Shadow Government

Cartoons, Dissent, and Human Rights in Iran

Cruel anti-Semitic attacks are “never solely about Jews,” Ruth Wisse wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week. Jews are the most vulnerable targets at hand to destroy the narrative of democracy that despots disdain—free speech, press, and religion. Such images are particular irritants to Islamists because they are threatened by freedom. And as noted ...

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Cruel anti-Semitic attacks are “never solely about Jews,” Ruth Wisse wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week. Jews are the most vulnerable targets at hand to destroy the narrative of democracy that despots disdain—free speech, press, and religion. Such images are particular irritants to Islamists because they are threatened by freedom. And as noted student of Islam, Daniel Pipes argued in the National Review, “Images, not words, most disturb Islamists.”

Now controversy abounds worldwide and in America about whether to support free speech of the cartoonists of the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was attacked by gunmen earlier this month. Their rights should be supported because the satirical drawings reflect freedom from oppression: Gérard Biard, chief editor of Charlie Hebdo, told Meet the Press that cartoon parodies of religious figures safeguard freedom of religion, because they “declare that God must not be a political or public figure, but instead must be a private one.”

Despite protests and debate, many quietly laugh at despotic rulers of the directly affected areas, making despots’ lack of legitimacy apparent and erode their assumed right to rule. Cartoons and comedy are frowned upon by al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri and his affiliate in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasser al Wuhayshi; the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed “Caliph” of a new caliphate on Iraqi and Syrian territory; and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “Supreme Leader” of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The latter prevails as if he had a right to rule from God and increasingly enforces his diktats by a brutal morality police force, said Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and was punished by the regime for her defense of human rights in Iran.

Despotism and cruelty are an integral part of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It seeks to impose a brand of Shiite Islam on uncooperative Sunnis by extending its 1979 Islamist Revolution over the region covertly, as in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. But wait: Saudi is also not a paragon of rights, having sentenced a man to a prison term and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam, a “vicious act of cruelty,” according to Amnesty International, which reported the incident earlier this month. A nuclear-armed Tehran, however, is much more dangerous than non-nuclear Riyadh, though they are both serial rights violators.

While President Obama finally seems to see al Qaeda and the Islamic State as the threats they are, he apparently views Iran as a normal state with which to do business. Consistent with the State Department Country Reports on Terrorism, Obama views al Qaeda and the Islamic State as perils, but he fails to hold the Iranian regime accountable for facts in the Department’s annual identification of Tehran as main state sponsor of international terrorism. Ditto for State’s report on the country’s human rights practices, which cites: “disappearances, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment…beatings and rape…arbitrary arrest and lengthy pretrial detention.”

One reason to place al Qaeda and the Islamic State with Iran is their common lack of human rights. Extremist religiosity and despotic politics create a lethal cocktail: Shiite cleric, religious scholar, and former member of the Iraqi parliament, Sayyed Ayad Jamal Al-Din, said in 2010 that “Whoever wants the rule of the shari’a should turn…to the Ayatollah’s government in Iran…human rights do not exist in Islam.”

Historian Reza Afshari, in his Human Rights in Iran details the game plan for how Iran denies human rights on religious grounds. While other Muslim-majority entities grant some rights, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Iran are primetime deniers of such rights.

The White House has failed to use its bully pulpit effectively to call attention to delicts of the Islamic State, despite evidence from Human Rights Watch (HRW), which conducted an analysis of photographs and satellite imagery.’’ HRW concluded that the Islamic State conducted mass executions in Tikrit, Iraq, after seizing control on June 11, 2014. The White House ignored a report of the Iran Human Rights Documents Center that Iran conducts massive numbers of executions via public hangings by trucks.

Illustrative of the lack of human rights in Iran is Section 186 of Tehran’s Islamic Criminal Code. The code criminalizes membership in and/or support for any group’s members considered as “enemies of God” (Mohareb). Irrespective of whether or not they have committed violent acts, people considered as Mohareb are subject to capital punishment, simply because they oppose the illegitimate basis of the Supreme Leader’s reign.

Despite intense competition between AQAP and Jabhat al-Nusra, on one hand, and the Islamic State, on the other hand, their existence derives from the 1979 Islamist Revolution of Iran. The potential for global Islamism received a shot in the arm when Ayatollahs seized power in Iran, which created the first real theocracy in modern times. As does the Islamic State, Iran recognizes, in practice, no borders. To export the Iranian Revolution abroad, Tehran uses military action by a variety of Shiite groups in Iraq and covert operations via proxies like Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and Sunni Hamas in Gaza.

Going forward, the president should use hard power against al Qaeda, its affiliates, and the Islamic State, retaining such tools while also looking back in time at the playbook authored by three other Democrats — Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson, Max Kampelman, and Jean Kirkpatrick. They advocated reinforcing hard power with the smart power of human rights to undercut the waning legitimacy of communist regimes.

A Republican, whom I served, President Ronald Reagan, placed human rights on the table of nuclear missile talks in Europe, according to his secretary of state, George Shultz; Reagan also used his bully pulpit to pressure the Soviet Union. But President Obama need not place human rights on the table at this late in the nuclear talks with Tehran to have an effect, if he speaks out from the Oval Office of Iran’s denial of human rights.

The senator and the two ambassadors understood communism lacked popular appeal, and its desperate despots used cruelty to retain power. I had the privilege of serving with Kampelman as representative of the secretary of defense, U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and working with Kirkpatrick when she was at the U.N., and I was in the Reagan White House. From them, I learned that soft power of human rights could undercut the narrative of leaders of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Mr. President, I hope your State of the Union address effectively demonstrates a commitment to work with a bipartisan majority in Congress, instead of threatening to veto congressional action that compels Iran to abandon its ambitions as a nuclear-armed threshold state. I trust you also recommit to naming and shaming that undercuts rule by Ayatollahs of Iran and to defeat of al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Fortunately, you have a few months left in the Oval Office to use your bully pulpit in support of human rights to erode the reign of despots that use cruelty to sustain power.

MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

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