A perspective on the nuclear talks with Iran and what it means for Iranian people, human rights, and peace. This post originally appeared on Harry’s Place.
“Nuclear energy is our indisputable right”
Eight years ago when I last lived in Iran, the slogan: “Nuclear energy is our indisputable right” had become the punchline to a joke. When I shopped for fish at a popular market on Jordan Street in Tehran, the staff greeted me by chanting it in a friendly manner. On a trip to Kermanshah a Kurdish family asked me: “Is nuclear energy only your indisputable right, or is it also ours?” When then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the provinces, he was met by people chanting, “A public swimming pool is our indisputable right.” During the 2009 election campaigns, people sent text messages to each other that read: “Sorry I woke you up at this time of night. It’s nothing special – I just wanted to say that nuclear energy is our indisputable right.”
On April 2, as Iranians were celebrating the closing day of their two-week New Year’s holidays, the news broke that negotiators had at last come to an understanding about the framework for a nuclear agreement. That framework includes replacing the core at the Arak heavy water plant and decreasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 95%, as well as intensive inspections. It also means that Iran won’t leave the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
Vocal hardliners have been quick to point out the framework’s weaknesses, with some in the US and Israel arguing that it is too soft and those in Iran claiming the country is surrendering. Some have interpreted the celebration of Iranians as meaning that the P5+1 negotiating team cut a bad deal. This shows a lack of understanding of Iran. People there take to the streets to celebrate World Cup losses. Any opportunity for public celebration is welcomed.
What many in Iran seem to particularly long for is rapprochement with the West and with the United States in particular. According to an article by Narges Bajoghli, the majority of those in Iran’s Basij and Revolutionary Guards also look forward better ties to the West. She writes:
In over nine years of on-the-ground research with different factions of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij, I have found that an underlying concern for many, regardless of political leaning, is a desire to create an Iran with more opportunities for their children, and that means the removal of sanctions and better relations with the world.
The role of sanctions
Tough sanctions may have brought Iran to the negotiating table, but what kept them there was the knowledge that the people of Iran wanted engagement with the West. This was made clear in 2009 in the wake of the disputed and flawed presidential elections and again with the election of current president Rouhani. Iranian voters overwhelmingly rejected the candidate seen as representing the Supreme Leader’s foreign policy, then nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Jalili ran for office specifically on his record of standing firm on Iran’s right to its nuclear program.
There is a strong sense of nationhood and national pride among most Iranians inside and outside the country. The nuclear program, which has been a cause of so much pain and deprivation in Iran, represents accomplishment and security even to those who would seem to be its natural detractors. For a final agreement to be successful, the people of Iran need to have some evidence that their suffering under the sanctions regime was not for nothing. This means lifting sanctions that hurt them the most and making sure to do it with great fanfare. For instance lifting the sanctions on refined petroleum, which have contributed to a dramatic increase in pollution in cities like Tehran, may immediately contribute to cleaner air.
Sanctions also camouflage corruption. They allow profiteers to drive up prices on items such as medicines and create false shortages. They give power to the corrupt and dangerous in society. I saw this every day when I lived in Iran. I saw how poorly the US and Europe communicated both the scope of and the reason for the sanctions to the Iranian people.
While most human rights advocates and Iran’s civil society welcome a negotiated agreement, there is concern that hardliners will seek to establish their control by increasing oppressive measures. Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran says:
Iran could be roiled in political tension in the wake of the agreement, and even more so if a more permanent agreement is reached in June. Hardliners will push to maintain political relevancy, while pent up demand for basic rights, long frozen as Iran locked horns with the West, will rise to the surface.
The Iranian government’s record on human rights is disastrous. Ethnic minorities face severe discrimination and suppression of their rights. The rate of execution per capita is the highest in the world. Religious minorities, particularly the Baha’i, suffer. The Baha’i face arrest, harassment, and barriers to education. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, stated that pressure on Iran is especially important: “Iran is the country in the region with the biggest gap between potential [for respect for human rights] and reality.” People in Iran are ready to claim their own rights and are chipping away at the structure that limits them. As one Tehran professor recently wrote in an open letter to the spokeswoman for Iran’s foreign ministry, defending Dr. Shaheed:
The fact is, even if in all of the almost 200 member states of the UN, human rights are violated, and Western countries keep silent against all of them, violations of human rights in the 201st country are still unjustifiable.
A successful agreement that relieves the state of near-war means that civil society and human rights defenders will gain more space. The state of conflict with other powers and the isolation of the country are often used as excuses for tamping down dissent and arresting human rights defenders. They face charges such as “compromising national security” and “spreading propaganda against the state.” With a final agreement, these spurious charges will become more and more ridiculous and harder to defend. A successful agreement also means that human rights defenders can lobby other powers for support without hearing the response: “All we care about is a nuclear agreement.”
Give peace a chance
Some of you may think I’ve been “irantoxified” as a result of my four-year stay in Iran. I can tell you that I was, indeed, fundamentally changed by the experience. I felt real oppression for the first time in my life. I had to learn to control myself emotionally, physically and verbally. I also became passionate about human rights, not just in oppressive countries like Iran, but in free countries like the United States and the Netherlands. I saw what war does to family and friends and watched as my sister-in-law trembled uncontrollably at the news that American warships were in the Persian Gulf. I met Basiji who valued democracy, a judge who opposed the nuclear program, observant women who railed against forced hijab, a transgender man who read tea leaves, and ruthless profiteers. I was met with kindness and hospitality that were both unexpected and comforting. I buried people I loved there. I left the country wanting nothing less than the best possible future for the people who had welcomed me so unabashedly.
There will not be a linear path to reform and an opening of society. There never is anywhere. Iranians will have high expectations that an agreement will solve their economic and social woes. This is true even as they make jokes about expectations of buying whiskey in supermarkets and going into the streets in shorts.
In summation, if this agreement is to work and if the government of Iran is to be persuaded to permanently give up any efforts to build a bomb, the people of Iran need to be convinced they’ve made the best of all possible agreements. In the wake of the agreement, sanctions need to be lifted quickly and loudly. By publicly clarifying what is no longer sanctioned, the US and Europeans can give the people of Iran the information they need to hold their own government accountable for economic malaise. The sanctions will no longer be cover. The benefits of being part of the international community must be made clear to the people of Iran. They are certainly aware of the suffering that comes from isolation.