Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Promoting tolerance and justice through knowledge and understanding
Human Rights Watch

Iran's Elected Leaders Are Ready to Listen

Human Rights Watch
September 17, 2002

TEHRAN Iran is on the edge of imminent implosion. Poverty, unemployment, drug addiction and prostitution are widespread among the young. People under 34 constitute half of the country's population. Many of them voted for the reformist president, Mohammed Khatami. Now they are deeply disappointed.

Khatami and his supporters know that the Iranian people expect them to deliver on their promises. In a major speech Aug. 28, the president acknowledged that his reform initiatives have been blocked, and pledged to take measures to implement "real democracy." Millions of Iranians hope he can succeed. But after five years of unfulfilled promises, their hope is wearing thin.

If there is one clear enemy of human rights and political reform in Iran today, it is the judiciary. So when I recently met Mohammed Javad Larijani, the deputy head of the judiciary with responsibility for international affairs and human rights, a newly created post, I expected that we would vehemently disagree about almost everything.

Iran's judiciary has been the most effective weapon in the hands of conservatives under Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is responsible for much repression and many egregious human rights violations.

But Larijani, a sophisticated man who speaks fluent English, made no apologies. He believes that both conservatives in the past and now reformists have proved to be incompetent to run the country. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with him.

President Khatami believes that change can only take place peacefully and within the framework of the Iranian constitution. But it is a flawed document that accords absolute power to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Khamenei has given his full support to the hard-liners who are behind the shutdown of more than 85 publications in the last two years, the imprisonment of many journalists, writers and political activists, the crushing of student demonstrations and banning of political parties, and the imposition of even more restrictions on everyday life.

The conservatives have warned that any challenge to the status quo will result in bloodshed. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - during whose presidency government agents killed hundreds of Iranians, inside and outside the country, because of their political beliefs - has reportedly said that the conservative establishment would mobilize 2 million people in its support, and would not hesitate to use its 400,000-strong private army against the people to hold on to power.

How can the United States craft a policy toward Iran that is at the same time realistic and principled?

First, Washington must make clear that it rejects certain parts of the political spectrum. Reformists in Tehran were shocked that the foreign policy chief of the European Union, Javier Solaña, met with Rafsanjani during a recent visit to Tehran.

Clearly, it is hard for Washington to have much direct influence over internal affairs in Iran. When President George W. Bush called Iran part of the "axis of evil," he certainly gained the attention of all sides in Iran's complex power struggle. In many ways, Bush was right - for more than two decades, the Iranian government has perpetrated many cruel human rights abuses upon its people, and that is indeed evil. On the other hand, the saber-rattling that has accompanied Bush's use of the "axis of evil" metaphor is deeply disturbing to Iranians, and has strengthened hard-liners who thrive on perpetuating conflict with the West.

At the same time, the United States should not hesitate to criticize Iran when such criticism is warranted. Khatami, while objecting to "U.S. threats" against Iran, has made it clear that he is ready to open a dialogue with America without preconditions. In doing so, Khatami has distanced himself from conservatives who call it a crime to seek to normalize relations with the United States.

The Bush administration should take Khatami at his word, and approach Iran's elected leaders with its full range of concerns about Iranian policy. Several of those leaders have themselves objected, in the Iranian Parliament and elsewhere, to such practices as smuggling arms to the Palestinian Authority or harboring Al Qaeda suspects. The United States will find its criticism has supporters in various parts of the Iranian government.

The problem, of course, is that Iran's in-house critics, from the president on down, are powerless to bring about change. Still, in the murky domain of Iranian politics, the United States should not lose sight of the goal of helping to restore basic freedoms and human rights to the Iranian people. The Bush administration can best do that by engaging frankly and directly with their elected leaders.