Weapons of Mass Oppression


The Iranian regime is often in the headlines but for its nuclear program rather than its systematic repression of the Iranian people. The “red line” debate has been about the enrichment of uranium, not the impoverishment of human rights.

This online series puts the spotlight on the state of human rights in Iran – on the beatings, rapes, wrongful arrests and imprisonments, and executions. The goal of this discussion is fivefold: to raise awareness of the human rights situation in Iran; to examine the most pressing policy dilemmas the international community and the Iranian people face in responding to this situation; to scrutinize the actions that have been taken so far, including Canada's; and to identify the best ways to help the Iranian people.

OpenCanada has brought together a diverse group of experts on Iran that includes current and former policymakers, academics, and civil society leaders to take part in this conversation:

Dr. Payam Akhavan

Professor of law at McGill University

Dr. Ali Ansari

Professor of history at the University of St. Andrews

John Baird

Minister of Foreign Affairs

Geoffrey Cameron

Principal Researcher with the Baha’i Community of Canada

Linda Frum


Robert Joustra

Assistant Professor of international studies at Redeemer University College

John Mundy

Former Canadian Diplomat

Marina Nemat


Gissou Nia

Executive Director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center

Richard Perle

American Enterprise Institute Fellow

Michael Petrou

Author and Journalist

Dr. Saeed Rahnema

Professor of political science and public policy at York University

Kaveh Shahrooz

Lawyer and former Senior Policy Advisor to the Department of Foreign Affairs

Below you can explore each of the five themes of this series. You can also find a selection of readings on Iran from the world wide web here.

THE SITUATION   What is the state of human rights in Iran?  

John Baird on whether human rights issues have been sidelined as a result of the international focus on Iran’s nuclear program…

Not at all. Canada continues to be at the forefront of the international community's efforts to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its deplorable human rights record. For example, Canada has led the UN General Assembly Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran for the last ten years. During this period, the margin of support for the resolution has increased considerably: the number of countries voting in favour of the resolution has increased from 68 to 86, and the number of countries opposing it has decreased from 54 to 32.

Canada has also been a strong supporter of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, and has supported both the creation, and recent renewal of his mandate.

Most recently, Canada has expanded efforts to support freedom, democracy, and human rights in Iran by engaging directly with Iran's democratic voices by supporting the Munk School's Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, which I spoke at.

Marina Nemat on the Iranian regime’s lack of legitimacy…

The Islamic Republic has been in power in Iran for about 33 years and its laws are based on Sharia law. Just to give one example, in Iran, according to the law, the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man. A society in which half of the population is worth half of the rest can never be democratic or just unless the laws and the constitution change. In the 1980s, according to some accounts, more than 30,000 political prisoners were executed, and the majority of them were teenagers. Tens of thousands more were tortured and imprisoned. I was a political prisoner in Iran from 1982-1984. I was arrested at the age of sixteen, tortured, and raped repeatedly. These are the types of crimes against humanity that are ongoing as we speak. A system that has committed crimes against humanity can never be considered legitimate and its actions must be exposed. The innocents buried in mass graves in Iran deserve to be heard and so do all the other victims of the Islamic Republic.

Michael Petrou on the impact of the war on terror on human rights in Iran…

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.

Dr. Ali Ansari on the deep roots of Iranian reformism…

The judicial reforms that had been promised by the early nationalists were delayed and then in the full fury of the revolution, effectively reversed. Even the language of individual rights – seen as a dangerous Western idea – was erased from the official lexicon, while the nationalists who had introduced and developed these ideas within an Iranian context were at best marginalized and at worst dismissed as Western stooges. So effective has this exercise in historical revisionism been that post-revolutionary intellectuals who have raised the question of the deficit in rights (in both theory and practice) approach it as if it is wholly new to Iranian political discourse.

THE DILEMMA   How can the international community address Iran's human rights violations and its nuclear program?  

John Baird on whether the international community can productively engage Iran on the nuclear issue while simultaneously pressuring it to respect human rights…

Canada is concerned that the lack of progress and substance in the P5+1 process and the lack of Iranian cooperation with the IAEA decisions demonstrate that the Iranian regime continues to play for time while expanding its nuclear capabilities. Indeed, Canada is concerned that the regime's aggressive actions abroad and repressive actions against its own people reflect a dangerous ideology that is incapable of change or compromise. The tensions that exist between Iran and the international community will cease once Iran embraces freedom, democracy and human rights.

Linda Frum on whether progress on human rights can be made parallel to progress on the nuclear issue…

Iran’s human rights record is an important reason that Iran’s nuclear program is so extremely dangerous. The way the Iranian regime treats its own people confirms our worst fears of how the regime would behave internationally, if it had the power. Conversely, an improvement in the human rights situation inside Iran would offer hopeful evidence that the regime was rethinking its aggressive foreign-policy posture. The Iranian regime does not think, “OK, world, you have one wish: nuclear disarmament or human rights improvement – which will it be?” There’s no trade-off: Iran won’t be at peace with the world again until it is at peace with itself.

Richard Perle on the argument that the nuclear program will be never be abandoned until Iran democratizes, therefore engaging on human rights is the best way to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability…

It is always dangerous to speculate about how leaders as erratic as Iran’s will behave in the future, but there is no evidence that they will agree to abandon their nuclear weapons program, no matter how menacing the sanctions or generous the blandishments proposed by outside powers.

I’m afraid that pressure to respect human rights will be equally unsuccessful because the regime in Teheran is a theocratic dictatorship that relies on coercion to remain in power.  I see no conflict between the two objectives of halting Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions and greater individual freedom for the Iranian people: both objectives can be achieved only when the current regime is removed, and it is that removal that should be the principal purpose of our policies, including sanctions. Sanctions that aim to change the minds of the mullahs will not work but sanctions that aim to undermine the power of the mullahs by encouraging the internal opposition just might.

Dr. Payam Akhavan on how addressing domestic repression relates to Iran’s nuclear program…

We need to better appreciate the connections between human rights abuses and democratization – which tend to be seen as soft, marginal issues – and the nuclear program and regional instability, which are typically considered to be hard power realist issues.

There’s an inextricable connection between the authoritarian nature of the Iranian regime and the militarization of its foreign policy. An authoritarian regime – in particular one that feels threatened by both its international isolation, because of its nuclear program, and its internal isolation, because of popular discontent – will become increasingly radicalized, and increasingly militarized. The Iranian regime believes that acquiring a nuclear capability will safeguard against international and domestic pressure; that it will serve as a deterrent and a national rallying point. That is likely why the regime is willing to pay such a heavy price in order to acquire nuclear capability.

Geoffrey Cameron and Robert Joustra on the challenge of creating greater religious freedom for all Iranians…

[P]romoting religious freedom usually requires more public dialogue about religious interpretation, not less of it. The basis for restricting the rights of religious minorities in Iran is a narrow ideology, propagated by a small clerical elite that uses its control on ideas to preserve a hold on power. Alternative interpretations of Shi’ism are marginalized within the public sphere, currently dominated by discourses that perpetuate a culture of intolerance against those who do not fit within a rigid ideological cast. While Iran is rightly held accountable by international human rights bodies, to which it is a party and signatory, the long-term task of creating a society in which minorities are treated equally and pluralism is valued will require more public space in Iran for debate about Islamic theology.

THE RESPONSE   What tools does the international community have and how should it use them?  

Saeed Rahnema on the effect of sanctions on the Iranian economy…

The Iranian regime has survived under the sanctions that followed the 1979 revolution for over three decades. But the more recent, multi-layered UN and EU-mandated sanctions and those initiated by individual countries, are proving harder to bear. Sanctioning oil exports along with shipping insurance has significantly limited the regime’s ability to sell oil to a global market, and therefore its ability to grow or even sustain national revenues. The impacts of these sanctions are being exacerbated by similarly heavy ones on the banking sector – including the Central Bank of Iran – and the country’s disconnection from the global SWIFT network for interbank financial transactions, both of which make it very difficult to repatriate oil revenues. Evidence of the impacts of sanctions is everywhere: in the past year, the Iranian rial took a nosedive, losing up to 70 per cent of its values; inflation has soared to almost 40 per cent; many industries have cut back on production or closed down entirely owing to shortages of imported materials and components, adding to already-soaring levels of unemployment and creating shortages of drugs and pharmaceuticals that put the lives of many Iranians at risk.

The effects of these sanctions, despite how extreme they feel to ordinary Iranians, have not been enough to cripple the regime. The relatively large size of the Iranian economy, when combined with massive oil revenues, provides some protection. More importantly, the regime’s close ties with Russia, China, and India, allow it to bypass and circumvent some sanctions – smuggling routes through neighbouring countries, particularly the regime-friendly state of Iraq, has ensured a constant flow of a wide variety of goods, ranging from basic necessities to Scotch whiskey.

Richard Perle on whether sanctions could eventually cripple the Iranian regime to the point that the nuclear threat and the regime’s ability to repress the Iranian people are neutralized…

This seems the only hope: that draconian sanctions, integrated into a policy of regime change, could help topple the regime.  But the sanctions would have to be far more onerous than those in effect today. And we would have to find ways, overt and covert, to support the opposition. The Obama administration shows no interest in such a strategy – or any strategy.

Marina Nemat on the viability of sanctions as a policy to encourage respect for human rights…

There is no doubt that sanctions against Iran affect innocent, helpless Iranian citizens who have been brutalized by their own government. On one hand, the regime suffocates its own people and imprisons and tortures them, and on the other hand, the sanctions that are supposed to weaken the regime create huge economic problems in Iran. These problems affect the poor and the middle class more than the rich and powerful governing elites who are directly or indirectly connected to the Revolutionary Guard. Sanctions are always a double-edged sword. There is no way that we can have sanctions against a country and not hurt average citizens and make them go hungry.

The main reason why the U.S. has implemented sanctions against Iran is not Iran’s terrible disregard for human rights; we rarely hear government officials in the U.S. speak about the atrocities committed by the Iranian regime against its own people. The West seems to be mainly concerned with Iran’s nuclear ambitions despite the fact that in the past 33 years no one has died because of it. The West’s attention is misplaced when it comes to Iran. Bad U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, including the attack on Iraq and Afghanistan, has not helped the people of the Middle East to trust the West. When it comes to Iran, the West needs to concentrate on human rights issues, not only with rhetoric but with action; with a sound foreign policy that is not reactive and violent, but preventative and wise.

John Mundy, former Canadian ambassador to Iran, on why a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would create new human rights challenges…

Iran already has the knowledge and human capability to create nuclear weapons – this was the conclusion of the World Wide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community this past March – and you can’t bomb knowledge successfully. An American or Israeli tactical victory that damages or destroys Iran’s nuclear facilities would at best only delay Iran's nuclear program, not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, if Iran decided to go for it. This was the main conclusion of the U.S. Iran Project’s bipartisan report “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action against Iran”, released last September. According to this report an Israeli attack might delay Iran’s program by up to 2 years while an American attack might lengthen the delay to as much as four years but neither would achieve the United States’ strategic objective, which is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

CANADA'S CHOICE   Do Canadian policies make a difference?  

John Baird Canada’s support for international efforts to hold the Iranian regime accountable for human rights violations…

The recent Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran is one of the ways in which our government is seeking to expand engagement with Iran's democratic voices, something which the Iranian regime fears.

We continue to support the courageous men and women of Iran working to protect human rights or advance democratic change in their country.  We will continue to voice our concerns loudly and unequivocally.

Dr. Payam Akhavan on Canada’s approach to human rights violations in Iran…

I think that the human rights issues in Iran tend to be at the margins of most governments’ agendas. But I also think that the Canadian government – and this extends across Liberal and Conservative governments  – has played an important role in drawing attention to the human rights of Iranians at the United Nations. For the past 10 years, Canada has sponsored a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Iran at the UN General Assembly. Canada has also adopted UN sanctions against individuals involved in Iran’s nuclear program. However, while the United States and the European Union have now moved towards targeted sanctions on those involved in human rights violations including crimes against humanity, Canada has not. So, there is more to be done.

Saeed Rahnema on the role of Canada in advocating for human rights in Iran, and Canada’s Iranian refugee policy…

No doubt Canadian support for human rights in the Middle East has the potential to be very important. However, since Canada’s advocacy for human rights has been one-sided – on Israeli-Palestinian issues, for example, or the Iranian nuclear program – its pronouncements are not taken seriously in the greater Middle East, or by the diasporas in Canada.

Increased Canadian support would be taken seriously if that translated into providing asylum to those fleeing Iran. It is essential that Canada accept more political refugees. But Canada has been keener on economic immigrants. Ironically, it has therefore allowed many nouveau riche associated with the Islamic regime to come to Canada, invest, and profit, including those involved in embezzling funds from the Iranian economy.

Marina Nemat on how Canada’s refugee laws are impacting Iranian seeking asylum…

Recent changes to refugee laws in Canada are making it more and more difficult for refugee claimants who arrive here. I have become personally aware of a few cases of refugee claimants from Iran with traumatic backgrounds but who have been denied asylum and are in danger of being deported back to Iran, which would put their lives in serious danger. I have been trying to help these individuals in various ways, including writing letters to immigration authorities. I will take this opportunity to ask Minister Jason Kenney to help these desperate cases.

Michael Petrou on the impact of Canada’s decision to sever formal diplomatic ties with Iran, and the role of Western journalists…

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.

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.

THE FUTURE   What will drive change in Iran?  

Dr. Payam Akhavan on the democratization of Iran…

When it comes to international intervention, at the end of the day, there really is no military solution – there is only democratization. We should look at the example of the military juntas in Argentina and Brazil during the 1980s, both of which pursued nuclear programs, both of which were discontinued upon the restoration of democracy. Post-apartheid South Africa also discontinued its nuclear program. So in a sense, soft power is what will determine hard power. Democratization is the only lasting solution, but it cannot be kept to a clear schedule; it is always going to be complex, messy…

I believe that although the regime crushed the Green Movement in 2009, it lost all legitimacy in the process. That was a historic moment – the regime is still reeling and will likely never recover the position it had before 2009. We now see that even among the hardliners, there are very deep divisions – between the Ahmadinejad clan and the Lurianic clan, for example. Iran today is not an ideological state, it’s a kleptocracy; effectively, it has become a system of gangster capitalism where the real power struggles are about who gets to steal what part of the national wealth. Now that’s not a very glorious system, but it is part of the process of democratization. It is part of the fragmentation of power which precedes political opening...

Marina Nemat on the chances of a freer and fairer presidential election this June…

According to the laws of Iran, the Supreme Leader, now Ayatollah Khamenei, must approve presidential candidates in order for them to run. Under such laws, the elections in Iran can never be truly democratic unless the constitution changes. The Supreme Leader never approves the candidates who disagree with him in any fundamental way. For the past 33 years, even the presidents that have been deemed “reformist” have been able to make only small, cosmetic changes that do not fundamentally affect the regime’s horrific disregard for human rights in Iran.

Gissou Nia on what the elections tell us about human rights in Iran…

Among analysts and monitors of the political and human rights situation in Iran, there are no illusions that the ballots cast on June 14 will be part of a free and fair election. The Islamic Republic can be best described as a “post-modern dictatorship”—that is, a dictatorship that attempts a veneer of democracy with its efforts to engage at the United Nations and to maintain an electoral process, but which lacks any substantive indicia of upholding basic rights and freedoms for its citizens…

Kaveh Shahrooz, lawyer and human rights advocate, on the danger of forgetting who has been implicated in human rights violations in Iran…

Reading about Iran these days is grim work. What makes it even more disheartening is that a historical amnesia pervades much of the commentary on Iran. Whether it is UN or NGO reports that reveal a deepening human rights crisis, or analysis by Western pundits of an upcoming presidential election no one believes will be free or fair, the emphasis is always on the latest catastrophe, with scant attention to how we arrived here in the first place.

In the series


Human Rights and Historical Amnesia

Kaveh Shahrooz on why it is essential to revisit Iran's painful past to get to a democratic future.

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.

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.

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.