safety and Internet freedom-sharing portal, TavaanaTech.

Tavaana teachers and Co-Directors Akbar Atri and Mariam Memarsadeghi are available for interviews throughout the Tavaana Teacher Summit. For more information or to arrange interviews, contact Abbey Warchol (

Tavaana Teacher Summit:

Hyatt Regency Bethesda

One Bethesda Metro Center

Bethesda, MD 20814

Iran Human Rights Review: Violence

iranhumanrightsThe new edition of the Foreign Policy Centre’s Iran Human Rights Review addresses the critical issue of how violence is used at all levels of society, from national government to domestic life, to reinforce the values of the Islamic Republic and prevent challenges to the status quo.  

The Iran Human Rights Review: Violence tackles a number of important issues from the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the volunteer paramilitary Baseej, the use of the death penalty in spreading fear, the treatment of prisoners and systemic discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities in Iran.  

Edited by Tahirih Danesh (Senior Research Associate, FPC) and Shadi Sadr (Founder, Justice for Iran), the Iran Human Rights Review: Violence features several expert contributions from: Nasrin Afzali, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam and Tabassom Fanaian (Iran Human Rights), Maedeh Ghaderi, Musa Barzin Khalifeloo, Mahnaz Parakand, Hossein Raeesi and Rouhi Shafii (International Coalition against Violence in Iran-ICAVI). Leading international human rights lawyer Professor Payam Akhavan provides a foreword to the collection. This edition also marks the launch of the new dedicated online home for the Iran Human Rights Review (, with the website displaying the new publication in both English and Farsi, and providing access to past issues and other key resources on human rights in Iran.

Why has Assad been able to retain power in Syria?

syria-protestWhy has Bashar al-Assad been able to hang onto power in western Syria? asks Frederic C. Hof, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

According to Ambassador Robert Ford, the top reason for the regime’s persistence has been the failure of the opposition to reassure Alawites that they would not be threatened in the wake of Assad’s departure, notes Hof, formerly the Obama administration’s special advisor for transition in Syria:

Second—and only second—has been the enormity of Iranian and Russian political and military support to the regime. Third is the evident unity and coherence of the regime, “which is lacking on the opposition side.” This is a remarkable thesis: massive military support from Tehran and Moscow is a secondary factor in the regime’s survival, and the performance of the West figures not at all; the victim is primarily responsible for his own victimization……

Leave aside the fact that opposition leaders have spoken publicly and eloquently about their vision of a Syria where citizenship will trump all other forms of political identification, and where Syria’s ethnic and sectarian diversity will be protected and celebrated. These themes were articulated eloquently by Burhan Ghalioun in the very first Friends of the Syrian People conference in Tunis and fully reflected in key opposition policy documents produced in Cairo in the summer of 2012. Surely it was the adherence of the mainstream, nationalist opposition to the principles of civil society and rule of law that enabled the United States and others in December 2012 to recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

“The excellent performance of the opposition delegation at the recent Geneva II exercise did nothing to detract from a vision of Syria that is decent, liberal, and civilized,” Hof contends. RTWT

But it’s foreign Shia fighters who have tipped the balance in Assad’s favor, The Financial Times reports:

The mobilization of Shia fighters appears to be more successful than that of their Sunni counterparts, some argue, because it is organized and encouraged by Iran, from where recruits are trained and sent to Syria in groups, say Syrians who have joined Pro-Assad militias.

“The main big difference is the state backing. It is a far more organized process,” says Phillip Smyth, an analyst at the University of Maryland who follows Shia militias. Tehran’s systematic support makes Shia fighters a more unified force than that of the Sunni foreign fighters who tend to travel alone to Syria and join disparate groups.

The Shia fighters are associated with a shift in the balance of Syria’s three-year conflict in Mr Assad’s favor. In late 2013 his forces secured a belt of territory around Damascus and central Syria, up to the coastal stronghold of his own minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

“Assad was losing big swaths of territory then...When they came in, there was a clear shift in the balance of power on the ground,” said Janaina Herrera, analyst at the New Generation Consulting group in Beirut.

The State Department is about to begin delivering tens of millions of dollars’ worth of new assistance into Syria, including ambulances, communications gear and Toyota pickup trucks for the country’s beleaguered rebels, Gordon Lubold writes for Foreign Policy’s The Complex (HT: FPI). But the relatively small size of the new aid package is a vivid reminder that the Obama administration is continuing to take a largely hands-off approach to a country in the fourth year of a civil war in which nearly 150,000 people have died.

Iran’s basij ‘reveal softer side’?

BASIJMany Iranians see basijthe 12.5m-strong ideologically-driven volunteer forces of the Revolutionary Guards – as stick-wielding plainclothes thugs on motorcycles who beat up pro-democracy protesters or attack European embassies, according to Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Monavar Khalaj.

But at Café Kerase, these conservative guardians of the 1979 Islamic revolution can be found sipping cappuccinos and espressos, and discussing art and politics over snacks, they write for The Financial Times:

Most of the women here are clad head to toe in black chadors and men have untrimmed beards – trademarks of conservative regime supporters. Their clothes distinguish them from the urban middle classes, whose men tend to sport jeans and whose women defy obligatory Islamic covering with loose scarves……

Café Kerase – an old Persian word for “book” – gives a nuanced image of the paramilitary force and is an attempt to embrace the values of the middle class and narrow the gap with the rest of the society, although there has been no tangible change in the guards’ cultural policies following Iran’s shift toward moderation under centrist president Hassan Rouhani, who swept to power last summer.

“The truth is that those who attack people and disrupt political meetings of reformists represent only a minority in the basij, even though their voice is loud,” says Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist politician and a former political prisoner. “I used to be a member of basij myself and still live and socialise with them and discuss political developments without any problem.”