Iran’s Nuclear Chill

Talking with Iran about its nuclear program might help the cause of peace. But so far the nuclear dispute has been a disaster for the human rights of Iranians.


Over the past year, Iran’s relations with the West have undergone a dramatic transformation. Last fall, the United States and Europe embarked on direct talks with Tehran about Iran’s nuclear program, an unprecedented level of diplomatic engagement. Last September, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke to each other on the phone, the first direct contact between the two countries’ leaders in 34 years. In just the past few weeks we’ve learned about a secret letter that Obama sent to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In any case, the nuclear talks are still on track, raising Iranian hopes that the standoff with the West over the country’s nuclear program could finally come to an end before the Nov. 24 deadline.

Yet the promise of greater openness toward the outside world has not come with a comparable flexibility at home. The country is still divided between moderates who favor reform, and hard-liners who oppose any change to the status quo. A surge in executions, a crackdown on activists, and new regulations on Internet access may show that Iran’s extremists are determined not to lose their grip at home as they are losing their control over foreign policy.

Most Iranians consider ending the nuclear row with the West a top priority, since they hope that an accord will bring an end to the economic sanctions that have wreaked havoc on the country’s economy. The West imposed crippling sanctions in 2012 after Iran refused to halt its sensitive uranium enrichment program. Though Iran said it was using the process to make nuclear fuel for its reactors for civilian energy production, the United States and its European allies feared Iran would use the technology to make a nuclear bomb.

The resulting economic restrictions have made it hard for Iran to sell its oil, the source of over 70 percent of its public revenue. Inflation soared to 34 percent last year, according to the central bank, and supplies of medicine and other imported goods were disrupted. By the time Iranians returned to the negotiating table in November 2013, the country’s economy had shrunk by 1.9 percent over the previous year. In the year since the talks resumed, economic growth has risen by 4 percent, according to a new report by the central bank. To some extent, this reflects a relative rebound of confidence as the nuclear talks have continued.

Last year, in 2013, Iranians elected a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on a promise to seek rapprochement with the West to ease the sanctions. Under his leadership, Iran has taken steps to slow down its nuclear program and to assure the United States that it poses no threat. It has accepted intrusive inspections to prove that it is serious about wanting a deal with the United States.

But the sanctions have also empowered the opponents of the president, who reject more open foreign and domestic policies. They control the security apparatus, the courts, and even the majority of the seats in parliament. The sanctions have helped the Revolutionary Guards — the armed forced founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 to protect the Islamic Revolution — grow into a major player in Iran’s politics and economy.

When the sanctions made it difficult for the government to sell oil legally, the Revolutionary Guards took charge of Iran’s underground, illegal oil market. The Guards were also able to seize control of oil projects left incomplete by foreign investors forced to abandon them because of the sanctions. All this has helped the Guards to expand their political and economic influence. If the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program ends, the Guards will lose much of this power. As Tehran economist Saeed Laylaz explains: “The hard-liners are opposed to a deal because they will lose their control over huge revenues that they have controlled and wasted over the past few years.”

Bearing this in mind, Rouhani’s conservative opponents warned him ahead of his trip to the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September to avoid reconciliation with the United States, which is widely seen as the key to ending the sanctions.

“Anyone who shows the green light to the U.S. will fall prey to humiliation,” warned lawmaker Hamid Rasaei. He made this statement at a panel discussion organized by a group called the Committee to Protect the Interests of Iran, which is linked to the hard-liners. Rasaei described Rouhani’s phone call with Obama as a “conversation with Satan.” (In the photo above, protesters assemble figures with nooses and blindfolds as part of a protest against Rouhani during the U.N. General Assembly.)

Meanwhile, the hard-liners have done all they can to tighten their grip on society while they still wield influence. In September, a court sentenced six young men and women to a suspended sentence of 91 lashes and six to 12 months of jail. Their crime: making a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy.”  The judiciary also arrested 11 people for sending text messages that allegedly ridiculed the deceased founder of the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Dozens of activists and journalists, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American, remain incarcerated on ambiguous security-related charges. The Tehran city government has segregated its female employees, banishing them to separate offices. Police issued a new directive banning women from working at coffee shops, restaurants, and appearing on stages. These attempts seem to be part of a broader effort to exclude women from public spaces.

The number of executions has soared this year. In recent weeks, conservative judges have pushed through two controversial executions despite international campaigns to save the victims’ lives. One man was hanged in September on charges that he had insulted the Prophet Mohammed. The second person, Reyhaneh Jabari, went to the gallows in late October for stabbing her rapist, an intelligence ministry agent, to death. The U.S. State Department, the British government, and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, condemned her execution. The two hangings brought the total number of executions since Rouhani took office to 967.

Yet the moderates have done nothing to prevent these attacks on their citizens’ civil and human rights. They’ve eschewed tough talk on rights abuses at home, clearly opting, for now, to prioritize the nuclear negotiations instead. In an interview with National Public Radio in the United States, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a moderate, distanced himself from Rezaian’s arrest and justified the reporter’s detention as a legal procedure. Rezaian, a journalist accredited by the government, has been in jail for nearly three months without any charges pressed against him.

“I’m not in a position … to tell you what his charges are,” Zarif said. “But whatever he has done, he has done as an Iranian citizen, not as an American citizen. He is facing interrogation in Iran for what he has done as an Iranian citizen.” When asked to explain the charges against Rezaian, Zarif responded that the Iranian judiciary “has no obligation” to explain to the United States why it is detaining an American citizen.

While President Rouhani has repeatedly denounced the crackdown, he has been unable to improve the situation.

Many believe the moderates are right in focusing on the nuclear negotiations. “They know that if they succeed in ending the nuclear issue, it can deepen their reach and influence domestically as well,” said Sanam Anderlini, the executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C., that supports civil society activism outside the United States.

This summer, in a symptomatic move, hard-line lawmakers introduced a bill to legalize the “promotion of virtue and suppression of vice.” A few weeks into the summer, the self-proclaimed morality police, known as Ansar Hezbollah, announced that its men were launching a campaign to discipline women wearing makeup or showing too much hair under their obligatory headscarves, as well as targeting young men who looked “Western” in public. Since the 1979 revolution, the country’s leaders have made ample use of such campaigns, often under the guise of “promoting virtue and suppressing vice,” to rein in the public. They often arrest, fine, or even flog violators.

Ansar Hezbollah was forced to cancel its campaign in Tehran this summer after the government weighed in. But the attacks have continued in other horrifying ways. Later that summer, a helmeted man on a motorbike launched a series of acid attacks in the streets of the central city Isfahan. He sprayed acid on over a dozen people in separate attacks before speeding away on his bike. Some nine people, four of them men, have been disfigured and blinded. One person was killed.

Though the assailant has yet to be identified, many have blamed the attacks on the hard-liners’ morality campaign. Angered, citizens called for protests through social media networks and thousands gathered outside the Parliament in Tehran to denounce the bill. Thousands of others took to the streets in Isfahan to express their anger with the attacks, chanting slogans against the militia forces and comparing the violence with the atrocities that ISIS is committing in Syria and Iraq. Hard-liners fought back by arresting protesters, including a photographer who was covering the demonstrations, and urging the judiciary to arrest anyone who claimed that the attacks were linked to the controversial bill.

There are no quick ways to end the hard-liners’ control over major institutions in Iran. But Iranians know that hard-liners thrive in a vacuum; many therefore seek to draw the country out of its current isolation. To do that, independent media have made no secret that they favor a deal with West. One moderate newspaper published a front-page column urging Zarif and Rouhani to respond positively to President Obama’s conciliatory call during his address at the General Assembly last month. “The United States president avoided a harsh and threatening tone toward Iran and encouraged Iran to use the opportunity to build a balanced foreign policy,” Fereydoun Majlesi, an international policy analyst, wrote. “Being acquainted with Mr. Rouhani and Zarif’s moderate and wise choices, I hope they take advantage of this opportunity.”

There is no guarantee that civil society will have more space if the nuclear dispute ends. Many believe that the campaign to suppress civil liberties is the work of a desperate group. “Hard-liners are sending a message to moderates that they won’t give up,” said Laylaz, the Tehran economist. “Their policies indicate that they don’t want to allow moderates to continue opening up the country if in fact they manage to reach a nuclear deal with the West.”

Nazila Fathi, the author of the book Lonely War, reported from Iran for the New York Times until she was forced to leave the country in 2009. Twitter: @nazilafathi