Michael Petrou on the Long Reach of Iran

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May 22, 2013

You’ve travelled across the Muslim world to study the effects of 9/11 on those societies. What, if anything, is distinctive about the Iranian experience of the global war on terror? Has the GWOT affected the evolution of human rights in Iran?

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, Iran and America cooperated to see the defeat of the Taliban and the establishment of a new Afghan government. This apparent thawing of relations between America and Iran was remarkable but brief. It ended in January 2002, when then President George W. Bush described Iran as a member of an “axis of evil,” that included Iraq and North Korea. By the end of that year, Iran’s nuclear program had been exposed and the United States accused it of pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

Human rights in Iran evolved – or, to put it more accurately, stagnated and decayed – largely independent of the so-called war on terror. Mohammad Khatami’s election as Iranian president in 1997 was greeted with a lot of hope by many Iranians but resulted in little progress, in part because of competing centres of power within the Iranian government. A bloody crackdown on protesting students occurred during Khatami’s first presidential term in 1999.

Arguments that human rights in Iran might have progressed more had the American president been less hostile are undermined by the fact that the most murderous repression to hit Iran in at least a decade, which followed the rigged 2009 presidential election, took place after American President Barack Obama’s attempts reach out to the Iranian leadership and repair the right between their two countries.

You’ve examined the “long reach” of Iran and the activities of regime supporter networks in Canada. How do the activities of these networks affect the lives of members of the Iranian diaspora community? Do they pose challenges to Iranians who would advocate for human rights in Iran from abroad?

The Iranian embassy actively monitored the activities and loyalties of Iranians, particularly students, in Canada. Those deemed loyal to the regime, or at least complacent, might have benefited from embassy-paid junkets back to Iran, or an invitation to a regime-sponsored student conference. Dissidents were also tracked, and on at least one occasion security officials in Iran visited a dissident’s family after he took part in an anti-regime demonstration. These actions by the Iranian embassy imposed a cost-benefit analysis on members of the diaspora in Canada. Iranian Canadians who chose to speak out against the repression going on in their homeland knew there would be consequences.

Did these activities warrant the severing of formal diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran?

Iran is hardly unique among repressive dictatorships in monitoring dissent abroad. This in itself is not sufficient reason to sever diplomatic relations. Canada did have policies designed to limit the activities of the Iranian embassy here, however these were poorly enforced. Iranian espionage against Iranian-Canadians, combined with Iran’s nuclear program, sponsorship of terror, and thuggish internal repression did, in my view, justify kicking their diplomats out of Canada.

You’ve written on the Ottawa-Tehran embassy closures and emphasized that informal ties between these two countries will persist. Can you elaborate on the benefits and drawbacks of this kind of diplomacy when it comes to Canada achieving its Middle East policy goals, and/or advocating for the human rights of Iranians?

The closure of the Iranian embassy sharply curtailed Iran’s activities in Canada. However, informal ties persist between the government of Iran and members of the Iranian diaspora in Canada, as well as institutions such as mosques, and Iran’s English-language broadcaster, Press TV. Several regime-linked individuals also have homes and family here.

Regarding ties between Ottawa and Tehran, these were always extremely limited, as were the activities of Canadian diplomats in Tehran. It’s difficult to see how Canadian diplomacy — direct or indirect — has made any difference to human rights in Iran. Not having an embassy in Tehran doesn’t change that.

What might make a difference is isolating and sanctioning Iran, and speaking out loudly against Iranian internal repression. Canada has quite rightly done so. Iranian government officials and allies with homes in Canada and children studying at Canadian universities are not going to be influenced by a quiet word at an embassy juice reception. But they might if they have reason to fear that Iranian repression might cause them to lose those privileges.

Could Canada do more to prevent Iranian state-sponsored media outlets from broadcasting inside Canada?

Iran’s state-owned and controlled Press TV is full of fascist and anti-Semitic propaganda and conspiracy theories. It broadcast a “confession” by imprisoned Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari that he says was preceded by torture and the threat of execution.

Anyone who works for the network should be deeply ashamed, as should cable or satellite providers that carry it. I am not, however, supportive of any state censorship.

Do you think engagement in +P5 talks promises parallel progress on human rights, or are Iran's external and internal policies entirely separate?

Iran’s nuclear program and its internal repression cannot be separated. Many Iranian democrats and liberals fear that the West is willing to do just that: make a deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program and then stop harping about Iranian human rights. Any suggestion that the West should suspend pressure on human rights while engaging in nuclear talks feeds that fear and contributes to the notion that the West is self-interested and willing to betray victims of Iranian oppression if that’s what it takes to make progress on the nuclear file.

Can the international community engage Iran in nuclear talks and pressure it to respect human rights simultaneously?

A focus on human rights when dealing with Iran puts Canada on the side of the Iranian people. Many Iranians, including liberal Iranians, believe their country has a right to nuclear power. They don’t believe their government has a right to beat students to death, and would like to see Western nations pay more attention to the latter than the former.

What role can Western journalists play in encouraging freer and fairer elections in June than was the case in 2009? What about journalists operating inside Iran?

Iran will not hold free elections – or do anything else – because Western journalists encourage them to do so. The job of journalists is to report. They can be vigilant in reporting democratic abuses and any repression that follows. The bulk of this work, and resulting risk, will fall to Iranian journalists.

Also in the series

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Human Rights and Historical Amnesia

Kaveh Shahrooz on why it is essential to revisit Iran's painful past to get to a democratic future.
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Nationalism & Human Rights in Iran in Historical Context

Ali Ansari on the historical context of the Iran's push for human rights.

John Baird on Canada’s New Dialogue with Iran

Minister John Baird on Canada's advocacy on the issue of human rights in Iran.
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The Key to Religious Freedom in Iran

Geoffrey Cameron and Robert Joustra on why the rights of Iran's religious minorities won't be respected until those of the majority are as well.
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Why Iranian Women Can't Have Any of It

Gissou Nia on why denying women the right to run for President is only a small part of the regime's apparatus of repression.