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Q&A | United for Iran's Dokhi Fassihian on Human Rights and the World's Role

by PAUL MUTTER

25 Oct 2012 23:54Comments
DokhiFassihianBW.jpg"The key for real change is for there to be sustained high-level pressure."

[ interview ] Dokhi Fassihian is director of programs and advocacy at United for Iran, which campaigns for Iranian democracy, justice, and human rights. She is the author of the organization's report, released on Wednesday, that surveys the global response to human rights conditions in the Islamic Republic of Iran since the massive protests in 2009 and their violent suppression. The report, Toward a Human Rights and Democracy Agenda for Iran: An Assessment of the International Response to the Crackdown Since 2009 (link to PDF download), describes that response as "feeble," "unsatisfactory and even detrimental." Via email, Fassihian went into greater detail with Tehran Bureau about recent developments and how the international community can do more to ensure the protection of Iranians' fundamental rights.

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On Monday, Amnesty International reported that the IRI went through with the execution of 11 prisoners at Evin Prison despite strong international protests -- which in the end only seemed to have stayed the regime's hand by a few days. In your view, how does this most recent episode reflect on what international pressure can actually accomplish in pressuring the IRI to reform its practices?

Broad and coordinated pressure from the international community, including governments that have close ties with Iran, does have impact. The Iranian government still wants to be a part of the international community and it continues to seek leadership positions, including its current chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement. What we've seen is that when there is coordinated public pressure from unlikely quarters such as from non-Western countries, Iran does respond. Iran hates being shamed, and it feels uncomfortable when states do not behave according to the framework and worldview they promote. We saw this in its behavior on the cases of Sakineh Ashtiani, Youcef Naderkhani, and the release of political prisoners ahead of the [Non-Aligned Movement] summit it held in Tehran in late August. The key for real change is for there to be sustained high-level pressure from Iran's friends and partners as well as those that have already been engaging in pressure.

Going into the next IRI presidential election, do you see any new opportunities for international engagement with Iran's leadership now that President Ahmadinejad, long cited as a hurdle to conducting dialogue with the IRI, is on his way out?

It is arguable whether President Ahmadinejad was the actual hurdle to dialogue with the IRI. Many believe he is the regime's scapegoat at the moment. Most analysts point to the Supreme Leader and his allies in the conservative establishment that are the impediments to progress in talks. In the current political system in Iran, the president has very limited influence over the negotiating positions that deal with national security such as the P5+1 talks. Iran's political actors are not accountable to the people. Elections are not free nor fair -- presidents are essentially appointed. Candidates are heavily vetted by the unelected Guardian Council that is controlled by the Supreme Leader. Once "elected" the president's real constituents are not the people, but rather the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council. Click here to see Iran's power structure.

The decision at the moment rests with the Supreme Leader, and any new president that comes in will not have any more power than presidents before them.

The important thing for the international community to realize is that while pursuing a short-term strategy with the current set of leaders in power, they fundamentally also need a long-term strategy that advances accountable, representative governance in Iran -- one that can one day usher in a new set of leaders that are responsive to the interests of the Iranian people and the concerns international community. So any discussions with Iran should include advancing basic human rights and representative government for the Iranian people. Others have referred specifically to the Helsinki model. We are proposing a high-level contact group focused on human rights and democracy.

Regarding the presidential debate, what advice would you offer the candidates on this issue (regardless of who wins in two weeks). What direction do you think the U.S. will pursue on human rights in the IRI from 2013 on?

We would advise both candidates to elevate human rights promotion in their international agenda toward Iran, and incorporate these discussions in ongoing talks. We would advise that they work with a broad range of states in a cross-regional way, and focus on achieving concessions from Iran on set of critical benchmarks that would advance free expression, the release of political prisoners, and reforms in the electoral and governance system to allow for free and fair elections.

The Congressional Research Service reported that sanctions are likely to be increased once again next time the House and Senate convene. The Iran Media Program reports that the sanctions regimen is hurting the publishing industry in Iran -- and that the regime is taking advantage of this to deny print materials to outspoken reformist dailies. So, I ask you, how will your organization and others in your coalition attempt to "ensure that sanctions exemptions for foods, medicines, and other humanitarian goods and licensed items are adequately reflected in implementing regulations in order to clearly enable NGOs, private companies, individuals, and other entities to provide assistance to the Iranian people"?

While it's difficult to quantify the exact impact that broad economic sanctions [are having], particularly with restrictions on Iranian media from reporting on the issue, it is clear [they are] having an impact given the rial devaluation. It is also clear that these sanctions are restricting the ability for nominally lawful items to reach Iran. U.S. sanctions on Iran do include certain commercial, technological, and humanitarian exemptions, including: the operations of U.S. NGOs; the donation of money, food, clothes, and other charitable items for victims of natural disasters; the dissemination of cost-free personal communication software; the export of the commercial medicine and food; and the processing of personal remittances. However, these activities are only authorized on a case-by-case basis and are subject to onerous legal requirements and OFAC [the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control] licensing procedures. Occasionally, OFAC will issue a general license, as it did recently in the wake of the earthquakes in Iran's Azerbaijan region. In addition to the arduous legal and licensing requirements, the extensive banking restrictions with Iran's financial institutions has become one of the greatest impediments to executing these licensed and exempted activities -- with many U.S. and European banks refusing to process even authorized transactions.

However, concerns remain that there are issues on the Iranian end, in terms of ensuring that certain humanitarian transfers are making it into the hands of those truly in need. Nonetheless, the U.S. should work with the international community to resolve this by securing a legitimate and viable channel, such as going through a recognized international humanitarian organizations. Advocacy orgs and other NGOs can certainly be a resource in negotiations around such a mechanism.

The U.S. government should undertake a series of simplifying and clarifying measures, to include: simplifying licensing procedures within the Office of Foreign Assets Control; issuing more clear guidelines to financial institutions; working with the international community to secure viable channels for transfers and payments; and taking further measures to ensure humanitarian goods and other legally permissible items are not prevented by constraints on international payments. If Congress undertakes another iteration of sanctions legislation, it should mandate action on these steps.

The last time the U.S. State Department attempted to provide digital security -- "Haystack" -- to Iranian Internet users, the program was compromised by the Iranian authorities. With Iran talking about creating a North Korean-style Intranet and the growth of commercial cybersurveillance technologies, what challenges face Iranian Internet users today? And, given how "Haystack" came apart, are they going to trust promises of foreign support?

This seems to have been one case that should not be considered emblematic of efforts to encourage Internet freedom. The United Nations recently declared access to the Internet and free expression through the Internet a basic human right, thus global investments need to be made to promote Internet freedom, particularly in repressive societies. There are safe tools that are successfully being promoted right now, including by the U.S. State Department, that provide for anti-filtering and circumvention on the internet. Access to these tools should be strengthened and broadened. And more can be done, including increasing access to satellite Internet technology, and making stable investments in diversified research through private-public partnerships, to develop newer and safer tools to promote internet freedom.

Briefly, what do you think is the strongest tool the international community has overall to compel Iran to reform its criminal and judicial practices? And how can foreign actors best balance this agenda without giving the government ammunition to use against the people you're asking the international community to support?

The international community has many tools and incentives it can offer Iran to induce Iran's leaders to make the right choices and allow the country to emerge from the conundrum it finds itself in. We've seen that in many other situations around the world, most recently with Burma. I would be surprised if many even within the regime, itself, which continues to purge itself and persecute its own members, would not welcome a concerted global effort to assist the country to reform. Some of these tools are already being employed to secure concessions on the nuclear program. But the international agenda should be broadened to incorporate human rights and to secure critical improvements on basic rights. On human rights accountability, given the track record of the Iranian regime on abuses, governments can pursue accountability and justice for Iranian people in national and international courts if they so decide and if impunity for violations is not ended.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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