Historians will record the blood-soaked days of November as some of the worst mass killings of protesters in modern Iranian history. A sudden increase in fuel prices led to protests across the country; the regime responded with brute violence.
Amnesty International has verified “at least” 304 deaths between Nov. 15 and 18. Credible Iranian opposition sources have cited a preliminary figure of 366 while The New York Times reported that “180 to 450 people, and possibly more, were killed,” with “at least 2,000 wounded and 7,000 detained.” A statement from the Iranian Writers’ Association observed: “Every corner of Iran is mourning the atrocities.” Iranian artists, physicians, trade unionists and teachers have condemned the repression.
The Islamic Republic is in damage control mode as it seeks to manage growing public anger and international demands for accountability. Reversing the regime’s early narrative that these protests were a foreign plot, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has admitted the loss of innocent life. He said these citizens were “martyrs” who deserved financial compensation.
These events raise a series of important questions. Why is the Islamic Republic seemingly indifferent to human rights criticism? How does the Iranian government justify its use of violence to crush dissent? Is there anything the international community can do to alleviate this situation?
Over the past 40 years, Iranian leaders have pursued a three-pronged strategy to deflect human rights criticism. They have advanced both religious arguments rooted in claims of Islamic authenticity and secular arguments rooted in anti-imperial nationalism — and they have adopted a policy of neo-Stalinist repression to ensure obedience.
From its inception, the Islamic Republic claimed its brand of Islam encompassed an ethically superior human rights framework. Islam has its own value system, inspired by divine revelation, which has sometimes overlapped with international human rights standards but often has not. For the Iranian regime, a Western secular understanding of human rights did not apply to Iran. Not only were these norms rejected, but Iranian leaders also did so with pride, basking in the glow of Islamic authenticity.
Traditional Islamic concepts have been utilized to guide state policy rooted in a pre-modern and self-serving reading of Islamic law. Equality between genders or religions was rejected; harsh corporal punishments became routine. Though the regime claimed that this model would advance social justice better than the Western model, the result has been a human rights catastrophe.
During the recent protests, for example, an obscure religious expert, Abolfazl Bahrampour, appeared on state television. He provided a Quranic justification for the dismemberment and hanging of protesters. This produced a huge social backlash, reflecting the chasm between state and society. The Islamic Republic’s official news agency was forced to criticize Mr. Bahrampour’s interpretation. He subsequently reappeared to apologize for hermeneutic errors that damaged the reputation of the Islamic faith, offended senior clerics and gave succor to Iran’s enemies.
At a deeper level, Iranian state policy has been shaped by a famous 1988 fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (not the one against Salman Rushdie). In attempting to resolve a public policy dispute between two branches of government, Ayatollah Khomeini decreed that in a clash between the needs of the state and the core pillars of Islam, the needs of the state must take priority — even if this should necessitate the abrogation of “prayer, fasting and pilgrimage.”
Ayatollah Khomeini argued that the Islamic Republic was the living embodiment of Prophet Muhammad’s earthly mission, and so its preservation had to be prioritized above all else. Otherwise, Islam itself would disappear.
During the controversial 2009 presidential election, for example, where vote rigging gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term, it was reported that Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a prominent, hard-line cleric, issued a fatwa permitting the faithful to miscount votes. Given this guiding theological-political principle, virtually any abuse can be justified for reasons of the state.
Third-world nationalism, rooted in a strong anti-imperialist framework, has also been an enduring feature of the Islamic Republic. This theme has been elevated in recent years because of continuing tensions with the United States and Europe and a growing crisis of legitimacy, as Iranian society becomes more secular. Iran deflects criticism of its egregious human rights record by leveling the charge of hypocrisy at its chief critics in the United States and Europe. Western double standards in the Israel-Palestine conflict, President Trump’s embrace of Middle East tyrants and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, feature prominently in this narrative.
And then there is the regime’s model of neo-Stalinist repression, replete with imprisonment of dissidents, assassinations, torture, forced television confessions, censorship and state propaganda. During the recent protests, for example, the family of a slain protester was informed that if they spoke to the media, the authorities would “dig up his body and take it away.” At its core, Iran remains a police state.
Nevertheless, nonviolent civil resistance comes from many quarters. Religious reformers and dissident clerics — their authority stemming from the 1990s, when a widely popular, modernist reading of Islam was suppressed — have led part of the resistance to Iran’s human rights crisis.
They have been joined by women, labor activists, teachers, students, artists, lawyers — all those who have not been cowed by arguments that the only form of injustice facing Iranians derives from American foreign policy. Four decades of clerical rule in Iran have shaped an authoritarian reality that cannot be whitewashed any longer.
There is also the international context to consider. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and the sanctions against Iran have deeply exacerbated the human rights crisis. The sanctions have strengthened the hard-liners, disproportionately affected the average citizen and undermined the work of human rights and democracy activists.
The response by those outside of Iran who support human rights should be twofold: Keep the spotlight on Iran, while also restraining the predatory impulses of the Trump administration and its regional allies who seek a military conflict. While internal repression has reached new heights, further deterioration is possible, notwithstanding the bloody days of November.
Source » nytimes