The conference convened in Room 106 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, DC, at 8:45 a.m., Trita Parsi, President, National Iranian American Council, presiding.
TRITA PARSI, PhD, President, National Iranian American Council
CONGRESSMAN KEITH ELLISON, U.S. House of Representatives (MN-5)
NAZILA FATHI, Former New York Times correspondent based in Iran
NADER HASHEMI, Co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran's Future
THE HONORABLE JONAS HAFSTROM, Ambassador of Sweden to the U.S.
ALIREZA NADER, International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation
SUZANNE NOSSEL, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations
SARAH LEAH WHITSON, Middle East and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch
DR. PARSI: Good morning and thank you. Welcome to NIAC's conference on the human rights situation in Iran, Answering the Iranian People's Call for Human Rights.
As we gather here today, the human rights situation in Iran continues to deteriorate. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, in the first month of 2011, on average, the Iranian government executed a person every eight hours. In most of these cases, if not all, the rights to due process and access to lawyers were not upheld. In many cases, the lawyers of the victims and their families were not informed of the execution until after the fact.
Meanwhile, seven former leaders of the Baha'i community in Iran continue to linger in jail after enduring a trial riddled with irregularities and receiving lengthy jail terms without having actually been informed of the actual sentence in writing. Just a few days ago, one of these elderly leaders of the Baha'i community, his wife passed away, yet he was not permitted to attend the funeral of his wife of 50 years.
At the same time, as we all know, in the aftermath of the Iranian elections in 2009, thousands of protesters were rounded up and put in jail for having demanded their rights. Some of them have been executed. Others have been tortured and raped in jail. And yet others were killed while being tortured in jail. According to Amnesty International, the human rights situation in Iran is as bad now as it has been in the last 20 years. What has been missing, however, is an international response to the increasingly abysmal human rights situation in that country.
Over the years, we have heard a lot about Iran's obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. Clearly, those rights and obligations are real, but those are not the only obligations. Iran, as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as a party to numerous human rights conventions, also has obligations to uphold the human rights of its people, and the international community has an obligation to hold Iran to those obligations.
Resolutions have been passed at the UN, but there has been no clear effort to create a mechanism to address and end these human rights abuses. Some opportunities have been lost, and some opportunities can still be seized upon. One such opportunity is a resolution sponsored by the Swedish government at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in the next few days that would put into place a monitor for following and addressing the human rights situation in Iran.
Today we have some of the foremost experts, thinkers, and practitioners with us to address this issue and discuss the best ways, the most efficient ways of dealing with the human rights situation in Iran, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Suzanne Nossel, Ambassador Jonas Hafstrom from Sweden, Congressman Keith Ellison, who is a leading sponsor of the Stand with the Iranian People Act, as well as former New York Times Iran correspondent Nazila Fathi.
But first, we have a panel with Sarah Whitson from Human Rights Watch, Alireza Nader from RAND, and Professor Nader Hashemi from the University of Denver to address the current state of human rights in Iran and the Green Movement and the pro-democracy movement.
Before we go there let me also thank the sponsors of the conference today, whose generous support has made this a possibility. Those include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Ploughshares Fund, the Iranian‑American community and many of the private donors there, as well as Connect U.S., and, of course, Senator Carl Levin, who was kind enough to sponsor the room that we are in today.
So let me jump over to the other seat and start the conversation. We are delighted to have with us today Nader Hashemi, who is an expert on Middle Eastern affairs, Islam, and human rights. He is a professor at the University of Denver and just recently came out with a very highly acclaimed book on the Green Movement in Iran, co-edited it, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran's Future. You probably have seen him on PBS News Hour, on CNN, and on many other networks in the last couple of days alone.
We also have with us Alireza Nader, from RAND Corporation, who has written extensively on the situation in Iran. He just came out with a monograph on the secession situation in Iran and is also currently working on a broader piece regarding a broader comprehensive policy on Iran together with other people at RAND.
We are also very delighted to have with us, here right next to me, Sarah Whitson from Human Rights Watch, who of course is one of the leading organizations working on this issue and has been a force for human rights in the Middle East as a whole, but particularly on Iran, particularly at this very, very sensitive time.
So without any further ado, let me get straight to the situation and have a conversation with you about the situation on human rights. I would like to first ask what exactly is being done by the international community to address the human rights situation in Iran, what is happening at the Human Rights Council, and what are the different steps that the United States can take to be supportive of this.
I'll start with you, Sarah.
MS. WHITSON: Sure. I think the main impetus right now is at the Human Rights Council, which is really the proper place for action to be taken on urgent human rights crises and situations, and that is the proposal to have a special rapporteur on Iran appointed and the Swedish proposed resolution that you just mentioned.
I think that both because of the deteriorating situation, the ongoing deteriorating situation, in Iran as well as a sense that this is a different moment in the Middle East, the chances of such a special rapporteur for Iran being appointed is much better now, today, this year than it was last year because I think that there's a greater willingness on the part of the international community to treat very seriously what is not new in Iran but we are seeing spreading in a much broader way. I think that role of special rapporteur would be very important to document and to keep a focus on what's happening in Iran and to force the Human Rights Council to deal with that situation.
I think that the break of the Coalition of Arab States represents a big opportunity in that regard, the fact that we can no longer expect that Egypt and Tunisia will naturally stand against efforts to shine a light on abuses in the Middle East, particularly Iranian ones, is a very important development in that regard. And I think that, similarly, the action of the African states on Libya creates an important precedent to remind them of how they must also act on Iran.
Finally, I think the focus, in terms of important actors in the international community ‑‑ and I'm not addressing all of your questions because I don't want to hog up the microphone ‑‑ is to focus specifically on Brazil, South Africa, and their role, their special relationship with Iran, to put increasing pressure on them to act consistently with their stated values in support of human rights. I think they can play a much, much more important role both at the Human Rights Council but also in terms of their own statements and their own interventions on Iran so that Iran recognizes that it is an outlier and it has few friends to count on, given its conduct.
DR. HASHEMI: Trita, I just wanted to add that one of the things that the international community can do and should do with respect to the situation of human rights in Iran is to really shine a global spotlight on those human rights violations. Up until now, the spotlight on Iran has not been on human rights; it's been on nuclear weapons. The Iranian regime loves to talk about nuclear weapons. It loves to talk about Israel. It loves to talk about Ahmadinejad's views on the Holocaust. What it does not want to talk about is the state of human rights in its country. So by shining the global spotlight and shifting the conversation in that direction, I think it advances the cause for human rights, it makes the Iranian regime very comfortable.
Just picking up on the point that Sarah mentioned, now that the politics of the Middle East has shifted in many ways toward the direction of democracy and human rights, this has put the issue of human rights and democracy on the agenda. And so the statements by the Iranian regime, by the leaders of the Iranian regime, can now be used, I think, to advance the cause of human rights. Just yesterday, Iran's Foreign Minister Salehi said that the Bahraini authorities should avoid using violence and force against the population, adding that Iran expects the Bahraini government to be wise in responding to the demands of the protesters and respecting their rights. So if the rights of the Bahraini people should be respected, why not the rights of the Iranian people?
DR. PARSI: What exactly would the human rights monitor do, what are the mechanisms that it puts in place that enables the spotlight to be on Iran, that enables other types of avenues to open up to not only shame but also really see significant progress on the human rights? What are the mechanisms that this entails?
MS. WHITSON: Well, it's really open ended, but the mandated responsibility would be to document violations, abuses of rights in Iran, obviously to ask for a visit to Iran, which I'm sure the government will decline, and then to present a report to the Human Rights Council that would have to be reviewed at a special session since it's a special rapporteur.
The special rapporteur can then make several recommendations as other rapporteurs have or as other special sessions of the Human Rights Council have, that, you know, can equal or at least come close to what international action has been taken on Libya. They cannot recommend that the Security Council or that the Human Rights Council appoint a commission of inquiry, which the Human Rights Council is authorized to do. They can urge the Security Council to refer Iran to the International Criminal Court for prosecution, as they have with Libya. They can make several recommendations, which of course it will then depend on the international community to effectuate.
But two easy things that don't need to wait for the special rapporteur's report and the mechanisms and wheels of the UN turning are for other nations to adopt the same kind of asset freeze and targeted sanctions against leading Iranian government officials who are directly culpable in human rights abuses, to make it increasingly uncomfortable for leading Iranian
government officials to live life as they used to in the ordinary course, and to travel to Europe and to travel to other parts of the world without sanction or penalty. I think that they have to understand that there's a direct consequence to them.
And one very important message that's not just relevant, I think, for Iran but for, in this particular moment in time, for government officials in the Middle East but probably in Uzbekistan and a lot of other places, who are thinking about what's at stake for them, is to make them understand that they, too, will face jail and prosecution, that there is that risk for them, and that they need to really think hard, is it worth it? Is it worth following these orders that are being given to me if there is a risk of real international censure? And that is really the power of an ICC‑type referral or a commission of inquiry.
DR. PARSI: Alireza, you've been writing a lot about the pro‑democracy movement. How do you think their perspective would be on this? It seems like this is one of the things that they have put on their wish list from the West.
MR. NADER: I think Nader made a very important point that focus, the U.S. focus and the international focus, has been on the nuclear program. Specifically, sanctions have been seen as a way to pressure the Iranian regime, to split the Iranian regime from the population, and there's evidence to suggest that sanctions actually can be counterproductive in achieving U.S. goals vis‑à‑vis the nuclear program. There is broad support within Iran on the nuclear program for the civilian aspect. And there's circumstantial evidence to suggest that the population or a significant section would even support weaponization perhaps.
We have to see why Iranians feel this way. It's a very nationalistic country. The poor state of relations between the U.S. and Iran basically constrains our ability to use sanctions and other coercive measures to affect the population. I think there's a realization in the United States that the nuclear program, in a lot of ways, is continuing -- is facing obstacles, but we're not managing to stop it. So if we focus on human rights, I think this is an issue that Iranians can relate to. They can see that the United States and its allies are not just concerned about the nuclear program, which has broad support, again, in Iran, but that they care about average, ordinary Iranians despite sanctions hurting the Iranian population.
This is something that the Green Movement has also emphasized, individual human rights within Iran. And I think the Iranian government is very vulnerable to this sort of pressure because it can deflect some of the nuclear pressure. Even within the international community, a lot of the nonaligned movement countries might relate to Iran's nuclear drive. But I think human rights is an entirely different issue, especially with what's going on in the world today.
DR. PARSI: Sometimes when ‑‑ you wanted to say something?
DR. HASHEMI: Yes, I just wanted to add to that that one of the really constructive things that the international community can do to promote human rights is to go beyond simply talking about human rights in Iran in sort of a -- general, abstract fashion and to have prominent voices in the international community, the UN Secretary General, President Barack Obama, leading heads of state of European countries, to start naming names, to start familiarizing and introducing the names of heroic human rights defenders to the international community. So it's important one that names such as Emadeddin Baghi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Mansour Osanloo, Majid Tavakoli, Abdullah Momeni, that these names, these heroic sort of human rights defenders, who are in Iran, who are all sort of brought before a sort of a very kangaroo court and subjected to sort of a fake and fraudulent trial and now are languishing in prison, that the names of these individuals become household names in the same way that during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, names such as Stephen Biko, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, became household names in terms of global public opinion.
If, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama were to mention the name, you know, Emadeddin Baghi, that puts his name in the global spotlight, and it makes it much more difficult for the Iranian regime to ignore the plight of those political prisoners. When an Iranian representative comes abroad and is being interviewed, let's say, on CNN, it's important that the media and the reporters familiarize themselves with the case profiles of these individuals and ask specific and pointed questions. Why is, for example, the famous film maker Jafar Panahi, why is he in jail and why has he banned from making films? Why is someone like the prominent student leader Abdullah Momeni, why is he is in jail? On what charge? What has he ‑‑ and sort of, just to use a basketball analogy, to engage in a full‑court press, to press this question and to shame the Iranian regime with respect to their internal human rights record.
MS. WHITSON: Just to intervene, one, on a note of caution because there's a danger, I think, of being seen, particularly the U.S. being seen, to instrumentalize Iran's human rights record because it's not otherwise working to talk about the nuclear issue, and this is a backdoor way of isolating Iran. I think that would be dangerous, and it would, I think, actually fail. To that end, it is incredibly important for the U.S. to be consistent in its voice and to treat all of the actors in the Middle East the same with respect to their human rights abuses, with respect to their violations of international humanitarian law.
To that end, the U.S. actions on Egypt and Libya and Tunisia have been very, very important. But at the same time, it will be very hard for the U.S. to take a leadership position when it continues to, for example, veto a resolution at the Security Council recognizing and reiterating the illegality of settlements. That is something that can very easily be used by the Iranian government to dismiss all of the U.S.'s stated concerns about human rights in Iran if there's evidence of double standards. And sadly, that veto is a very, very important persistent example of double standards with that one actor that Ahmadinejad loves to talk about.
The second, I guess, is just for that reason, and for the reason that we can't expect a perfect consistency yet, unfortunately, in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, is that there need to be other voices and other actors, as Nader was just mentioning. To that end, we should push, as I mentioned, again, Brazil and South Africa, who are not doing their share, who are not speaking out on Iran's record and they have an incredibly important role to play, but also now looking for other Muslim states who can talk about the abuses of other Muslims.
I think, again, it's a lot to dump on Egypt and Tunisia at this moment in time, but they have said that their foreign policy is going to change and they have said that they are going to play a more constructive role at the UN, at the Human Rights Council. They can and should be leaders now on this issue in their region in particular.
DR. PARSI: We've been mentioning the nuclear issue, and oftentimes in Washington where there's a conversation about this ‑‑ and I think it was a little bit hinted to here as well ‑‑ there is a sentiment that the human rights issue and the nuclear issue are at competition with each other for attention and priority. At the same time, in the past the United States has been quite capable of being able to address a significant security issue while at the same time not neglecting, or at a minimum bringing attention to the human rights issue as well. And we saw that during the Cold War.
Alireza, I know you're working on a manuscript that is talking about this. Is there readiness for this? Are we of a different generation, an MTV generation, we can only focus on one thing at a time? Why is has it been so difficult, and what can be done to make sure that these two issues are not viewed to be in competition with each other?
MR. NADER: I don't think it's that the two issues are in competition with each other. Just the fact that the focus has been on the nuclear program, the potential danger that a nuclear‑armed regime can pose to U.S. interests in the region and the interests of our allies. So I think that takes attention away from other strategies regarding Iran.
When the Obama administration tried to tackle the Iranian nuclear issue, there was an understanding that perhaps through engagement and other course of measures, like sanctions, we could reach a solution. And there was a tendency to de-emphasize internal issues in Iran because then the Iranian government could claim that was interference in Iran's affairs. We're trying to sit down with the Iranian government at the same table and treat it, to a certain extent, as, not an equal partner, but you know, a peer, somebody we could talk to. So I think interfering in Iran's internal affairs was seen as basically weakening that strategy.
If you remember after the 2009 presidential election in Iran, there was a lot of hesitancy in the United States to directly criticize Iranian government actions. I think that has changed to a certain extent because, again, our strategy with Iran, in a lot of ways, is not going anywhere due to the Iranian government for the most part, I think. There are issues on this side as well. But also what's going on in the Middle East, we've seen popular uprisings overthrow the Tunisian and Egyptian governments; other governments are in trouble.
So I think the will and needs of the population in any country matter a lot. It's not just us dealing with the regime specifically and ignoring the population. And I think now there's a hope that a similar movement can take place. I'm not necessarily talking about regime change but that the Iranian people, because of their dissatisfaction with the system, can effect change in a way that's amenable to U.S. interests.
DR. HASHEMI: I would just add that this relationship between Iran's nuclear program and its human rights record, I think the linkages between the two are much more intertwined if viewed in its proper perspective. I think to sort of view them separately misreads how we can resolve both of these questions. So I'm of the view that current international policy, U.S. policy, with respect to Iran on its nuclear program has not made and will not make any significant headway in terms of getting Iran to shift course.
The only way of, I think, advancing Iranian regime behavior on the nuclear question and getting it to change is to really highlight and press the human rights/democracy issue. That's where the regime is really vulnerable. You know, if that were to become the focus of international policy, where the focus and the spotlight is highlighting not only human rights abuses but also the democratic sort of abuses that are taking place. Iran likes to claim that they have free and fair elections, that they have a free press. We all know that's fraudulent, but by focusing and by advancing and by calibrating, I think, international policy where the question of democracy is front and center.
Now I think it's much easier to do that because of events in North Africa. Now democracy is on the agenda across the region, and if U.S. foreign policy were to, I think, realize that this represents a significant qualitative shift in the politics of the region, I think they could also utilize this new reality as a way of, I think, advancing its policy toward Iran, which will also have consequences for those aspects of the Iranian government, specifically on the nuclear question that is so troubling to the international community. What policy specifically should be adopted, you know, there's room for debate here. But I think, you know, in a broad measure, just focusing and highlighting the abuses of the regime with respect to human rights, its democratic, really fraudulent, elections that take place and by just making that sort of the anchor of international policy, I think, is one way of solving both issues.
DR. PARSI: A lot of the conversation here has been what can be done through international mechanism, multilateral human rights council. There are some critics who view a lot of these different entities as not being efficient, perhaps having other types of problems. Certain countries have been elected to them. What would the alternative be? And also what is the perspective of the pro‑democracy and the human rights defenders inside of Iran on these specific issues?
MR. NADER: One alternative is, to a certain extent, I think Iran can be dismissive of international forums and say, well, this is the West construct; the West controls the international system. But I think if you target Iran's key partners in terms of human rights, and we're talking about countries like China, Russia, India; countries that Iran does trade with; countries that invest in Iran; countries that haven't necessarily adhered to sanctions or enforced sanctions, I think that is a possible avenue.
A lot of these countries themselves are vulnerable to human rights, as we saw in China in the past few weeks. They've been worried about their own population rising against the government because some segments of the population have been inspired by the Arab uprisings. And the Iranian government tends to be dismissive of human rights pressures, but they have a relatively influential figure, Mohammad Larijani, responsible for human rights in Iran. And I think it seems like his major job is to basically defend the regime time after time after time. So there is this vulnerability because the Islamic Republic, though it is a militarized and autocratic system of government, is still vulnerable to human rights.
The smear of being a human rights violator, I think, will have an effect not just on Iran but its relations with some of these other major countries.
DR. PARSI: But precisely because of the fact that many of the countries that are in the Security Council, that are in the Human Rights Council, are themselves violators, would the United States be more effective working more alone on these issues, or does it have to go through the international system? And, again, what are the perspectives of the human rights defenders in Iran on this issue? How do they view it?
DR. HASHEMI: Let me speak to the second question in terms of what human rights activists within Iran want from the international community from the United States, in terms of advancing the agenda of human rights. Iran's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi has written and consistently said if the international community can get together at the UN Security Council and sanction Iran over its nuclear program, why can't it do the same thing when it comes to human rights? That's point number one.
But let me just tell a story here from one of the leading sort of prominent defenders of human rights, a heroic figure in the struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran, a man by the name of Akbar Ganji. Akbar Ganji is one of Iran's leading dissidents. He was in jail for six years, you know, a recipient of dozens of human rights awards. And he currently is in the United States. When he came to the United States in 2006 I invited him to speak at Northwestern University, where I was teaching at the time, and I was translating for him when reporters were asking him this precise question, what can the United States do to support the struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran. And he responded, absolutely nothing; this is an internal struggle; this is an internal sort of issue; Iranians have to figure it out for themselves.
But then he was sort of pressed on the issue. Surely, there's some concrete measure that the United States can adopt in terms of its foreign policy toward Iran, toward the region, that can advance the cause of human rights. And Akbar Ganji stopped for a moment, he paused, he thought, and then he said, you know what, there is something concrete that the United States can do that would be a huge boon of support for human rights defenders and pro‑democracy activists within Iran, and that is help resolve the Israel‑Palestine conflict because the Israel‑Palestine conflict, according to Akbar Ganji, fuels Islamic fundamentalism in the region, gives an excuse to authoritarian regimes in the region, such as Iran, to shift the public discussion away from their own internal bankrupt and corrupt rule, and focusing on the plight of the Palestinians.
And so his point was ‑‑ again, this is not coming from me, this is coming from one of the leading human rights defenders in Iran, saying that there is a linkage between regional developments, such as the Israel‑Palestine conflict, and the persistence of authoritarianism in the region. So he was saying that if the United States and the international community, by extension, were to advance that issue, one of the ripple effects, the positive ripple effects would that -- it would strengthen the struggle for democracy and human rights within Iran.
DR. PARSI: But to challenge you a little bit on that, some of those groups that have worked very, very hard on getting a monitor, and I think the Democracy Coalition project really needs to get a lot of credit for the work that they've done, also point out, though, that it's not until the United States is willing to put its weight behind it, even if it's not the lead sponsor, that anything will happen in the Council. So it sounds to me that the U.S. nevertheless have other options to do, to pursue, that just sitting back and resolving other issues is not sufficient.
MS. WHITSON: Yes, but the way you posed the question was, you know, the UN/international community, on the one hand, versus the U.S. acting, on the other hand. I think the U.S. leading alone on this won't work because of the political dimensions to the political conflict with Iran. But what will work is the U.S. getting behind or taking a leadership role certainly of an international effort at the Human Rights Council and potentially at the Security Council. For all its ills, for all its slowness, it's the institution that's there now, that's able to act now, and that's able to have legitimacy and credibility outside the United States, not just inside the United States.
I think it does matter to Iran, its standing at these international bodies. It very much wanted to get a seat at the Human Rights Council, and I think that international human rights organizations as well as Iranian human rights activists successfully led a campaign to make sure that didn't happen. Nevertheless, it has a seat on the UN Women's Rights Council ‑‑ I think that's the name of the new body established ‑‑ which is shameful and scandalous, and unfortunately, you can't be removed from it like Libya was just removed from the Human Rights Council. But these things do matter to them.
In terms of Iranian activists, the reason Shirin Ebadi has spent so much time in Geneva is because that's also where she's looking for action. In order to be persuasive in terms of affecting what's happening in Iran, it has to be international and it has to have global credibility.
MR. NADER: Instead of answering your question, I want to pose several other questions. I think that's just easier to do. I think anything the U.S. does is going to be criticized. Whether it speaks on human rights, it's going to be criticized by those within Iran, including human rights activists in the Green Movement. If it doesn't speak on human rights, it's going to be criticized by people in Iran and the United States. If it pressures Iran on the nuclear program through sanctions, the United States is going to be criticized. If it doesn't as much, it's going to he criticized by allies. So I think you're asking a very difficult question.
If the U.S. takes the lead, and, again, it looks like it is interfering in Iranian affairs, then Iranian government can claim, well, the United States criticizes us for human rights, yet look at what's going on in Bahrain. And this is going to happen pretty soon, that Iran is going to criticize the United States or claim that the United States is trying to suppress the Bahraini protest movement. So I don't think there's an easy answer. We also have to recognize that although emphasizing human rights is important, it has to be taken -- that action has to be taken in tandem with other U.S. policies, whether coercive or through engagement.
DR. PARSI: You mentioned engagement. I want to give you quote from President Obama, from his acceptance speech in Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize. He says, ‘Let me also say this. The promotion of human rights cannot be about extortion alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks a satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach, condemnation without discussion, can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has a choice of an open door.’
Now in the case of Iran, so far engagement has not been particularly fruitful for the U.S. But is engagement a threat to advancement of human rights in Iran? Is it helpful or is it perhaps even necessary, as it seems like Obama was indicating?
DR. HASHEMI: I'd like to hear what Sarah has to say on this.
MS. WHITSON: Well, I certainly don't think that engagement in itself is wrong or bad. I think engagement is good if the message is consistent. There is, absolutely, a value of sitting across the table and exchanging views and explaining why human rights is a priority and why Iran's record is a problem, and that has to be part of engagement. That has always been our message. And when we urge Japan, which actually has, believe it or not, a human rights dialogue with Iran, in its sessions to actually raise specific issues, specific cases, that's an important part of engagement that can have an impact. When Brazil, which has had engagement with Iran on specific human rights cases, has that engagement, I think it makes a difference and it's important.
But you can't have engagement if engagement is just a substitute for brushing things under the carpet. That's not real engagement in any way.
DR. PARSI: Or if the human rights issues are not even raised.
MS. WHITSON: Exactly, not on the table, which is, I think, what was the product of the failed efforts at a multiparty dialogue with Iran on nuclear weapons, oh, about six or seven years ago.
MR. NADER: I don't think engagement is a threat to a policy of promoting human rights. Engagement is not a magic solution because I don't think the Iranian government is very interested in achieving results or achieving a compromise through engagement. I think engagement poses a threat to the Islamic regime in Iran more than anything. But I think it's important to have a means of communicating not just with the Iranian government but possibly the Iranian population.
This is a country that is going to matter to the U.S. whether the nuclear program exists or not, so we have to look beyond a nuclear Iran and see how the U.S. can maintain some sort of productive relationship with the Iranian government and the Iranian people. I think that's why engagement is important in that regard, as is emphasizing human rights and, to a certain extent, sanctions. I think sanctions can be counterproductive, but if you highlight the abuses of the Iranian government, if you name individual Revolutionary Guards, commanders, if you shame specific figures, also that has an effect.
DR. HASHEMI: On the question of engagement, I think it really depends on who is the party that's doing the engaging. I think it's much more effective if it comes from the United Nations. If the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or a special rapporteur from the UN is the person who is engaging the Iranian government, it's much more difficult for the Iranian government to dismiss that person as being a proxy or a puppet of some foreign power.
But generally speaking, I think, you know, if the international community, and the United States in particular, raises the question of human rights with the Iranian government and actually, again, sort of identifies names ‑‑ it says, these are the individuals that we are concerned about, that has, I think, a ‑‑ Sarah and I were talking about this last night, and I think we perhaps slightly disagree.
But I think naming names helps the human rights, political prisoners who are human rights champions and are in -- and so it has a direct consequence. There are positive consequences for the lives of those people who are in jail at the moment. So in that sense, I think engagement raising the question of human rights matters. But I think it's most effective if it comes from perceived impartial parties, such as people who are affiliated with the United Nations.
DR. PARSI: Sarah, why do you disagree?
MS. WHITSON: I don't disagree. I didn't characterize it as an individual. I guess we were debating to what extent Iran actually cares, and I think -- when individual cases are raised. And I think Haleh Esfandiari's case is a perfect example of why focus on a particular individual does matter in Iran and does get the person released more quickly than they would otherwise be, or treated better than they would otherwise be.
I know that Omid Memarian, who was imprisoned briefly in Iran, said specifically that when his jailers told him that his case was being discussed internationally, when Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, et cetera, were naming his name, it made a difference to how he was treated. People knew they couldn't just do whatever they wanted.
What I think it doesn't affect is the overall system or pattern of abuses. There were 6,000 arrests after the elections. We can't have a list of 6,000 names, unfortunately, that's going to affect that. It's not going to affect the ongoing restrictions on speech and assembly. It's not going to affect the ongoing attacks on demonstrators. It's not going to affect the ongoing attacks on religious communities, whether Sunni or Sufi or Baha'i. So that is where we differed.
DR. PARSI: So how are those best addressed then?
MS. WHITSON: Well, they have to be addressed as systemic issues. They have to be highlighted by a special rapporteur who systematically documents and shows a pervasive pattern, that this is not against particular individuals ‑‑ it is, sometimes ‑‑ but that it is a war on Iranian society. That's basically what the government has been doing. This is a mass campaign to silence anybody and everybody, no matter how non‑political their issues might be.
Whether they're members of teachers unions, whether they're members of bus drivers unions, people are being arrested and detained and threatened and intimidated and harassed and silenced to a degree that I don't think Iran has seen for a very long time. And the dimension of it, the extent of it, the breadth of the government's attack on its own people, is really astonishing. And it compares to what we've all been horrified by what's happened in Libya, and we've all been horrified by what the Egyptian government tried to do in Egypt, but also the abuses that finally were focused on in Egypt with respect to torture, with respect to laws that restrict speech and assembly and association. Those are also the realities in Iran, and the government is actively enforcing them in a very, very vigorous way.
DR. HASHEMI: I just wanted to add, you know, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the political prisoners that are in Iran is that they overwhelmingly come from a section of society that deals with the question of the transference and the dissemination of information; in other words, journalists, intellectuals, people who are engaged in ideas, and also human rights activists.
I haven't done a comparative study, but if you look at the number of people that are in Iranian jails, overwhelmingly, the regime is very sensitive and paranoid over those people who are independent‑minded intellectuals, who are human rights activists, and who are journalists. That speaks to the internal crisis of legitimacy that the regime has. I mean, for all of the weaknesses of the reform movement and the Green Movement, one area where it's very strong is, in my view, the Green Movement has effectively won the battle of ideas in Iran.
The Iranian regime cannot sustain a public and open debate over its internal human rights record, over the record of the Iranian regime over the last three years. It is fearful of a public free exchange of ideas, hence the high level of censorship, the jamming of satellite technology, because it knows it can't win that debate. At the time of the reform movement, it was clear that reformist newspapers would sell out, you know, in the first few hours of the morning while the official regime newspapers would not sell. Because people would consume those, those are the ones that were courageous, were daring.
The fact that Iran has high levels or high numbers of intellectuals and journalists that are in jail speaks to this internal crisis of legitimacy that revolves around the question of ideas and the dissemination of information -- the regime is weak, it's paranoid, and it's trying to suffocate society, and I think that is deeply insightful in terms of the internal crisis of legitimacy the regime is facing.
DR. PARSI: Going back to the issue of engagement, I think, and particularly when you put it in the context of what's been happening in Egypt and in Tunisia and what is going on right now in Libya, there are several different theories, conclusions, observations that can be made. One of them is to see that in a society like Iran that has been very closed off, has been under sanctions, that is not well integrated into the international economic structures, et cetera. In many ways, it was easier for the government to clamp down on protesters, it was easier to close down the Internet. Whereas, in a society as Egypt's, which is far more integrated, it's a tourist economy ‑‑ if you close down the Internet, you close down the entire country. It didn't have the same options available to itself. And then you also have the Libya case, which is obviously extremely isolated, and look what they're doing.
But it brings forward some of the fears that I think exist about how any engagement would take place. You have the case in Iran, in which there's been very limited engagement. You have the case in Egypt in which there was engagement but the United States, for quite some time, was very happy with the Mubarak regime. And then you had the case of Libya, in which the engagement was solely on the nuclear issue, which then deprived the United States ‑‑
MS. WHITSON: You mean Iran?
DR. PARSI: On Libya. No, on Libya. With the engagement that did take place with Libya, it was only on the nuclear issue. It managed to dismantle the nuclear program, but it did absolutely nothing to address any of those other issues. And then we have the result of that.
How can any future effort, which I assume is going to be inevitable at some point because it doesn't seem like many of these problems can be resolved without some dialog ‑‑ how can one ensure that that dialog does not end up falling into any one of these extremes?
MR. NADER: I think it's very difficult to ensure that because, quite honestly, US security interests dictate that we talk to the Iranian government, and we have to talk to the Iranian government that rules Iran today. And that's Ayatollah Khamenei, it's Ahmadinejad, it's the Revolutionary Guards. We can say that the Green Movement has won the war of ideas in Iran; that may be true to a certain extent. But they're not making decisions, and Mousavi and Karroubi are not making decisions on the nuclear program, and the only people we can talk to are official Iranian government representatives.
An important thing to keep in mind is that we still have to maintain outreach to the Iranian population as much as we can, but I think even that's very challenging given what the Iranian government is doing in trying to repress the flow of information to Iran and cut exchanges between the two countries. So quite realistically, this is a government we have to deal with for now, until things change in Iran.
DR. PARSI: But if we deal with it only on the nuclear issue, we can end up in the Libya situation.
DR. HASHEMI: Right, yes. The answer to that is that you can't leave it in the hands of politicians to ensure that the question of human rights gets addressed. If you leave it in the hands of politicians, you're going to get a Libya scenario.
DR. PARSI: As a reminder, we are in the US Congress.
DR. HASHEMI: Right, well, I realize that. There's politicians, and then there's politicians. I'm talking about the good politicians and the bad politicians ‑‑ there's a clear distinction there.
But I think the point here is, you know, it's a role of global civil society. It's a world of organizations such as Human Rights Watch, of organized citizens who care about this issue, to put it on the agenda of their national governments to make sure that the discussion is not simply over the question of nuclear weapons, that also the question of human rights and democracy gets addressed as well.
MS. WHITSON: I mean, I was just going to say, we ensure it by this events like this that NIAC has organized, which is to reach out to policymakers and tell them what we think will work, what we think is a better strategy, to recalibrate perceived security interests and how those in fact turn out to be very, very bad security risks very quickly.
DR. PARSI: We're going to open it up to the floor and give priority to members of the staff and the media for any questions that they may have to the panelists.
Dokhi. If you could wait one second for the mic to reach you and reintroduce yourself.
MS. FASSIHIAN: I just wanted to thank the panel. It was a very interesting discussion. I'm Dokhi Fassihian with the Democracy Coalition Project.
I guess my first question ‑‑ or maybe more as a comment ‑‑ it's related to what a lot of people discussed on the panel about the linkage between the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict and Iranian human rights issue, and the difficulty of addressing the latter with the current circumstances of the former.
I feel like the international community has really fallen into a trap that the Iranian government has set up, in the sense that Iranian activists themselves are saying that we can't really have any progress on this unless that issue is addressed. My feeling on this is that I think we need to get past that. I mean, definitely, all the different issues in the world need to be addressed. There are many, many human rights situations that need to be addressed. But if we can't reframe this issue in a way that we're addressing the Iranian human rights issue, then I think we're the ones that are failing the victims in Iran.
And I think the Iranian public has made it very clear, sometimes in their slogans and their chanting on the streets, that we care about our issue, not about what's happening in Lebanon, not what's happening in Israel and Palestine. I think it's our failure, really, to be able to take that on and to address it and to reframe the issue. So that's just a comment I wanted to make.
I have a question about the bilateral dialogue that's taking place between countries like Japan and Iran. I wonder ‑‑ I mean, this dialogue, it's great that it's happening, but it's private, and I wonder, how do we get countries like Japan and other countries that are concerned about the Iranian situation, like South Africa and India, to really start making this a public dialog? Because I think that's going to be key.
MS. WHITSON: I don't think we would succeed in getting Japan to have a public dialogue on human rights in Iran or to change its private dialog to into a public dialog because then the dialog would end. I think that's how the Japan would see it. But certainly, with respect to Japan and India and South Africa and Brazil, they can and should be lobbied. They have parliaments. They have governments. They have civil societies that are sensitive to their own reputations. I think the recent stoning case, the woman who was going to be executed, played hugely in Brazil and was something of very big discussion in Brazilian papers.
We have to reach out to those governments to pressure them, just like we reach out to the US government and to EU governments, to pressure them to talk about human rights issues in a public way. I think that's different from a private human rights dialog that we want to encourage to continue because it's better than no dialog at all. But they need to be addressed directly.
DR. HASHEMI: Yes, on the question of the linkage between the Israel‑Palestine conflict and the struggle for democracy in Iran, I was simply conveying the view of one prominent human rights activist within Iran saying that if this issue of Israel and Palestine could be resolved it would be a huge boon of support for the internal struggle for democracy in Iran because it takes away a key propaganda mechanism of the Iranian regime that wants to constantly exploit and externalize its problems by focusing attention on external aggressors and regional aggressors; in this case, Israel and the plight of the Palestinians.
Yes, you're right in terms of Iranian protesters saying that they're upset with the focus on the Israel‑Palestine conflict; they want the focus to be Iran. But nonetheless, the perspective of prominent human rights activists such as Akbar Ganji and others feel that that issue, the Israeli‑Palestine conflict does bolster and does fuel Islamic fundamentalism in the region, and if it can be resolved, it advances the cause of democracy in Iran. I tend to agree with him, and I think that's where I see the linkage taking place.
MR. NADER: I would caution against creating these linkages. I don't think the Israeli‑Palestinian issue ‑‑ respectfully ‑‑ has anything to do with the human rights situation in Iran. I would argue that most Iranians, although they may sympathize with our coreligionists in Palestine, don't see that issue as affecting their lives very directly, that they care about issues of housing and employment and human rights abuses and torture and jailing.
And so, I think we need to treat human rights issues in Iran as very distinct issue because Iran is a big country. It has 70 million people, and to a large extent, what happens in Iran doesn't necessarily flow from what's going on in the region. I mean, you might have uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, et cetera, but what's going on Iran is unique to Iran.
MS. WHITSON: Sorry. Let me interject here on behalf of Nader because I think that he's making a different point, and I would tend to agree with it.
This is not about human rights abuses in Iran having anything to do with the Israel‑Palestine conflict. I think we all agree ‑‑ I think, Nader ‑‑ that they have nothing to do with the human rights abuses in Iran. What they have to do with is giving Ahmadinejad a propaganda tool to talk about the Israel‑Palestine conflict and present himself as a champion of the Israel‑Palestine conflict across the Middle East, across the Muslim world, so that in opinion polls he ranks up there with other professed champions of the Palestinian cause and gains legitimacy and gains distraction and gains support. That's all this is about. Take that away from him. It's not that one has to happen in order for human rights abuses to be addressed in Iran; they won't be. But, take that propaganda tool away from him, is what a lot of people are saying.
MR. NADER: We can't just take that propaganda away. I mean, he's going to have propaganda tools no matter what we do. It's not, it's not something that's within the US reach to take away. I mean, there's so much going on in the region. Again, I would say that would be very counterproductive to link that issue with what's going on in Iran. This is something the Iranian government has taken advantage of, I agree, but it's not something that needs to be solved before you can tackle the issues in Iran.
DR. HASHEMI: I don't think that's the point that Sarah's making, and it's certainly not the point that I'm making. I think the point simply is that if that issue were to be solved, it would help advance the cause of human rights and democracy in Iran. Again, this is coming from leading human rights activists from within the country. That's what they're saying; it's not necessarily what I'm saying.
I think one of the lessons just from events over the last two months is that there is a regional ripple effect. What happens in North Africa and Egypt does affect the politics of the region. The Green Movement was revived as result of these uprisings, and so there is a regional, sort of connection here in terms of the politics of what happens in neighboring countries and its ripple effect in Iran. So that's where I see the linkages taking place.
I mean, there's a lot more to say on this, but I don't think we're talking, I don't think we really disagree. I think we're just sort of talking at cross‑purposes here.
MR. GARVEY: Good morning. Thanks, Trita. Patrick Garvey with the Senate Foreign Relations Staff.
To put a finer point on the previous question you asked on engagement, obviously, the Committee, over the past couple years we've had the very distinct question of whether to send an ambassador to these places; Libya, Syria. Iran maybe next. Do we or don't we? Where do you guys come down on that? Obviously, in Libya, we said, okay, it'll be easier, or, the administration made the case that it's important to send an ambassador. They've come clean on WMD. We'll engage them on human rights when we got there. It's easier to do it from inside the country, to be a truth-sayer from inside, than it is from the outside. So, I'd like to hear quickly from each of you how you come down on that question.
MR. NADER: I think it's important to have diplomatic representation in any country. With Iran, I think not having a representative there doesn't really serve US interests, and I don't think the Iranian government wants any sort of interest section or embassy in Tehran, because it doesn't meet its interests. But if we did have diplomatic representation, that helps us reach out to the population, be informed or more informed of what's going on in Iran.
Arguably, lacking a diplomat in Damascus has impeded our ability to communicate with the Syrian government. In any given country, having diplomatic relations doesn't mean you accept the regime or the system of government. It means that you have a way of representing your interests. So this is something that the Iranian government doesn't want. And the fact that it doesn't want any sort of diplomatic tie means having it is a good thing.
MS. WHITSON: Yes, I would tend to agree. I think all efforts to raise the issues of concern and to promote, I guess, interests would be important. But for example, the new ambassador in Syria, the US ambassador to Syria whom I recently met with ‑‑ you know, if the propaganda tool of the Syrian government about the importance of resolving regional issues is also going to be the only item on the agenda with respect to Syrian‑US relations, then I'm not convinced that it will be a particularly productive because I think that's just a mechanism for obfuscation by the Syrian government in particular.
So, to ensure that the investor does a real, faithful, and honest job of raising all of the issues that are of importance to the US government, including the internal human rights situation in Syria, then it would definitely be of value.
DR. HASHEMI: I think the question of sending a US ambassador to Iran is that it sort of misses the point in terms of what the obstacle is, in terms of actually having diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran.
I'm of the view that the main obstacle lies with Iran itself because the Iranian government actually benefits from not having diplomatic relations. If you follow what's been happening in Iran, really, since the beginning of the revolution but much worse in the last year and a half, Iran blames all of its problems politically and economically on the foreign policy of the United States, and it benefits from constantly complaining that it's because of US machinations that we have these domestic uprisings, that we have economic problems.
If you were to have a US ambassador there, it makes it much more difficult for the regime to sort of blame the United States for trying to promote internal insurrection because then you would have what you would expect as a normal relationship; if there were problems, you would call the ambassador; you would resolve them. So I think we're a long way away from having a US ambassador in Iran. I would support it largely because I think having a US ambassador in Iran would make it much more difficult for the Iranian regime to then blame all of its problems on the United States, and it would, in that sense, advance the cause of democracy.
MR. NADER: You'd have these Iranians lining up to get visas. That doesn't look good for the regime if there's a huge line snaking out of the embassy.
DR. PARSI: But on that point, I heard a person from the US government also say that on the first day the Iranian government would look very bad if there was a very long line. On the second day, the US may look very bad because very few of them would get visas.
DR. PARSI: That's true.
MS. TALVERDIAN: Lara Talverdian with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. My question is regarding the Mojahedin‑e‑Khalq. There are increasingly louder calls in Washington that the MEK's designation as a foreign terror organization be lifted, arguing that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. On the other hand, reports suggest that their human rights record is not so spotless and that actually they're immensely disliked by the Iranians across the spectrum, not the hardliners in power but also the reformists that have been demonstrating. So if you could speak to the situation and perhaps give us your assessment of possible consequences should the designation be lifted. Thank you.
DR. HASHEMI: I'd like to answer that. Which organization are you with?
MS. TALVERDIAN: Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
DR. HASHEMI: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee - that's what I thought. See, this just highlights the fact, in my view, how the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee is so completely out of touch ‑‑ completely out of touch ‑‑ with domestic Iranian reality. I mean, the Mojahedin‑e‑Khalq are not a serious organization. I mean, even to waste time discussing it reflects the disconnect that exists in the US Congress with the domestic reality in Iraq.
The Mojahedin‑e‑Khalq are viewed universally in Iran as basically an appendage of Saddam Hussein's army. They're a personality cult. They have zero support except for maybe a handful of followers who live abroad. And the fact that the US Council on Foreign Relations is actually giving credence to this group and is seriously discussing, integrating them into US foreign policy as a way of advancing relations to Iran, highlights one of the problems here is the domestic debate in this country with respect to U.S.‑Iran relations.
MR. NADER: My employer, the RAND Corporation, wrote a book ‑‑ I didn't work on it ‑‑ on the Mojahedin‑e‑Khalq. I just recommend that you take a look at it. It describes the movement pretty objectively. I would argue that it's not a very popular movement in Iran. It has very limited support outside of Iran. Its objectives are not very clear, what it wants to do with Iran, if it could take power. It's not a democratic movement by any means. Even former members have described it as undemocratic. So I don't think it would help US interests to remove the MEK from that list. It could actually complicate our policies toward Iran.
MS. WHITSON: I guess Human Rights Watch doesn't take a position on their designation on the terror list, but I guess, just to agree with the commentaries, I think it really would open up the US to ridicule, to have any kind of association with the MEK particularly because of its utter irrelevancy and bizarreness and the fact that a number of former government officials were recently trotting around, giving speeches on their behalf. Earning money from the MEK is farcical and, you know, should be parodied on some Iranian talk show or something pretty soon.
What I would say, though, is we did an investigation on Mojahedin‑e‑Khalq practices in Camp Ashraf in Iran where the Mojahedin‑e‑Khalq was stationed with a fairly sizable militia for many, many years protected by Saddam Hussein's government. And what we documented where extensive practices of torture, mock executions, a few cases of killings against Mojahedin‑e‑Khalq members who wanted to leave the organization, which I think was correctly characterized as cult‑like in its practices of requiring utter submission by their members, separation of children from their parents, and this is of their own membership. So I think it has a real dubious record as possible saviors of the Iranian people.
But just to add to that, we also advocated for the help for Mojahedin‑e‑Khalq members who, once the Saddam government ended, lost their protection and in fact came under threat from the new government in Iran and from Shia militias in particular because of their role in being aides to Saddam's government in carrying out attacks on Iranians. So we urge that they be granted asylum to the extent that they are not themselves complicit in crimes and atrocities.
DR. PARSI: Last question to call on for this panel.
MR. McGUINESS: I'm Colin McGuiness with the Senate Banking Committee. I'm just curious to get the panelists' views on the administration's implementation and enforcement of the human rights sanctions and your recommendations, if any, about additional statutory steps that we ought to be considering going forward on the human rights front.
DR. PARSI: Go ahead.
MS. WHITSON: I couldn't tell you about how well the enforcement's gone. I would actually pose that as a question from your end because I don't have information on how enforcement has gone. I think the fact that there was a target list of travel bans and asset freezes against certain Iranian officials was an excellent move and one that we are urging other governments to adopt because really, in order to be effective, it has to just be nothing more than their US assets and US travel that's restricted. So we want to see that applied much more broadly.
DR. HASHEMI: Yes, I just want to echo that. There is much to criticize in terms of past US policy toward Iran, but I think the recent initiatives, to target and to name those individuals who have blood on their hands, to publicly name them and shame them and try to restrict their financial transactions is a huge step in terms of the struggle for democracy in Iran, and one that I think human rights defenders and pro‑democracy activists in Iran welcome very much, even if they don't say so openly. I know those types of policies are really celebrated and welcomed because they focus the issue on human rights, and they target those individuals who are responsible for human rights violations, and it make it much more difficult for them to continue to perpetuate their activities inside Iran.
So I think it's a welcome move and something that someone like myself who's involved in the struggle for human rights would like to see more of, in terms of US policy toward Iran.
DR. PARSI: Ali? No.
I think we actually have time for one more question before Congressman Ellison comes.
MR. SHAMS: I'm Jason Shams from the Eurasia Foundation. All of what you're saying is very nice, and I think there's a consensus on what must be done with regards to human rights monitors and the stuff you've told us. The problem is that we've been hearing this for the last five or ten years. I could have sat on a similar panel five years ago, and the same would be said of the nuclear program and the things you said.
My question is, what has been holding us back on the matter? I mean, when the first nuclear observers came to Iran, the initial response, my own initial response, was that they're wasting their time. If they want to find instances that the Iranian government is violating its obligations, they should go to prisons where the torture is taking place and all that. Five years later, the same thing is taking place, my idea stays the same, and your opinions on what should be done stay the same.
Is it a lack of willpower, political willpower? Should there be more grassroots activism in the matter to gain the support of governments on the matter? Are there other obstacles that are preventing monitors from traveling to Iran and putting pressure on that front?
MS. WHITSON: I think things are very different. And if you're not aware that things are very different and drastically changed in the Middle East, then you've probably been asleep since January 1. Things are very different right now. It's different in terms of an expanded understanding of what's possible and what's doable. There was a unanimous Security Council vote to refer Libya to the ICC. It happened virtually in 24 hours. This was not possible ‑‑ forget about five years ago ‑‑ this was not possible six months ago.
There are tremendous new opportunities now because there's expanded political will not just in the US government ‑‑ I think the will has always been there with respect to Iran ‑‑ but specifically a will to focus on the human rights issues. There's now a will to address that among other Muslim and Arab countries. There's now a recognition internationally that things must change, that policies that don't focus on human rights are missing an important element of strategy, of planning. And now is the time that forward motion can be had, which might have been lacking years ago. But things are very different now.
MR. NADER: There's no guarantee that anything the US does right now is to solve the problem with Iran regarding the nuclear program and the overall relationship. I think it's important to emphasize human rights, but it's not that no one was doing anything to resolve the situation. It's just that human rights was not as important an issue four or five years ago because you have to look at the best strategies to resolve a problem, whether they're sanctions, military pressure, engagement. At a given time, one may work better than another.
We're at a period right now, as you mentioned, Sarah, that human rights matters, what's going on internally in Middle Eastern countries' matters. But I would just caution, let's not think that this is the magic solution, that this is the silver bullet. The problem with a nuclear program, the crisis with the nuclear program, could go on for a number of years unless the regime in Iran is fundamentally transformed. And this is going to happen due to a number of factors, and not just human rights or sanctions but various factors.
DR. HASHEMI: I would just add that, you know, one problem has been that the conversation both here in the United States and globally has been so colossally, incomprehensibly focused on the nuclear question that the question of human rights has never been central. Thankfully, now it is, partly because of regional transformations in the region, but also partly because there are now domestic pressure groups. The Iranian-American community is now organized, and thankfully, we have groups such as NIAC, which have their finger on the pulse of internal Iranian developments, that also understand US foreign policy, and they're able to present these issues in a sophisticated and important way.
DR. PARSI: If I could follow up on that, we mentioned that the region has changed, and I don't want to bring up the Israel‑Palestine issue again, but if you're looking at it in the sense that, from a regional perspective, there needs to be more consistency, et cetera, in order to deprive the Iranian government from the ability to make up more excuses in order for it to deflect criticism on the human rights issue, how is the US doing, in your assessment, in the region right now?
I mean, we have an interesting situation in which we're discussing a potential no‑fly zone in Libya, and the Saudis just went into Bahrain, but it's apparently not an invasion. How is all of this going to play out? If it's not the Israel‑Palestine issue, I'm sure the Iranian government will find another pretext or another reason not to get serious about the human rights. How is the US doing right now?
DR. HASHEMI: I think the picture is much more cloudy and muddy now because the United States, albeit belatedly, did sign on to and support the democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. I think that has been a positive development that has positive consequences was for US‑Iran relations because now that the United States is no longer backing dictatorial regimes, who the Iranian regime will always point to and say, you want to lecture us about human rights, what about your sustaining of Mubarak for the last 30 years? The fact that the United States is no longer doing that, it's speaking the language of democracy and human rights, of course helps with the question of human rights in Iran.
But of course, there are these other areas like Bahrain in Saudi Arabia that raise questions of United States is going to support democracy and democratic change in Tunisia and Egypt, why not in Saudi Arabia? Why not in Bahrain? And so that gives the Iranian government, again, a propagandist excuse to say, look, you're not being perfectly consistent.
What I'd like to see and what I think needs to happen in terms of US policy is I think the United States really needs at this moment a new grand strategy for its relationship with the Middle East, one that is anchored and centered in the question of democracy and human rights. And if it were to make that change, that shift, I think it would have positive consequences in many areas, but particularly in terms of its relationship with Iran, because then it could speak at least much more consistently with a voice that is anchored in a human rights and democratic position, and it would be much more difficult or the Iranian regime to deflect criticism.
MR. NADER: I think the US has had no choice but to go with the flow of events. Nobody predicted Tunisia or Egypt or what's going on in Libya, Yemen. Not one analyst I talked to a year ago predicted that the Egyptian government will fall, that Mubarak would fall, and these are experts on Egypt who have lived there. Everybody said they're stable. So it has been, I think, tough to predict events and shape policies regarding things that are happening very quickly.
One thing to keep in mind is it's easy to get excited about people power in the Middle East; in a lot of ways, what's happening in the Middle East is great. But I think geopolitical interests often trump some of the events taking place. For example, our interests in Bahrain are different than our interests in Libya. Some have argued we don't have strategic interests in Libya the way we do in some of the other Persian Gulf states. So I think that could present challenges in crafting grand unified strategy because the US has so many different interests in the Middle East. Chief among them is the possibility of the rights of Iranian power because of what's happened in the Middle East.
I think it's too early to tell if this benefits Iran overall. In the short term it could. In the long term I don't think it's good for the Iranian regime. But that's another consideration. Again, there is this rivalry between the United States and Iran for regional power. It will be interesting to see how these events shape that rivalry.
DR. PARSI: Last words to Leah.
MS. WHITSON: I think I would fundamentally question what perceived national interests there are, strategic interests there are, and I would echo Nader's comments that there needs to be a deep, deep rethinking of what US interests or global interests are with particular countries in the region, and broadly more broadly, geopolitical interests in the region.
But specifically to your question, I think the US actions and the international community's actions on Libya has set a very high bar ‑‑ a good bar, I think, a proper bar ‑‑ but it's not going to be sustainable to pick and choose in an arbitrary, inconsistent, hypocritical fashion when to apply those kinds of measures, that kind of very strong, unequivocal support of peaceful nonviolent demonstrators.
Even the head of Bahrain now ‑‑ I think the issue of Yemen is particularly troubling, the conduct of President Saleh, his repeated lies that he's not going to shoot on demonstrators with live ammunition, the continued two‑faced talk about respecting rights of demonstrators while at the same time restricting demonstrations and violently shooting down. And yet the US government is still a funding Army training Yemeni security forces. This is a non‑sustainable contradiction. We are one step removed from Bahrain, but this is not just a US problem.
David Cameron gave a very strong speech saying, okay, our policies of yesterday were inconsistent and that's going to change now. And so now the onus is really on not just talking the talk but walking the walk in a way that's going to be credible across the region and across the world.
DR. PARSI: On those words, thank you so much. Please join me in thanking the panel. We are delighted about the insights and commentary that was provided. We're also delighted to have Congressman Keith Ellison here. He is going to talk to us about these issues as well. Jamal will be doing the introduction.
Thank you so much.
MR. ABDI: Thank you everybody for joining us this morning for this important event where we're asking the question, how can the US and the international community answer the call of the Iranian people for human rights in Iran?
It's my pleasure to introduce our first featured speaker today. Congressman Keith Ellison is among the best‑equipped individuals in Congress to lead on the question and the answer of human rights and how do we support human rights in Iran. Congressman Ellison has dedicated his career to advancing civil rights here at home and, as a member of Congress, has led on this issue of universal rights abroad.
He has spoken with credibility and consistency on this issue. In 2009 Congressman Ellison introduced the Stand with the Iranian People Act. This was just months after the June elections in Iran and the aftermath and the turmoil that we saw. He introduced legislation that would actually impose, for the first time, human rights restrictions on abusers in Iran's government. And we now see that those sanctions have come to fruition. The legislation also would have lifted restrictions that prevented US NGOs working on human rights, working on humanitarian services, from working directly with the Iranian people. It also targeted companies that support repression in Iran by providing surveillance technology and other repressive technology.
Now serving in his third term, Congressman Ellison represents the 5th District of Minnesota. He is now the Co-Chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He continues to be an outspoken advocate for civil rights here at home and human rights abroad. He continues to walk the walk and talk the talk, and we're very pleased to have him today.
Please give a warm welcome for Congressman Keith Ellison.
CONGRESSMAN ELLISON: Thank you, Jamal. I'm pleased to see everybody here. Good morning. Thank you for inviting me. I really enjoy visiting with you here at NIAC, and as often as you've having these conferences, I'll be here if you all invite me. So, thank you all for having me here just another time.
Let me also acknowledge that I really appreciate the opportunity to work with members of NIAC, who were essentially an indispensable resource in my effort to introduce and draft the Stand with the Iranian People Act of 2009. In particular, my friend Trita Parsi, Dr. Parsi, has been an indispensable partner, and I want to thank him in particular for all his work. But he doesn't do it alone, and I want to thank everybody who's with the organization.
It's also a privilege to be here with the Ambassador, Assistant Secretary. I'm glad we could come together for this event, and I commend each of you for your remarks. Also, let me thank everyone who participated on that previous panel. It was an outstanding one, and I think that the thinking that's going on, on the panel, needs to be replicated on multiple fronts. In fact, I think given the changes that we have seen the Middle East over the last several weeks now, this is an extremely opportune time to really try to re-conceive of the United States' relationship to the Middle East and even the rest of the world.
The United States has done a lot of good things in the world. There's no doubt about that. I'm proud of that. We're one of the largest donor nations in the world, and I'm proud of that. But it's also true that our relationship to the Middle East in particular has been somewhat limited to a few factors. Oil, our historic relationship with Israel, and counterterrorism basically have been the three prongs of our relationship with the Middle East.
I submit that we need to broaden the relationship significantly and that human rights needs to be an essential factor in that relationship because it's the right thing to do. Yes, it certainly is the right thing to do. We who pride ourselves and hold our values of due process, of freedom of expression, we hold these values, we, I think, who secure these blessings of liberty, have a duty to stand for them for the whole world, and if we don't, it looks like we don't really mean it. I think it's time to declare that our belief in civil and human rights, for people to declare their own form of government, to have governments that are responsive to the needs of the people, shouldn't just stop at the water's edge. Now, of course, we shouldn't impose these values on anybody, but we certainly shouldn't stand silent while the values that we cherish the most are being denied to people around the globe.
I want to thank you for being here because your very presence and participation in this conference is a sign and a signal that you are for that new relationship, but this new relationship has got to be built by people writing, by people speaking, and by people advocating for a new policy that should be marked by diplomacy, development, and other instruments of how nations interact. But the consistent stream, I think, should be that human rights stream, and I think that's something that we should stream together and make sure our relationship is based on advocating, signaling our support for human rights around the world, and I think that the rubber really hits the road when these things cost us. When we're in a relationship with a government that somehow meets some of our economic and strategic needs, but at the same time they're human rights violators, it's easy to take a blind eye and not look in that direction.
This is one of those times when we need to say, you know what, these things are not the only considerations, and human rights needs to be one of them, because fundamentally human rights do lend to long‑term overall stability in a nation where people can raise their own voices, can speak their own truth without fear of being carted off and being on the business end of a jail cell, or worse. I believe those societies will be more stable over time. Those societies will be the ones where, yes, they sometimes will have policies that will align, sometimes we will disagree, but in the long‑term, we will be in a position where we can always talk and work out the problems that are facing both peoples.
I think this policy of just backing the strong one who's maybe occupying leadership in a given country is a policy, ultimately, that will lead to massive instability. And I think Iran is a case example of this. You know, for so many years, the relationship was not based on mutual interests and mutual respect. You all know the history. And in the 1953, the democratic initiative of Iranian people was undermined and so, for so many years, we followed that policy because it met our own economic and strategic interests. That policy changed radically in 1979, and we've been dealing with the aftermath ever since that time.
So think about, if we had a human rights approach from the early days, think about if that was the way we characterized our relationship. We would be in a very different place. We wouldn't be the very difficult place we're in now, and this is a tough spot that we're in, quite frankly. We have sanctioned Iran so much, we have almost no leverage to play on them. Now we're at the point of sanctioning our economic partners, who then will impose sanctions on them. Not exactly a direct relationship.
And of course, when we see human rights abuses going on Iran, which are tragic, which are horrible, which violate our basic sense of what's right and wrong, which harm the human spirit, yet people keep on emerging no matter what happens, we have almost put ourselves on the sidelines with regard to give influencing Iran because of policies that we've pursued over the last 30 plus years.
And so, I think it is time to say, look, we do believe in human rights, we do mean it, we're willing to put some skin in the game to prove that, and I hope that that is the direction that we go in. And I think we're beginning to head that way. President Obama has done some important things to move the policy in that direction. But of course, given all the complexities, things have been slow but as Americans living in the United States, we can form the basis of a peace constituency that says human rights has got to be the way we interact with the rest of the world.
So, I do urge you, as people who have been leaders in this area, to keep the work up and to write more, to do more, to have more meetings like this one, to break up out of the Beltway, to talk to people all over the United States about how a consistent ethic of human rights not only is the right thing to do but will lead to long‑term stability, which will benefit us in all manner of ways, whether academically, economically, strategically, diplomatically, from a development standpoint. This, I think, has got to be the way we move forward.
None of those are my prepared remarks. That's actually what I was just thinking. So let me go to my prepared remarks now.
When I spoke at last year's NIAC conference, I said that the most important role of Congress vis‑à‑vis Iran is to do no harm. Given the recent direction of Congress, that bears repeating. We're hearing more hard‑line rhetoric, more criticism of diplomacy, and we must not revert to a generally antagonistic approach with Iran, which has produced little progress. President Obama has done a good job painting a broad line between the Iranian people and the Iranian government, and we cannot give the Iranian people the impression that we are categorically anti‑Iranian because we sometimes condemn the actions of their government. Again, we cannot revert to the old ‘Axis of Evil’ mentality of the Bush years. We have to be careful and smart.
Operating by that standard, I authored legislation in 2009 to support the Iranian people and tie the hands of those in the government abuse them. My Stand with the Iranian People Act did three things ‑‑
(1) Applied targeted sanctions to human rights abuses and the government,
(2) Prohibited companies from selling surveillance and censorship equipment to Iran,
(3) Lifted the ban on US NGOs in Iran so they could provide critical services to the Iranian people. Let me tell you, this third prong is no small prong.
I contend that there are NGOs that are formed and organized by Iranian‑Americans trying to help young people who definitely incur some significant burdens as they try to deliver services, whether they be medical attention or whatever they are. This is never easy, nowhere nearly as easy as it could or should be. I think we need to understand the importance of allowing a child to travel from Iran to the United States to get a medical procedure that will change that child's life that we take for granted here in the United States. Not only does that change that child's life but it creates a very, very positive impression about what the American people are all about. So we need to untangle the knots that make it so difficult to do that.
I was happy to see that the "smart" sanctions President Obama signed into law last year contain some of the provisions of the legislation that I introduced, but to call it my legislation really wouldn't be fair. The legislation was basically ‑‑ NIAC was an indispensable resource, as I mentioned already -- it's really our legislation. As we move forward, we must continue to make human rights the centerpiece of our foreign policy with Iran. By aligning ourselves with human rights, we'll highlight the distance between the Iranian people and their government and put pressure for reform.
Let me talk about human rights in Iran, as if you all don't know all about it. If we don't speak up about human rights violations in Iran, our silence will allow the Iranian government to continue beating, jailing, killing, and executing the brave souls fighting for democracy. Our silence would send the following message to the Iranian people: we're only concerned about our own business, not about you. That can never be the message that we send. We have to send a consistent message of concern and a consistent message of support for the democratic impulse. Inaction is action, and it will be read as action, read as silent consent. If we don't rally the international community to focus on human rights violations, the Iranian government will strengthen its grip as it is trying to do in recent weeks.
If I look now to the recent changes in the Middle East, in Egypt, Al Jazeera's cameras filmed Tahrir Square constantly, capturing police brutality and Mubarak's thugs thrashing peaceful protesters. The world was watching and the government felt their pressure, as was evidenced by Vice President Suleiman's denunciation of Al Jazeera, which he said was fueling sedition. With the world's attention on Egypt, the government's options were constrained.
In Libya, we saw a much different picture. In that situation, we hardly saw any pictures at all in the first days of the protest, which were largely peaceful. Gaddafi was able to crack down brutally in part because of the absence of foreign media. And as you know, a similarly dire situation has been played out in Iran in recent weeks where the government is able to operate with near impunity in the absence of foreign media.
So, in the absence of this so‑called "Arab spring," the Iranian government has chosen to clamp down instead of opening up. And as our friend Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it succinctly in the title his op‑ed in the New York Times recently, he wrote, "Arabs Arise, Tehran Trembles." But the ban on foreign media is now more important than ever, and we have to keep up the pressure.
Finally, the international community needs to remind the Iranian government that we are watching. We need to remind them that, one, we know when the country's two main opposition leaders go missing. I add my voice to those demanding immediate release of Mir‑Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. And we also need to remind the Iranian government that people have a fundamental right to peaceably assemble. I especially want to applaud the brave men and women who took the streets last week to commemorate the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. I want to point out that in addition to Mousavi and Karroubi, their wives have been detained too.
By continuing to speak out about human rights violations, we'll send the right message to the government, which is "Stop," and to the people, "We are with you." We must remain vigilant in our efforts.
Thank you all for listening.
MR. ABDI: The Congressman is available for about five or 10 minutes of Q&A, so for those of you who have questions, please identify who you are and your organization. And we have microphones going around in the back there. Questions?
MR. SHAHBAZI: Hi, I'm Hossein Shahbazi with Webster University. Congressman, just before your arrival ‑‑ perhaps you were here too ‑‑ the panel before you talked about the double standards of US policy towards countries of the region. Specifically, two items were brought up. One was the Israel‑Palestinian issue, and the other one was just the recent apparent consent of the US toward Saudis' action in Bahrain.
I'd like to get your opinion, and also, since your view here perhaps would be counted more here because of your affiliation with the Democratic Party.
CONGRESSMAN ELLISON: Well, obviously, there are double standards. I don't really think they can seriously be denied. I mean, people will try to, but they're there, and we all see it. I think the real challenge is how do we align our values with our rhetoric, and that's a challenge because, as I pointed out in my extemporaneous comments, there is a status quo, and the status quo is basically held up by economic and strategic interests that are long‑standing.
I mentioned that we have basically a three‑pronged relationship. And again, I think that it's legitimate for the United States to have interests and legitimate for them to pursue them, but I also think that human rights is an interest of ours too, and we can't dispense that for the other ones. So I think that the work of us as Americans ‑‑ I know there are many Iranian Americans in the room today ‑‑ the work for us as Americans is to help our country live up to the true meaning of its creed. We've done it in the past and we can do it now.
This is a commitment I call everyone to. It's not enough to stand back and point out the double standard. That's like pointing out this lectern, this heater. Our job is to close the gap between what we say and what we do. How do we do that? We can't do it by ignoring the fact that there is a status quo, and the status quo is US energy needs, oil and natural gas, historic alliance with Israel, which is not going anywhere ‑‑ that relationship is going to be where it is ‑‑ but I say the United States, as sure as we have one ally, we can have more than one. What's wrong with that? Let's add, not subtract.
And the third one is counterterrorism. Of course, everybody's interest is in making sure that we live in a society that's safe, but let's deepen and broaden and strengthen the relationship, you know, on academic exchange, media, artistic exchange. Let's improve our economic exchange. Let's do these things.
I believe that there is room for sanctions; I've actually introduced sanctions bills myself. But the greater history of sanctions is that it doesn't do much to change the conduct of the country at whom the sanctions are targeted. Usually, when we do sanctions, if there's a good reason to do sanctions, it is like in the Egyptian situation.
You and I as Americans do not want any Egyptian who is fighting for civil and human rights to have to pick up a tear gas canister that says "Made in America." If that government is going to oppress those people, they won't do it with our participation. That's a good reason for sanctions, not that if we would not have sent anything over to Egypt that it would have stopped Mubarak, but we don't want to participate in it. That's a reason for sanctions. But to think that sanctions are, you know, going to change the script, usually, they don't.
So I don't have every answer for how to close the gap on the double standard, but I believe we do. So let's get about it.
MS. POSEY: Hi, I'm Maria Posey with the UN Information Center, and in the previous panel they were pretty adamant about engagement needs to come from an international coordinated effort and that the US has very little capability to actually do more to effect change in Iran bilaterally. And I'd like your view on that as well. Do you support ‑‑
CONGRESSMAN ELLISON: Well, I think that I pretty much said that already. In 15 years of sanctions, 30 years of not talking, our ability to change events in Iran is severely limited ‑‑ you all heard me say that, right? He heard me say it. Thank you for nodding, sir.
So, yes, I think that we need to work internationally. There's no doubt about it. And I think that we need to work with the rest of the world. Plus, I think the days of, you know, go it alone US policy should kind of come to an end anyway ‑‑ I mean, there are times in every nation's history when it should act on its own because it has to. But our default position should be multilateralism. And so, yes, I definitely agree with that.
PARTICIPANT: The argument for reopening a US interest section in Iran, based on the fact that, in terms of reciprocity, there is an Iranian interest section here, sounds so like a very legit argument to me. I was just wondering, do the people in the government share that opinion? Are there people interested in reopening an embassy there, and if not, why?
CONGRESSMAN ELLISON: Well, let me say this, whenever you talk about "the" government, in the US there's different parts of it. There's the legislative branch, there's the administration, there's the judiciary. I work in the legislative branch, and I don't have a boss other than the people who elected me to come to Congress, so I can say whatever I want. The good thing is I'm free to say what I want to say and the bad thing is I'm one of 435 House members, of 535 House and Senate members, and me by myself, not being a committee chair, it's not that easy for me to just do what I want to do. What I'm saying is, don't interpret that as the US government position because it's not. It's my position.
Absolutely we should put the interest section there. Now let me just tell you why we should do that. Absolutely, we should do it, and here's why. When we put up an embassy or an interest section in another country, it's not a gift to them. We're not doing something for the other country by having someone to look after our interests there. And by withdrawing it, it's not a punishment. I'm quite certain that the people who are ruling the government in Iran are just fine with the US not having anybody on the ground there. They're like, good, go.
I think we should have an interest section or an embassy everywhere we can, without regard to whether we like that government or not, because if we don't like them, even if we have a lot of serious problems with them, we need somebody who's going to go to them and say, ‘we have serious problems with you.’ Do you see what I'm saying? I'm one of those people who definitely believe that we should do that. You know, I'm glad about the new relationship we're trying to establish with Syria. And I talk to Syrian-Americans who tell me a lot of problems, but they also point out, you're not hurting anybody by not having an ambassador there; you might as well have one.
You'll notice, a lot of countries, where they have ambassadors or interest sections in our country, when we don't have them there, they want to be represented here. They want to tell us what their views are, how they feel about things, even if we don't agree. I believe that if you want to make sure that a problem never gets solved, the first thing to do is not to talk about it.
MR. ABDI: Thank you so much, Congressman.
I have the honor and the privilege to introduce our next featured speaker. Jonas Hafstrom has been the Ambassador of Sweden to the United States since 2007. In 2004 he was awarded the Jonas Weiss Award and the Seraphim Medal. He has also worked in the Swedish Foreign Ministry as Deputy Director for Consular Affairs and Civil Law, as well as in the Swedish Defense Committee. He served, notably, as the First Secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Tehran from 1982 to 1984 during the Iran‑Iraq War. So he has some familiarity on the ground with Iran.
Ambassador Hafstrom represents a nation that has played an integral role in the international community's efforts to advance human rights. Sweden has played an important role in advancing the role of international institutions, including at United Nations and at the Human Rights Council. Now, Sweden is leading the effort to establish a human rights monitor on Iran. This is an effort that has been, as our panelists noted, something that's been called for by the human rights community, by human rights defenders within Iran and exiles without.
So we are very pleased to have the Ambassador here, joining us today to discuss some of those efforts and to discuss the efforts of Sweden and the international community in advancing human rights in a productive way in Iran.
Please give a warm welcome to Ambassador Jonas Hafstrom.
AMBASSADOR HAFSTROM: Thank you so much for this opportunity to present Sweden's view on the human rights situation in Iran, and most importantly, how it can be addressed. And thanks also to the other speakers and to the panelists, and a special thanks to my friend, Dr. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council and a great fellow countryman. Good to have you here.
Iran is a high foreign policy priority for my government, and it also lies close to me personally. More than 30 years ago, my first foreign posting was as First Secretary at the Swedish Embassy in Tehran. This was in 1982. When I left Iran two years later, I was sent straight to our embassy in Washington, DC. I can tell you that I experienced serious culture shock moving from Tehran, ruled by Ayatollah Khomeini, to Washington, with President Ronald Reagan in the White House.
The promotion of democracy, rule of law, and human rights are cornerstones of Swedish foreign policy. They are fundamental preconditions for sustainable peace, security, and development. Democratic societies are stable neighbors. Where the rule of law prevails, human rights follows. Violations are not met with impunity, and Sweden firmly believes that human rights are universal. They must be upheld by every government in every country. This is the basis for our criticism of Iran's human rights record.
Iran's nuclear program continued to give cause for great concern. The United Nations and the European Union have decided to extend sanctions. This, of course, Sweden supports and has implemented to the letter. Iran needs to fully comply with all its obligations under the nonproliferation treaty and as stipulated by the United Nations Security Resolution. It must fully incorporate with the IAEA and seriously address the concerns of the international community regarding the nature of its nuclear program.
But sanctions are not enough. Sweden gives full support to resume dialogue with Iran concerning issues such as its nuclear program. An agreement based on international law and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, that would satisfy the legitimate interests of both sides is possible.
Sweden is deeply concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. The use of the death penalty is increasing. Bloggers, journalists, and others who exercise their freedom of expression are punished and intimidated. Human rights defenders are repressed. Opposition leaders Mir‑Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi are treated unacceptably. Systematic persecution of persons belonging to the Baha'i community continues. Other religious minorities are also mistreated.
I would like to highlight two especially worrying features of the situation in Iraq. First, the increased use of the death penalty ‑‑ executions have increased dramatically this year and include people who merely have expressed themselves and voiced dissenting opinions. The execution methods include stoning, which cannot be called anything but barbaric.
Second, the manner in which the regime monitors free speech on the Internet ‑‑ bloggers, human rights defenders, and journalists are being heavily monitored, and the regime harasses, even jails, people who have simply expressed dissenting views on the Internet. Internet freedom is a high priority for the Swedish Government and one on which we work closely with the US administration.
My government actively supports the work of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Mr. Frank La Rue, and we look forward to his report on Human Rights and the Internet due in June. And we will explore with others the possibility of some kind of action to follow upon his report. The overall picture of the human rights situation in Iran is thus profoundly disturbing.
The question then becomes, what can the international community do? Sweden is a strong believer in the obligation to voice concern when human rights are violated. We also believe that it is dangerous to isolate regimes, even the worst human rights offenders. Isolation and inactivity have rarely been effective in improving respect for human rights, nor has it drawn violating states into collaboration with the rest of the world. A consistent, carefully balanced, and patient engagement has a better chance.
In such engagements, multilateral solutions are of great importance. Work in the United Nations is key for safeguarding international law and human rights. The Human Rights Council plays an important role. Our expectations of the Council have not ‑‑ I'll stress the word "not" ‑‑ been met in substance nor in membership since its establishment in 2006. However, the fact remains, it is the primary UN institution for protecting human rights. The Council's recent actions on Libya show what it is capable of when it focuses on the most pressing human rights issues at hand.
Iran not only has a worsening human rights situation, it has also failed to cooperate with the special mechanism of the Human Rights Council. Therefore, Sweden, together with a number of other countries ‑‑ the United States, Macedonia, Moldova, Panama and Zambia ‑‑ have proposed that the Council establish a special rapporteur on their own. It is important for the credibility of the Council to address massive violations of human rights and to demonstrate solidarity with the victims of abuse. The special rapporteur would focus on the human rights situation and report continuously to the Council, thereby ensuring political attention to the issue. We hope that the special rapporteur, when set up, will visit Iran and start a dialogue with the regime in Tehran.
But engagement should not be limited to the United Nations. Let me briefly mention two other opportunities. First, all countries with bilateral relations, diplomatic ties, with Iran need to bring up human rights with tedious regularity with their counterparts. Second, the European Union is a strong voice for freedom, peace, and security.
The new EU, after the Lisbon Treaty, is also a more efficient vehicle for promotion of democracy and human rights around the world, including Iran. And Sweden is very, very about active in making sure that the Union and its 27 member countries apply weight on this issue. In addition, the High Representative, Catherine Ashton, plays an important role on the Iran portfolio, especially as leading the P5+1 interaction with Iran. We are pleased that Cathy Ashton has close cooperation with Secretary Clinton on these issues. That is crucial.
Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have reminded us once again that the desire for freedom and liberty will not be suppressed by the use of force. Long‑term stability and development require full respect for human rights and the rule of law, and that should be the goal shared by the international community and the people of Iran.
To conclude, it is the task of each government to make sure that the human rights of all its citizens are fully respected. This task cannot be delegated to anyone else. But it is the responsibility of the international community to help promote such respect, to call attention to situations where this has failed, and to work for its implementation for all human rights to make rights real.
Thank you very much.
MR. ABDI: The Ambassador can take about five minutes of questions.
MS. FASSIHIAN: Thank you very much, Ambassador, for your remarks. And I'd like to thank you also for your country's leadership at the Human Rights Council in establishing the Special Rapporteur on Iran, something that my organization has been very involved in doing.
My question is about really elevating the human rights issue and the goals of the Iranian population of obtaining their human rights seriously as an international priority, a priority for the international community. I wonder, within the context of the P5+1 discussions on the nuclear issue, is there a forum that we can take the human rights issue and insert it in that discussion, and is there a way to include countries from the Global South that have tried to take a leadership position and tried to create a bridge between Iran and Western powers?
Is there a way to include them in those discussions? Countries like Brazil, countries like South Africa and India, in recent years have shifted their position slightly towards putting more pressure on the human rights situation. Before, they were, for example, voting "no" on resolutions, now they realize the severity of the situation. They want to be a part of these discussions. Is there a way where we can take the human rights situation, and would the EU support inserting that into the P5+1 discussions as well as the nuclear issue and bringing in some of these Global Southern partners to take part?
AMBASSADOR HAFSTROM: What do you mean by the southern partners?
MS. FASSIHIAN: I'm talking about members of the Global South that are emerging powers, like Brazil, like South Africa, like India. They're playing a much more powerful role in the world. Can we bring them into this discussion and insert the human rights situation and get them to work with the international community to put pressure on Iran?
AMBASSADOR HAFSTROM: I think we can. I've been listening to the debate today, and I was a bit surprised that Turkey was not mentioned us a key regional player when it comes to Iran. You know, we have a question when Iran when it comes to the nuclear matter. And of course, at the end of the day, there has to be political solutions. For that, we have different tracks to obtain that goal.
I mean, my country, we were very much in favor of the Turkey and Brussels approach, trying to strike a deal with the Iranian government when it comes to their nuclear efforts. That wasn't the case. The community really went for tougher sanctions and we went along. But hand in hand with tougher sanctions, you have to have a diplomatic activity. If you want to enforce even tougher sanctions, well, then you have to step up your diplomatic activities at the same time so you have this dual‑track approach. That is the way the international community has decided to go, and I think it's the wise way.
But I hope that, at the end of the day, you can't isolate any government despite the nature of the regime. At the end of the day, we have to sit around the table and conclude the deal, and that also goes for the nuclear matter when it comes to Iran.
MR. ABDI: Thank you so much, Mr. Ambassador. Please give Ambassador Hafstrom a round of applause.
(Whereupon, a recess was taken at 10:55 a.m. and the conference reconvened at 11:13 a.m.)
MR. ABDI: Our third featured speaker, Nazila Fathi is a former New York Times correspondent. She worked out of Tehran for most of the last decade, from 2001 to 2009. She reported from Tehran on human rights as well as other political and cultural issues. She was forced to leave Iran in 2009 in the aftermath of the elections there, when the government started to crack down on foreign media and expelled Nazila and her colleagues from the country. She relocated in Toronto, and now she's based out of Massachusetts. She is a fellow at Harvard.
She is here today to discuss some of her insights from her experience on the ground in Iran, to discuss the human rights situation, and some of the approaches that can be productive to addressing that situation. So we're very pleased to have Nazila with us today.
Please give her a warm round of applause.
MS. FATHI: Hello, everyone. It's such an honor to be here with you. I have enjoyed the talk so much, so far. I have the same message for you as everybody else here, which might be a good thing, I don't know. But it seems that the human rights situation in Iran is deteriorating dramatically.
According to accounts by the International Campaign for Human Rights, Iran executed 542 people in 2010. Compare this number to 94 in 2005 before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to office. Only within the first two months of this year, January and February, another 150 people have been executed. That means that if the authorities continue at the same pace, close to 1,000 people will be executed by the end of this year. The numbers are just alarming. And unfortunately, it reminds many people of the executions that took place in 1988.
Close to 4,000 people, political prisoners, many of whom had been tried and were sentenced to jail terms, were suddenly executed within a period of five months. Despise people's religious/political beliefs, human rights should be a principle, and many people are alarmed these days that, because of the scale of violence, the government may resort to the same measures. The authorities managed to keep the killings of 1988 secret for a long time. Word leaked out only after survivors got out of prison. And then the authorities justified that the country's western border had come under attack by the Mojahedin‑e‑Khalq organization. But 21 years later, in 2009, the regime was faced with a much greater threat. Hundreds of thousands of people marched on the streets for over six months.
Since then, we know that thousands of people have been jailed. Again, according to International Campaign for Human Rights, in Mashhad, in Vakilabad Prison, people are taken in groups of 50 or 60 to be executed without any official acknowledgment. Sources have told the group that the death certificates of many of the people who are to be executed are even issued before they are taken to the gallows. Many of these people are charged with drug‑related crimes. Many of them are accused of being smugglers or people who have been in a possession of huge amounts of drugs. But in a country where one out every seven people are drug addicts ‑‑ and I'm not talking about people who use drugs occasionally; according to government figures, some 10 million people are drug addicts ‑‑ this is quite a harsh punishment.
In addition to that, it seems that the government is accusing many of the political prisoners with possession of drugs or drug‑related charges. Zahra Bahrami, who was executed in January, was a woman who was arrested during a protest last year, but she was executed on the grounds that she had in possession a huge amount of drugs. Another two political prisoners were executed in January. Three other protesters from 2009 are on death row. Currently, there are 1,000 political prisoners in jail. Five hundred of them have been tried. Another 500 have been kept in limbo. The stories that we hear of those who were released, stories of physical and psychological torture, are just horrifying.
Lawyers who defend these prisoners have been faced with risks as well. Nasrin Sotoudeh today is one of these lawyers who has been in solitary confinement since September.
And then the Iranian government has taken advantage of the international attention that had been given to Libya and Egypt, and amidst the protests in the region, it has gone after the opposition leaders. Mr. Mousavi and his wife along with Mehdi Karroubi and his wife, they have both disappeared since February 14. There are unofficial reports that they have been taken to a prison called Heshmatiyeh in Tehran or that they've been transferred to safe houses. This has been of a great concern because safe houses have historically been used for leaders who had a wide social support, and these leaders were taken to these houses to silence them. The houses were even acknowledged in 2000 by Iranian authorities, when dissidents were murdered.
And we're talking about a regime that has gone even after its own commanders. Last year during the protests, authorities arrested the son of a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, Mohsen Rouholamini, who was tortured to death. And his gruesome murder seemed to be a message that was sent to the commanders who were disillusioned with the current system and might be tempted to turn their back against the regime.
What's happening in Iran is even more significant now with the tremors of what has happened in Tunisia and in Egypt. It seems that Iranian people do not want to fall behind from the race for freedom. In the meantime, the world was unwilling to look at the suppression that many of these governments were engaged in, until just recently when these people have risen and have demanded change. But we cannot expect people who have been treated with violence for years to foster civil society and democracies. It is very natural for human societies to turn to violence at times like this, when the regimes are treating any kind of protests with utter violence. Just look at the case of Libya. Protesters who we were callingpro‑democracy protesters a month ago are now called rebels.
In Iran, we have a similar situation, but there is a remnant of civil society that is left. Every single death counts because they fuel dissent, anger, and revenge. Iranian people need help to protect what is left of their limping civil society. The Mourning Mothers of Iran, a group that aligned itself with the Green Movement, are mostly comprised of mothers who lost their children in 1988. It has been a very peaceful group that has been demanding the release of political prisoners, but without attention, without help to such peaceful groups, these groups are going to be sidelined, and more violent groups that might be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to bring change come to power.
The structure of power in Iran is much more complicated than the structure of power in Libya, Tunisia, or Egypt, where one leader was in charge. In Iran, power has been divided among various institutions. Different circles that are close to Ayatollah Khamenei, who seems to be the man in charge, have been participating in the decision‑making that has led to the current situation. Groups of the Revolutionary Guards, a circle of aides to Mr. Khamenei, as well as a section of the judiciary, they have all been involved and contributed to the decisions. So international pressure needs to be put on a large scale of figures within the Iranian government.
For a long time, it was widely believed that with the kind of information revolution that had taken place and the way Iranian people had empowered themselves to disseminate information about violations of human rights, to inform the outside world about what was happening inside the country and to embarrass the government, they were capable of preventing the kind of violence that had happened before.
Unfortunately, it seems that the Iranian regime is trying very hard to create a kind of information blackout, and it has been successful so far. Since last year, the government has very efficiently slowed Internet to a crawl so that people have not been able to post as many videos and photos that they used to post before 2009 and during the earlier months after the protests. Mobile services and text messaging services are regularly shut down on the days that protests are planned. The government has successfully jammed satellite television, which has been a very efficient tool to inform people in various parts of the country. In many parts of the country, you would travel and see satellite dishes sprouting from people's rooftops. It had become a major way for people to get information about what was happening in the capital and what was happening in other cities.
I was talking to a journalist in Tehran just yesterday, and they were saying that reporters are even banned to use the term "Green Movement," which was the biggest upheaval in Iran's modern history, when hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets. The pressure is so much that many are quitting their jobs. Many have left the country since last year. Many are even trying to do other work, other than journalism.
As a reporter in Tehran, I can testify that international pressure does work. I saw it firsthand because we were constantly pressured not to report cases of human rights violations. I was constantly reminded that I should not report the number of the executions that took place. Prisoners always indicated the certain time in prison when pressure was lifted on them, and it turned out to coincide with the time when their cases were publicized, when the international community was issuing statements in their support. And the most recent case is the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death last year. And after international pressure culminated, the Iranian government had to back down from carrying out the sentence.
Ladies and gentlemen, it seems that a human rights envoy to monitor events on the ground in Iran might be on its way. But that is not enough. The Iranian government needs to be pressured. International pressure has to increase in various forums, statements, condemnations naming and shaming individuals who are involved in the decision‑making that have led to the violence so far. The fears are very serious. The scale of violence has dramatically increased. Human rights has been a principle in the foreign policy of the United States. It is very important to make it a global issue.
MR. ABDI: We have about 15 minutes for questions. Please state your name and your affiliation. Does anybody have any questions?
DR. PARSI: Thank you so much. Over the course of the last two years, we have seen how there seems to have been some shift in the viewpoints at least of the grassroots of the Green Movement, but also to some extent some of its former leaders as to what they expect the international community to do, what they expect the international community not to do, and perhaps more importantly, the posture that they view would be helpful if the US adopted and the postures that they perhaps would not view to be particularly helpful.
Could you give us your assessment of what it is that you are hearing from people on the ground as well as from people that are perhaps a little higher up in the organization of the opposition? What are the things that they expect and what are the things that they fear from the US and the international community?
MS. FATHI: Well, it is very hard to expect the opposition leaders, Mr. Mousavi or Karroubi, to come out and say bluntly, yes, they want international support and they want support from the United States. Of course, they would never say that because the minute they say that they would be accused of cooperating with the "enemy," the enemy of the country.
But people on the ground always said that they wanted their message to come back to the outside world. They always said that they needed at least a verbal support of the international community and the United States. We're talking about a government that is armed to its teeth, and it has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect itself. When it comes to human rights, it's not an issue that concerns any political group, so I don't see why not only the United States but the international community would not come out and condemn suppression of pro‑democracy.
Peaceful demonstrators were on the streets ‑‑ for a whole week, Iranians demonstrated in silence. There was no violence, and violence was first started by the government. The warning first came from the government that it would engage in a blood bath in fact. So it is very obvious that any kind of international support, even verbal, would matter to the Iranian people. At least it would give them confidence. And in some other cases, as in Egypt, we've seen that it works. It puts pressure on the leaders.
MR. TUA: Thank you very much. I'm Benjamin Tua, an independent analyst. Could you say, to put this context a little bit about the frequency of stoning in Iran in recent years, in the present?
MS. FATHI: Well, stoning is in the Iranian Penal Code. It had been there since the revolution. There have been many verdicts that have been issued based on this law. But we don't hear about it. They are not officially announced, or at least since Mr. Shahrudi left. The last official statement that we had, the former head of the judiciary, Mr. Shahrudi, said that he didn't want the sentence to be carried out. He wanted to see other forms of punishment to replace that. But it is in the law so that means the judges have to rule based on that law.
The last official verdict that was issued was for Sakineh Ashtiani. If there are any others, and if they are being carried out in other cities, in smaller cities, which is very, very possible because sometimes people take these kinds of things, especially in the most remote areas, in their own hands, we don't hear about them. They're not officially announced.
MR. ABDI: Any questions from the audience?
DR. PARSI: Nazila, do you have any thoughts on US‑Iran policy in terms of US engagement with Iran? After the elections in 2009 there was this, I think, solid body of opinion within Iran or who said that, or thought that, if the United States were to engage Iran in the immediate aftermath of a fraudulent election, that would legitimize Ahmadinejad, that would, you know, give the regime greater staying power.
But now that we're about a year and a half after that event, what are your views on how the United States should proceed or whether establishing diplomatic relations with Iran would be a good thing or whether that would undermine the struggle for democracy in Iran?
MS. FATHI: Well, engagement is always a good idea because, as long as things are talked through, as long as there's a dialogue, there's a possibility for the situation to move forward.
What happened last year was that there was a wide assumption that the focus of engagement was going to be the nuclear policy, and because the Iranian government felt it was weakened because of the protests, it might have compromised over its nuclear plant. And then, in that case, engagement would have given legitimacy to Mr. Ahmadinejad, who was not considered as the legitimate president by people inside the country.
Engagement is a good idea as long as all issues and all topics are discussed, especially now when the human rights situation has reached to the point where people are being executed in huge numbers and the government is not even acknowledging. So these issues should be discussed. The government should be pressured over its behavior towards its treatment of its citizens, and it should be held accountable.
MS. FASSIHIAN: Thanks. Dokhi for the Democracy Coalition Project. You mentioned, and I think another audience member talked about, a lack of clarity by opposition leaders on what they need from the international community. I think there's also a lack of clarity on what their vision for the future of Iran is. They talk a lot about what they're against but I'm not sure they've articulated a clear vision for a different future. I think there's a lot of discussion on the blogs and in the Iranian blogosphere on, are you a reformist? What does a reformist mean anymore? Do the opposition leaders actually support the current constitutional framework? Are they for change? So there is a lack of clarity I think.
My first question is, why is there this lack of clarity? And second, how can the international community continue to progressively address the human rights situation and the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people when there's a lack of clarity not just for the Iranian people but the international community of what's coming next?
MS. FATHI: You are absolutely right; there is a lack of clarity and that's because there's a lack of agenda, there's a lack of leadership. Mr. Karroubi and Mr. Mousavi just turned out to be the lucky leaders of this movement.
I think we have to be clear on one thing. What happened after the 2009 elections was not a planned demonstration. It was very much spontaneous. It was very much a result of the anger and frustration that had been simmering beneath the surface for many years that suddenly translated itself into a demand for the nullification of the election results, partly because people felt very ‑‑ they felt their intelligence had been insulted. It was not something that they were expecting. They had put up with everything, but they looked forward to that little window of freedom that they had, that they could make a choice between the bad or the worse, not that they had a free hand to participate in democratic elections.
And it appeared that agreement had been breached by the government, and that angered people, and the people came out on the streets in such great numbers. And evenfor months after the election, I remember, I spoke to the leaders, smaller leaders on the streets, and none of them were saying that they were they were seeking to overthrow the regime. Even the ones who were much more radical, none of them had applied for immediate overthrowing of the regime. The Green Movement appeared to be an umbrella for various kinds of opposition groups who wanted different things, from overthrowing the regime to just reforming the current system and bringing fundamental changes.
So, as you said, there is a lack of clarity, there is a lack of agenda, there is a lack of leadership, and the situation has become even worse because people have lost their ability to communicate, their way of networking and informing one another. They don't have access to the Internet anymore. They don't have access to satellite TV.
Satellite TV is important because there were programs on channels that were calling for overthrowing to the regime, to the, for example, the Persian‑language BBC that was trying to offer an independent analysis of what was going on, on the ground. This brought people together. It gave access to people to information, and when people have information, they can make wiser choices. Now they have been crippled. They don't have any of that.
If the Western society wants to help, if the United States wants to help, the first thing that they need is access to free Internet. Lift the sanctions. Iranians cannot even buy Skype credits to talk on the Skype lines. They have to rely on telephone lines that are monitored by the Iranian government. There is satellite Internet over Iran, but because of the sanctions, they cannot access it.
MS. HADJILOU: Hello, I'm Shervin from the State Department. I was just curious that, since you've actually spent time in Iran and based on your sense of speaking with people, how much traction does the MEK have inside? There's a decimal number here, and how much is it, support wise, inside?
MS. FATHI: Not much. Not much. Absolutely, not much. This is a very grassroots movement in Iran. It's quite peaceful. It's non-violent. I mean, the presence of women is a good example of that. I mean, when you see such a large number of women even coming out on the streets when the confrontation erupted, and trying to protect both sides, both the protestors and some of the pro‑government forces who were sometimes falling off their motorcycles, that's a testimony to how peaceful this movement is.
But the bloodshed from 1988 is very much remembered. I mean, everybody remembers somebody, a family member, who had been executed or had spent time in prison. Nobody wants to see that kind of bloodshed anymore.
MR. SHAHRYAR: Thank you so much, Nazila, from the work you've done since you've been in Iran and the work as you continue to do here in the United States about Iran.
My question is, you are well aware of the inner workings of the regime. You are also in touch with people inside Iran. There are two prevailing ideas here in the West and in America about what might happen with this movement. The first theory is that, you know, a lot of protesters might suddenly come out one day, you know, millions might march, and they would suddenly topple the government by force.
The second theory is that the pressure by all these protests and outside support, some outside support, is going to make the regime implode from the inside, sort of like a coup would occur, and there would be some reforms, and slowly things would become more democratic and there would be more human rights.
What is your idea? What do you think of the opposition movement is aiming for at this moment?
MS. FATHI: It would be a mistake to predict anything for any country, especially Iran, because it's been a completely unpredictable place. I remember even two months before the election, I was telling my editors that I didn't think people would come out to vote. I thought that Ahmadinejad would mobilize his supporters, about 10 to 15 million people, and would have an easy victory, but I was wrong. Within a couple of weeks, the whole country turned upside down.
But there are three scenarios for Iran. I mean, the best one and the most optimistic one is to believe that the pressure from the law and the divisions within the establishment would cause a crack, and eventually the establishment would be forced to make some compromises and to begin some kind of fundamental reform. Unfortunately, there is no sign, so far, that this is going to happen. People who are in power right now seem to be very, very obedient to the supreme leader. Any kind of differences that have emerged so far have been silenced immediately.
The second scenario, as you suggested, is some kind of eruption, an institutional breakdown. I personally have no doubt that if the Iranian regime does not compromise, does not make fundamental changes to give more social, political freedoms, the crowds of hundreds of thousands will increase because I saw that. In 1999, there were 10,000 people, 15,000 people, who were demonstrating, and we thought they were huge numbers. In 2009, there were hundreds of thousands. The government acknowledged at one point that there were more than 3 million people out on the streets. Last week when everybody was predicting that people would not come out, again, people were coming out in huge numbers. The thing was that they didn't know what to do. They didn't know where to go. They were faced with brutal forces who were clubbing them.
But the third thing that I know for sure is that Iranians fear institutional breakdown. Iranians do not want what happened in Egypt. They were very happy that Mubarak left, but if you look at the analysis that was offered, everybody was comparing Egypt with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. It's just simplistic to do that. It's a different time, the circumstances were different, and it was a big victory in Egypt, but they just do not want to go that far. The memories of bloodshed of the early days of the revolution, and then the war, and then the era where the country, after the war, it started putting itself together, are still very alive in the minds of the majority of people.
So the reason we see that lack of agenda, that lack of planning, is because they don't want to go that far. They want to keep the current order and then bring change. And that is the tricky part.
MR. ZARGHAMI: Hi, I'm Faraz Zarghami. I work with Senator Cantwell out of Washington State. I had a quick question while you were in Iran, specifically about the young people there and how they were dealing with this. Like, here in the US we have shows like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report that break down news in a comedic way, and we sort of have ways to deal with what's going on with the world. And in Iran, with the young people leading up to 2009 protests, and then even after that, what's their way of sort of coping with what's going on? Do they have underground meetings? Do they turn to music? What sort of outlets do they have to deal with what they want to accomplish but in a more escapist way? As opposed to just protesting and uprising, how do they deal with being held back?
MS. FATHI: Well, Iranian society is a very dynamic society. Even when people get very depressed, they still have their indoor circle of friends. They get together behind closed doors. We've seen how the Iranian cultural scene has flourished in the past 10 years or 20 years. You're faced with all these Iranian artists, filmmakers, painters, musicians who have all developed their skills behind closed doors. So it's not that people are politically depressed now and so they're not doing anything. The majority of people are continuing with their lives. It's when that level of frustration and anger, when it reaches a certain point that they suddenly pour out on the streets.
We're now talking about not only a generation, we're now talking about people who are willing to come out and get killed for freedom. Those days are over in Iran. I mean, in 1979 perhaps the whole idea of martyrdom and getting killed for the sake of future was something that people believed in. These days, nobody does, at least not the young people that you and I are thinking about. Perhaps it's what's in the minds of pro‑government forces.
But young people, they come out and demonstrate because they want a better life, because they want more social and political ‑‑ I would stress that they want more social freedom more than political. A lot of people don't care about politics. It was the suppression of the past five years under Mr. Ahmadinejad that really reached people to that point to come out in such huge numbers.
MR. ABDI: Okay, we have time for about two more questions.
MS. PAKRAVAN: I'm Saideh Pakravan. I'm the author of the novel Azadi: Protests in the Streets of Tehran.
My question to you how do you think the Rafsanjani situation is going to impact the regime? Is it important, or is it just going to be set inside? It would not be like Rafsanjani to let himself be set aside.
MS. FATHI: I think that was one of the big historical changes in Iran just last week when he was officially sidelined. It definitely marks a big change in the Iranian politics. This is the first time that one of the founders, one of the most instrumental figures of the Iranian Revolution has been completely sidelined.
But this is a man who still has influence within the Revolutionary Guards. He was a man who was the commander‑in‑chief during the eight years of war. It's true that many of those people who support him within the Revolutionary Guards are older commanders who might not be in power anymore, but the Revolutionary Guards is also a big entity, and not all of them are with Mr. Ahmadinejad. And Mr. Rafsanjani has immense influence among the traditional clerics. He might be the only official cleric in the government who is so influential among the clerics. He is politically respected, and his conduct in the past three decades has been something that many clerics relied on.
So, if there is a time, if he wants to rely on these two supports, he has the leverage. But for the time being, he has been very much sidelined.
MR. ABDI: One more question?
PARTICIPANT: We all know that foreign reporters were expelled from Iran following the elections. I was wondering if you have seen any signs of a reopening in the political scene in Iran. Any sign that foreign reporters, media will be, once again, allowed to return to the country?
MS. FATHI: Foreign reporters might be getting visas to go into the country for a week, and they might be allowed to travel with minors. I don't think that's important. I think what is important is to see the ones who are based in the country, how much freedom they have. Last week was a good example of that. Many press credentials were revoked, so a lot of people who were working were not allowed to go out on the streets. The ones who kept their press cards, they were warned not to leave their offices or their homes. One of them, a British correspondent with AFB who defied the ban and went out, he was immediately expelled.
MR. ABDI: Thank you so much, Nazila. We really appreciate it.
MR. ABDI: Our final featured speaker today is somebody we're very pleased to have here. Suzanne Nossel is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations. She joined the State Department in 2009, and she came to the State Department from Human Rights Watch, where she was the Chief Operating Officer. Suzanne is also credited with coining the term "smart power," which has been a sort of fundamental pillar of the Obama administration's foreign policy approach.
As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, Suzanne has been at the center of US efforts to advance human rights through multilateral engagement and has been pivotal in efforts at the Human Rights Council and at the United Nations.
She's here today to discuss some of the efforts that are under way to advance human rights in Iran by putting into place a human rights monitor at the Human Rights Council this month. We're very pleased to have her here to discuss that effort. If you would please give a warm welcome to Suzanne Nossel.
MS. NOSSEL: Thanks very much, Jamal. It's great to be here, and it's really great to see everybody at such an important and timely event. I understand it's been a terrific and substantive and lively morning, and I'm really glad to have the chance to join you today.
It's a momentous time to work in the State Department on human rights and democracy issues, a challenging time, obviously, with the events in Libya and Bahrain over the last few days, but also the more hopeful signs that we see in Egypt and Tunisia.
In each of these countries, years of human rights abuses have played an important role in fomenting revolution, and citizens have stood up to say that they're no longer willing to abide stolen elections, sham veneers of democracy, suppression of free speech, corruption, and violence deprivations of basic human rights. Human rights are right now forefront of US foreign policy and global concerns, and those who questioned whether human rights really mattered in the Mid‑East now have their answer.
It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of ensuring that the path towards stable, genuine democracies that can anchor the region and be an example for positive change worldwide move forward. The basic change varies across the Middle East. Some countries move forward; others are kept at a standstill. Iran stands out as a place where respect for fundamental human rights has deteriorated and where the aspirations of the people are being deliberately thwarted.
Our effort over the coming weeks to secure a new UN special rapporteur in Iran represent this administration's most ambitious undertaking to date at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. We're mounting this campaign on a foundation that we've built up over the last 18 months since joining the Council. Without that groundwork, this mandate would be out of reach. But even as it is, it will be difficult to get there.
Each year at the UN General Assembly, three countries are in condemnation for their human rights records: Iran, Burma, and North Korea. Of these three, Iran is the only one that's not the subject of a standing UN mandate focused on its conduct. This glaring gap has existed since 2002 when the United States was, for the first time, voted off the UN Human Rights Council's predecessor body, the Commission on Human Rights. With the US gone, others moved to abolish the Iran mandate. We were absent, and they succeeded in voting it down by one vote. Nine years later, the United States has rejoined the UN human rights system, and we're working to bring this mandate back.
UN action on Iran is particularly difficult but also particularly important. Since 2000, the UN has seen a 50‑percent increase in the number of thematic special rapporteurs covering issues like right to food, development, and freedom of expression, but has seen commensurate decline of more than 40 percent in the number of rapporteurs focused on individual countries. The Brookings Institution has said that this reflects "the successful efforts by some states, particularly those with bad human rights records, to avoid the naming and shaming tactics associated with country‑specific mandates."
If successful, the current initiative on Iran will represent the first new country mandate established since the Human Rights Council was created in 2006. Make no mistake: Iran will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid this outcome. It takes the UN seriously, places many of its strongest diplomats in UN posts, and knows how to martial votes. We've seen repeatedly over the last few years that Iran looks to the United Nations and its subsidiary bodies as a place to legitimize itself and its ambitions for regional and global leadership.
Iran's Universal Periodic Review, held in February 2010, just nine months after the disputed presidential elections, was the first time in recent years that UN member states sat in judgment on Iran's human rights record. The UPR process, now in its fourth year, subjects every UN member state to scrutiny when its turn arrives. Countries must make a presentation on their record and respond to recommendations from others. For its part, Iran stacked the speakers list with friends content to turn the process into a sham. We worked just as hard to ensure that every voice of praise was met with tones of condemnation.
Iran rejected recommendations involving cooperation with UN monitors seeking to visit the country. Oddly, they accepted certain recommendations, such as ensuring the equality of women and girls that they surely had no intention to implement and have subsequently failed to fulfill. Rather than approaching the UPR as a genuine opportunity to own up to its shortcomings, Tehran chose to deflect criticism and hide its record.
Undaunted by the spectacle, last spring Iran ran for a seat on the Human Rights Council and mobilized an aggressive worldwide campaign to line up votes. They asked the world to ignore the UN's stated criteria for membership on the Council, which calls for countries to take into account candidates' human rights records in deciding who to support. It thought that pressure and backroom deals would prevail over principle.
But through a concerted campaign of member states and non-governmental organizations, Iran's campaign was thwarted. A large majority member states made clear that they were unwilling to back Tehran in this farcical crusade, to the point where Iran dropped out of the race several weeks before the vote rather than face humiliation.
Soon thereafter, we united with a group of 56 member states at the Council to deliver a strong statement of condemnation for Iran's abuses at the one‑year anniversary of the 2009 elections. The Iranian delegation attempted to block Norway from reading the statement, setting off a last‑ditch floor fight. We won the battle, and Iran's antics only drew more attention to the statement.
Just a few months later, Iran sought membership on the Executive Board of UN Women, a travesty in light of their egregious record of abuse of women's rights. We made every effort to prevent the UN from being discredited and stop Iran from winning undeserved prestige and influence. Sure enough, we got the message out and kept Iran from gaining a seat.
So the UN has been a critical arena to show Tehran that its treatment of its own people, its low regard for human rights, and its pattern of abuses has consequences. While we can and do convey that message on our own, the UN allows us to make clear that Iran's poor human rights record is of grave concern not just to the US and Europe but to the entire world. The Iranian activists and dissidents we speak to confirm the obvious. Tehran cares about what happens at the United Nations. But so do we.
The case for a new mandate focused on Iran's human rights record is powerful. The June 2009 elections and ensuing crackdown warranted the Human Rights Council's condemnation but did not get it. The US had, at that time, been elected to the Council but not yet joined. Since then, the situation has gotten worse. In recent weeks, even as Iran's presence has made a show of denouncing the violence in Libya and applauding the protests in Egypt, in Tehran, security forces beat, detained and, in several cases, killed peaceful protesters.
A UN report released yesterday expressed that Secretary‑General Ban Ki‑moon is "deeply troubled by reports of increased executions, amputations, arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trials, and possible torture and ill‑treatment of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, and opposition figures. The Secretary‑General said that he had raised the issue of constraints on human rights activists and the use of the death penalty with Mohammad‑Javad Larijani, Secretary‑General of the Iranian High Council for Human Rights, during talks in New York last November. Larijani, at a judicial debate in December, argued, "Stoning should not be classified as a method of execution but rather a method of punishment, which is actually more lenient because half the people survive," the UN quoted him as saying.
Freedom of expression is under siege. The government has jammed foreign broadcasts and blocked Internet sites. Journalists in exile abroad are receiving death threats from Iranians demanding that they cease criticizing the regime. Twenty‑eight journalists and nine bloggers are currently in prison. Following protests last month, at least three individuals were killed in clashes with security forces. For those who were arrested and are being detained, there have been credible reports of torture.
The execution rate continues to rise. It is now the highest per capita in the world. Credible estimates suggest that well over 80 people were executed just in the first two months of this year, most of them, ethnic minorities. At the same time, Baha'is and other religious groups continue to be subjected to arbitrary arrests, prosecutions, harsh sentences, and unsafe prison conditions.
The government continues to target students in Iran's vibrant academic community. Students are denied entry into universities based on their political and religious views. Administrations at the universities have sometimes expel those already enrolled. Professors have been dismissed or denied advancement based on their political views.
Leaders of Iran's opposition, including presidential candidates, remain under house arrest and members of their family are being held without charge. And yet, the regime continues to deny responsibility for its actions. The government will point to its standing invitation to UN special rapporteurs and its supposed invitation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Iran as evidence of its cooperation with the international community. In practice, no UN mandate holder has been able to visit Iran since 2005. The extension of a one‑time offer over a year ago to the High Commissioner for Human Rights was an empty and inadequate gesture, as Iran has been unwilling so far to meet the modest preconditions set for a visit. In face of this defiance, the international community cannot back down. It's not enough to pass resolutions year after year or calling attention to problems that remain unsolved. We need to move to the next level and mount the pressure for change.
Despite the facts, regrettably, creating a new mandate to focus on Iran is not a sure thing. We've been told even by some allies that while they applaud what we've done at the Human Rights Council so far, going after an Iran resolution is a step too far and we're bound to fail. The rationales that countries proffer for rejecting this mandate are many, but none stand up to scrutiny. Some countries argue that Iran should have a veto over this resolution should be passed. They maintain that UN action on country situations should occur only with the consent of the country concerned. Our position is that in the situation of grave human rights abuses, we are all concerned countries.
Others argue that dialogue with Iran is the answer and that passing a resolution could undercut the quiet conversations on human rights now underway with the regime. While we appreciate the efforts of countries that have been able to influence the regime, those efforts have borne limited fruit and should not stand in the way of pressure when pressure is due.
Others choose to believe that after years of defiance, Iran will suddenly now throw open its doors to thematic experts and to searching for scrutiny from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. If Iran is indeed now keen to cooperate with UN mechanisms, this new rapporteur will give them a chance to prove it.
There's a case to be made that a resolution on Iran would be worth pursuing whether we could prevail or not, but we prefer to succeed. This effort is not about grandstanding or a showdown but about action and a practical step that we hope will lead to change over time. For this reason, we've worked methodically over the last few months to build a cross‑regional coalition of countries supporting the creation of this mandate. Current cosponsors hale from Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa.
We've learned through experience that having participation from every region in the leadership of controversial resolutions helps build momentum and counter criticism. We've worked to build our case with embassies here in Washington, UN missions in Geneva and New York, and in capitals around the world. We've brought facts, charts, voting tables, reports, and history.
But Tehran is hardly a passive target. They've sent a deputy foreign minister to lobby in Geneva and are approaching individual delegations at a relentless pace. In many countries, Iran can invoke trade relationships and other equities to exert persuasive influence. They also benefit from regional bloc dynamics that can result in large groups of countries voting in unison to defend their own. Finally, they'll play on the aversion many capitals have to country‑specific resolutions, often motivated by fear that someday the spotlight may be turned on them. So we face a difficult battle with more twists and turns to come as this Council session enters its final weeks.
We recognize that even if we're successful, a rapporteur will not deliver overnight the changes we hope to see, and our work will not be done. We're not naïve enough to think that this resolution or this mandate will be transformative in and of itself. Achieving impact in human rights work is a long, complex process. No single report, statement, or individual will achieve the breakthrough we hope for.
It's worth taking a moment to review what rapporteur is and isn't. A rapporteur is a prominent independent expert empowered by the UN to carry out monitoring and reporting on an individual country situation. The rapporteur will carry the imprimatur of the entire international community and will deliver information and messages that will be difficult for Tehran to dismiss or counter, although we know they'll try. The rapporteur will report at least annually to both the General Assembly in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Strong rapporteurs take advantage of their bully pulpit to issue statements, highlight issues and make proposals that drive international debate. Late last year, Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institutions published a comprehensive study of the work of UN special rapporteurs entitled "Catalysts for Rights". He found that such mechanisms "represent one of the most effective tools of the international human rights system," and that "they have a direct impact on elevating attention to important and sensitive human rights problems by government officials, non-governmental organizations, the media and politicians." He also highlighted the vital role of special rapporteurs as a lifeline for civil society, amplifying their concerns and challenges on the world stage.
Rapporteurs serve as key conduits for victims of human rights abuse and human rights defenders so that their suffering does not occur in silence. By speaking the names of dissidents and prisoners, special rapporteurs can help save lives. We're grateful for the indispensable work of civil society in pushing forward this campaign, carrying out their own lobbying in UN centers and capitals globally, and forcing policymakers to recognize that the pressure on Tehran must continue. The role of civil society in advocating and forming and holding all governments accountable, including my own, for our domestic records and our work at the United Nations is vitally important.
Even if a special rapporteur is established, we will need the help of civil society to assist in identifying the right person to take on the job. We'll need someone credible, committed, incorruptible, and courageous. The UN will be open to nominations from states and from non‑governmental sources, and it will be incumbent on all of us to engage in the process and make sure the individual selected is up to the job.
We'll also need to keep the pressure on to ensure that Tehran makes good on its commitment to cooperate and pays a price if it does not. Country visits are among the most powerful tools in the special rapporteurs' arsenal, enabling them to contact defenders, enter into dialogue with governments, and imbue their statements and reports with firsthand knowledge.
It's possible, even likely, that Iran will resist the visits of a special rapporteur and deny that person access to the country. We've seen this in North Korea, Burma, and elsewhere. If it happens, the rapporteur will need to rely on witnesses outside the country to carry out their work. This person will need ingenuity, tenacity, and determination to carry forward their mandate, no matter how difficult and dangerous.
As important as this effort is, it's part of a broader strategy. We recently announced sanctions against several individuals in Iran who have been credibly linked to egregious human rights abuses. We continue to support Iran's vibrant civil society and work to keep them linked with allies around the world. The drive to pass this resolution is among the US's highest priorities in the current Human Rights Council session. It forms part of our effort to deliver on reform of the Human Rights Council, session by session and resolution by resolution. Some people think this effort's a waste of our energy. They condemn our engagement because some UN member‑states are, to borrow a term, bullies, thugs, and dictators.
To address those concerns, I want to spend just a few minutes putting this effort on Iran into the wider context of our engagement at the UN Human Rights Council over the last 18 months. While we hold the UN to its founding ideals of peace, security, and individual freedom, the UN is a product of its 192 member‑states. Coalescecing support around the cause of human rights is not easy. The challenges relate far less to the UN and its sometimes sclerotic rules, routines, and procedures, as frustrating as they are, than they do to the membership and its divergent motives and viewpoints. When we read with disgust the praise Libya garnered during its Universal Periodic Review process, the problem is not the process itself but rather the member‑states that chose to pander, soft‑pedal, and deny the truth.
When we're displeased with the UN's performance, it's usually because we're dissatisfied with the countries around us. To criticize the UN is to chide the community of nations. Not that we shouldn't call out the UN for its failing ‑‑ and we often do ‑‑ but when we're frustrated we should know and understand what's standing in our way.
Day in and day out, we take our seat at the Council to confront adversaries across the UN system and build common cause with allies. We know the consequences of disengaging. If we cede leadership at the United Nations, other states will rush in to fill that vacuum, and they will not act in our interests. We saw that happen in 2002 on Iran, and we don't want to let it happen again.
Choosing to pursue this resolution doesn't mean we're blind to the limitations of the Human Rights Council or that we think that we can miraculously transform it. Let's face it, while suspending Libya's membership at the Council was an important step a few weeks ago, Libya should never have been there in the first place. Some countries seek membership on the Council not to advance the cause of human rights but to thwart it, to shield their friends from scrutiny, and hold back the development of norms.
Since taking our seat, we've sought to rally the membership in a different direction, to address a wider array of serious human rights situations around the world. Even some Council advocates had given up on the idea that the body would ever effectively address divisive country situations. They urged us to focus instead on thematic issues that were less likely to threaten member‑states. But in our view, the international human rights system will be judged first and foremost by what it does in response to the most serious situations of human rights abuse within countries, so we've worked steadily to build the docket of Human Rights Council country work and expect to see nearly a half‑dozen new country resolutions during the current session, now under way. While the roster is now expanding rather than contracting, the Council still devotes far too much attention to the Israeli‑Palestinian issue, the subject of a stand‑alone agenda item, whereas every other human rights situation in the world is dealt with under common items.
Despite these problems, we're clear in our reasoning for joining the Council. President Obama and Secretary Clinton believe human rights matters and that we can accomplish more working from within than standing outside as a critic. Secretary of State Clinton traveled to Geneva two weeks ago to address the high‑level session of the Human Rights Council. Her presence underscored the fact that this resolution on Iran comes at an important time and that it will be seen through the lens of the international community's commitment to human rights in the wider region. I was proud to join her behind the US placard. And I will leave you with her words in describing the effort to achieve a special rapporteur on Iran:
This will be a seminal moment for this Council, and a test of our ability to work together to advance the goals that it represents. Indeed, every member of this Council should ask him‑ or herself a simple question: Why do people have the right to live free from fear in Tripoli, but not Tehran? The denial of human dignity in Iran is an outrage that deserves the condemnation of all who speak out for freedom and justice.
Victory on the creation of a special rapporteur is only one step. If we're successful, it will be up to all of us to ensure that this new mandate is not only turning point for the Human Rights Council, but also a real and concrete step to improve the human rights situation for millions of people in Iran.
MR. ABDI: Okay, so we have about 15 minutes for questions. I will start in the audience over here. Ali.
MR. SCOTTON: Hello, I'm Ali Scotton from Booz Allen Hamilton's Persia house. As you mentioned, the United States recently passed or enacted travel and financial sanctions on human rights abusers in Iran, which was seen as a step forward by many. There are limitations though. For instance, I don't know any Revolutionary Guards commanders that were planning on visiting Disneyland anytime soon.
So my question is, what efforts is the State Department making to pressure countries in Europe as well as other places, like Turkey and Dubai, to enact similar sanctions?
MS. NOSSEL: That's a part of a very robust conversation that we now have with our allies about the broad strategy to address the situation in Iran and all of the tactics and tools. And I think there's a lot of common ground, a wide sense that we need to do more. I think the resolution has helped to sort of jump‑start that debate and conversation. It's something that we're very actively pursuing.
MR. ABDI: Dokhi?
MS. FASSIHIAN: I'm Dokhi Fassihian with the Democracy Coalition Project. Thanks so much, Suzanne. I first want to applaud the US Government for its leadership at the Human Rights Council on this issue, an issue that the DCP has been focused on, and also applaud you for the incredible work that you've been doing in changing the dynamics on the Human Rights Council, in particular, the outcome of the special session on Libya and the suspension of Libya from the Human Rights Council. And we hope this trend will continue.
My question is with regard to the special rapporteur that's going to be established. Will this rapporteur be able to report on violations in the past? I mean, since 2009? Or is it now forward looking?
MS. NOSSEL: It is forward looking, but to the extent that abuses that the rapporteurs documenting relate to historical events, to legislation past, to measures taken, you know, there's an opportunity to put it in context. In practice, the good rapporteurs interpret their mandates broadly, and so they can, they do, link together periods of events and, try not to look at what they're seeing right in front of them in isolation. So I think we can be hopeful that there will be a wider context and a wider lens. But is technically a mandate that's forward going from the time it is established.
DR. PARSI: Suzanne, thank you. I want to echo the sentiments of expressing gratefulness that the administration has really elevated this issue of human rights. I think during the conference earlier today the viewpoints that were expressed indicated that there was some frustration that the approach thus far has been very much focused on the nuclear issue and there is a need for a greater balance.
What I wanted to ask is, are we seeing a shift in which the approach going forward is going to have a much stronger component of human rights in a sustainable fashion that is going to really become a cornerstone of the policy? And if so, will it also then entail addressing some of the effects? It also was brought up during the conference that some US sanctions have had, in the sense of creating problems for the opposition to be able to communicate outside, there seems to be some opportunities for quick fixes that would enable lifting some of the sanctions that have inhibited communication, et cetera, which is so critical for the pro‑democracy movement.
MS. NOSSEL: Thank you. I think our policy is multifaceted, and it will continue to be so. So I wouldn't put any one dimension ahead or behind or to the exclusion of others. But I will say it's clear, we're very focused and committed to making progress on the human rights situation and putting political capital on the line to do so. It's an effort that the White House is engaged in, that many people across the State Department are engaged in, and we've seen a really high level of commitment to this. I think that will be sustained.
I think everybody does recognize that this special rapporteur, while important, is no panacea and that we're going to need to continue to work, to look for new means and mechanisms to spotlight the issues and keep the pressure off.
As far as the kinds of concerns that you're raising, of course we have an interest in ensuring freedom of expression ‑‑ that people are able to associate, to assemble, to articulate their views ‑‑ and so concerns in terms of how other policies are interfering with that are affecting that. You know, it's something that we would certainly take seriously and look at.
MS. WOODBURY: Thank you. I'm Victoria Woodbury with Senator Menendez.
I wanted to ask about ‑‑ it has been a problem in the Human Rights Council, accountability and enforcement, even after a special rapporteur has made his or her recommendations, and you mentioned the importance of making sure that Iran will pay a price if it doesn't cooperate with just letting the rapporteur in.
What would that look like, and what has been discussed as what can be put forth?
MS. NOSSEL: That's a good question. You know, I think we are seeing some greater focus on the Human Rights Council on tangible steps to influence accountability. We established, as part of the Emergency Special Session that was convened on Libya, a commission of inquiry, and that commission has already been constituted and is starting to go about their work. So that's good. I mean, that's actually something action oriented that the Council did rather quickly.
We're now having a discussion about a potential commission of inquiry for Côte D'Ivoire, which similarly is a warranted next step to continue to put the pressure on in a grave situation that was the subject of an emergency session back in December.
But we really need to look, at every stage, at what measures we've taken and then how well they're working and what we can do next, and I think over time, also how we can expand the toolbox because it's not as broad‑ranging as we might want it to be. This is something we've talked about Council, about doing ‑‑ you know, what are additional things that can be done with the Office of the High Commissioner and with other kinds of steps?
But I think we'll have to look at the situation, see what the access issues are, and what might have an effect in ameliorating them.
MR. SHAHBAZI: Thank you very much, Madam Secretary, for the remarks you made. I teach ‑‑ I'm from Webster University, Hossein Shahbazi. And I want you to help me to explain it to my students when they ask me ‑‑ I actually had the question last week ‑‑ when they ask me, how do you explain when the American government, the US Government, vetoed down the settlement resolution, which is, you know, of course, a violation of human rights, and then, and correctly and rightly goes after Iran with the special rapporteur resolution.
I tried to say that they are two different things, and I try to defend the policy, that, you know, well, it's just some things are more concrete than some other ones, just trying with all my means to explain it away, but it doesn't sit well with them.
So I want you to explain not only ‑‑ I mean, help me to understand ‑‑ but also, I read somewhere that some of your colleagues from Europe are also not coming on board because of the very fact that they feel there's a double standard again, that America, or the US government, is playing.
So I would appreciate your comments.
MS. NOSSEL: Sure, thank you. In this case, for Iran, Iran has been the subject of a very strong General Assembly resolution now for many years that passes with large and growing majority of votes. So this gap that I talked about in not having this dedicated rapporteur, I think does make sense to a lot of delegations as a necessary next step. But I think that's why we, working with others, have been able to make the case for it.
On Israel, as you know and as we said at the time when we vetoed that resolution, our concern was really that passage of that resolution and action in the UN Security Council was not going to advance the cause of sustainable direct talks and peace between the parties, that it actually would risk setting that cause back. We also, when we get to the Human Rights Council and the many Israel‑related resolutions that passed there, as I mentioned, we have a structural anomaly at the Council.
We have a standalone, dedicated, single agenda item just devoted to Israel, whereas every other country in the world, good, bad ‑‑ I think it's 191 of them ‑‑ are dealt with together under two other items. So there is a structural anomaly in the Council, and that makes it difficult to try to look at the issues in the way that one should, in a balanced way that treats all countries equally.
So the history of the UN's treatment of Israel is a difficult one. I think we still struggle with it, and it makes it tough, certainly, for us to look at these resolutions in a positive light and to look at them as efforts that are aimed at actually generating human rights improvement on the ground, as opposed to other motives. So that's really, I know it's an issue that we're not agree on with everybody, but that's how we see it.
PARTICIPANT: My question is also about a double standard, but a completely different one. Over the past few weeks to couple months, we've seen the Iranian government expend considerable effort to highlight or oppose or condemn the use of repression against the people in Egypt and in Libya, in Tunisia, and most recently, of course, in Bahrain.
And yet, as this condemnation from the Iranian government through their various kind of press organs rings hollow to us and to the people of Iran and to the people of the Middle East, there is still a sense that this kind of obvious hypocrisy or kind of delegitimized discourse by the government is not utilized effectively by us in the West in dealing with the Iranian government.
Do you feel, or is the State Department taking or considering more effective or active messaging efforts to delegitimize, literally, the rhetoric of the government in Iran in light of the fact that it does enjoy considerable soft power in the Middle East? Is there a way to more effectively utilize that double‑standard issue and kind of use it as an attack prong rather than being defensive about it?
MS. NOSSEL: You know, I think we're always on lookout for more effective ways to make these points to call those issues out. I think this effort on the special rapporteur is a piece of it, to say amidst this very complex and fast‑moving situation, here is a government whose record and conduct is clear, and we need to take action on it and can't be delayed. So, you know, that's one piece.
I'm not sure exactly what you have in mind about how we could do it more effectively. But I'm sure there would be interest in, you know, hearing out all ideas about how to get these messages across.
MR. ABDI: Thanks so much, Suzanne.
DR. PARSI: Thank you all. Thank you, Suzanne, for a very in‑depth presentation and for the work that the Obama administration is doing on this issue. I want to thank you all who came here today. I think we had a wonderful event, very lively conversations, and I want to take a last opportunity to thank the sponsors of the Conference, Connect US, the Ploughshares Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, as well Senator Carl Levin for being kind enough to sponsor the room for us today.
Thank you all so much.
(Whereupon, the above-entitled matter went off the record at 12:29 p.m.)