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.

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.”


Iran’s new ‘wave of mobilization from below’

Iran_Missile_flag_fddThe International Federation for Human Rights this week raised the alarm over what it termed Iran’s deliberate denial of medical care to political prisoners, while other rights groups have protested the regime’s stepped-up crackdown on the Arab minority.

Nevertheless, Iranian women and civic activists are beginning to mobilize again with a visibility and verve not seen since the suppression of the Green Movement, observers suggest.

“Urban issues, pollution issues, environmental issues, women’s issues” — Iranians are forming groups to tackle the major problems facing the country, says Kevan Harris, an Iran specialist from Princeton University. “The universities now are back, full of student politics, so we are going through a wave of mobilization from below in Iran,” he tells NPR:

Rouhani has talked about creating more opportunities for the young, to reverse the flagging economy blighted by high unemployment, inflation and sanctions aimed at halting Iran’s nuclear program. But women don’t yet see change, says Harris.

“The problem is that the backlash is not only coming from guys with turbans,” he says, referring to hardline clerics. Iran is a male-dominated society, he explains. “A lot of men don’t want women in the workplace, especially when they think it’s costing male jobs.” 

But a revived civil society is likely to be confronted by an ideologically-driven regime, say analysts.

Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program can only be understood by looking at all four dimensions of Iranian politics—power, ideology, norms, and communication, says Carnegie expert Cornelius Adebahr.

Iran’s power dynamics and ideology are fueled by a fundamental antagonism with the West, making compromise in these areas unlikely,” he writes in a recent report. The Islamic Republic “does not accept all the norms governing today’s international system, but it claims to advance the aims of global nonproliferation.”

Recent aggressive actions could be designed to reassure conservatives that the regime “has not abandoned its ideological position,” says Prof. Meir Litvak, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the director for the Alliance Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Iran is sending a dual message, he says: the regime has not given up “its revolutionary ideological core beliefs, and if you don’ t want us to misbehave, you must make concessions,” he explained.

Can Iran improve its human rights? Can Europe help?


Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 2003, founder of the Centre for Supporters of Human Rights


Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand, co-founders of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran (a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy).

Hosted by Andrzej Grzyb MEP (EPP, Poland) Vice-Chair Subcommittee on Human Rights and the European Foundation for Democracy.

Wednesday, 12th March 2014

16:15 – 18:00

Room S3.5, Louise Weiss Building, European Parliament, Strasbourg, France.

Helsinki model’s ‘diplomatic multitasking’ can promote human rights in Iran

takeyh_2A U.S. push for human rights reforms during discussions of a nuclear agreement with Iran could lead to progress on both fronts through “diplomatic multitasking,” says a leading analyst.

“A prospective comprehensive nuclear agreement need not be explicitly linked to Iran’s human rights record, but by highlighting this issue, Washington can convey to Tehran the importance it attaches to how Iran treats its citizens,” writes Ray Takeyh in a new Policy Innovation Memorandum for the Council on Foreign Relations.

In “How to Promote Human Rights in Iran,” Takeyh details the country’s human rights violations, which include curbs on freedom of assembly, appalling prison conditions, unfair legal provisions, religious discrimination, and violations women’s rights.

“Diplomatic multitasking” will be required to negotiate a nuclear agreement while promoting human rights, writes Takeyh, who offers the following recommendations to facilitate the process:

  • The United States should highlight the work of Iran’s civil society groups and support freedom of expression in Iran.
  • High-ranking U.S. officials should speak more openly and persistently about human rights conditions in Iran.
  • The United States should pressure Iran into meeting international standards.

“Iran will change; its citizens’ quest for a more participatory and tolerant political system cannot be denied forever,” Takeyh concludes.


As the United States and other countries focus on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is easy to ignore the fact that Iran is also one of the world’s worst human rights violators. In his latest report on Iran, the UN special rapporteur insisted that “the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to warrant serious concern, with no sign of improvement.”Rouhani_2

Iran’s recent presidential election, which brought to power the longtime regime insider Hassan Rouhani, offers an opportunity to address these violations. A prospective comprehensive nuclear agreement need not be explicitly linked to Iran’s human rights record, but by highlighting this issue, Washington can convey to Tehran the importance it attaches to how Iran treats its citizens. This step requires diplomatic multitasking to negotiate a nuclear agreement while promoting human rights.

Helsinki Accords Model

Since his election, Rouhani has released a number of political prisoners and has continued to speak out about the need for more freedom. It is hard to determine whether these are merely public relations gestures or indicate a real commitment to improving Iran’s human rights record. Rouhani’s motivations need to be tested.

Today, Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East where the population is widely considered to be pro-American. The media coverage and the election itself demonstrated that voters are tired not just of economic sanctions but also of the suffocating political environment. A United States that champions its values and calls for transparency, equality before the law, and respect for international human rights standards is likely to empower and not discredit such forces.

The Helsinki Accords of 1975 offers an important model for negotiating with Iran. Neither the Ford administration nor the Soviet Union anticipated the accords’ eventual effects. The United States introduced the human rights issue to placate allied and domestic opinion and the Soviet Union conceded to its inclusion given the more pressing arms control issues at stake. In due course, the Helsinki monitoring groups that emerged throughout Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union itself did much to invigorate activists pushing for human rights. As with the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic will resist and denounce discussions as interference in its internal affairs; but Rouhani, who likes to portray himself as an enlightened figure, may be more sensitive to this criticism than his predecessor.


Iran will change; its citizens’ quest for a more participatory and tolerant political system cannot be denied forever. ….. To facilitate that process, the United States should undertake the following steps.

The United States should highlight the work of various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Iran is still endowed with many NGOs, as byproducts of the political renaissance of the 1990s, which are dealing with issues such as judicial reform and improvement of prison conditions for dissidents. The lawyer guilds, writers associations, and various women’s rights groups are examples of NGOs that are still struggling with their tasks. …

The United States should support freedom of expression in Iran. One manner of helping these organizations lies in the realm of Internet freedom and public diplomacy. ….Washington should look into providing readily accessible means of communication to Iranian organizations, including software to help overcome Internet blockage and technologies to penetrate the Iranian government’s obstructions of satellite transmissions. …………

“The best U.S. efforts to highlight Iran’s human rights violations may have a limited effect. Still, appealing to Iran’s new president and the Iranian public opinion may nudge the Islamic Republic in the right direction,” Takeyh concludes. “Even without such strategic benefits, Washington should advocate on behalf of Iranian citizens on account of the values and principles the United States professes to uphold.”

Read the full report here.