PoliticsHome: A range of politicians and analysts have recently argued for close cooperation between the United States and Iran on issues such as the sectarian conflict in Iraq. The view is irresponsibly neglectful of the dangers still posed by the Iranian regime.

 

Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile QC reviews the situation in Iran one year after President Hassan Rouhani was elected.

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A range of politicians and analysts have recently argued for close cooperation between the United States and Iran on issues such as the sectarian conflict in Iraq. The view is irresponsibly neglectful of the dangers still posed by the Iranian regime.

One of the major justifications for this argument is the presence of a new president whose approachability and charm seems to point to more moderate, more reasonable prospects for Iranian policy.

But with Rouhani having held the position of president for one year as of this week, it is time for that narrative to be abandoned. It is time that it be recognized for what it was: wishful thinking based on Western hopes for a popular upsurge of democracy in the Middle East.

There has always been a desire for democracy and civil freedom in Iran. But it was naïve to think that the regime of the mullahs would stand aside and hand over the presidency to someone who would contravene their interests by embracing even a portion of the people’s desire for change.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Council of Experts would not do this, and they did not. The first year of Rouhani’s presidency has proven that. The repressive policies that have defined the last 35 years of the Islamic Republic continue as does the disappointment of the Iranian people, who have seen none of Rouhani’s charmingly moderate campaign promises fulfilled.

In the past year, there have beeed out – a marked increase over the previous yean at least 800 executions carrir’s supposedly more conservative government. And this fact signals not only the continuation of extreme law enforcement policies, but also the expansion of political repression. Many of these executions have had recognizably political motivations, as with the hasty and secretive execution on June 1 of Gholamreza Khosravi, a 47-year-old activist charged with “enmity against God” because of his support for the People Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), the principal Iranian resistance group.

The same group has been attacked outside of Iran’s borders in incidents that testify to the persistent Iranian desire for regional hegemony. The Rouhani government has strongly influenced Nouri al-Maliki’s exclusionary Shiite government in Iraq, especially in light of the sectarian crisis that precipitated Maliki’s consolidation of power. That influence has allowed Iran to launch proxy attacks against the MEK community living in exile at Baghdad’s Camp Liberty.

Repression of Iran’s political opposition has also been matched by continued repression of the press and of the people’s rights of expression. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that there are at least 35 journalists imprisoned in Iran today, but Journalists Without Borders puts its minimum estimate at 65. Increased press freedom was perhaps one of the most common expectations of change after Rouhani’s presidential campaign, but the situation has, if anything, grown worse. The high-profile arrest of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian ought to leave no room for doubt among Western observers that Iran under Rouhani is still a dangerously repressive landscape.

Of course, this should already have been obvious in light of several instances of Iranians being arrested for posting opinions on Facebook or for expressing themselves creatively on YouTube. International headlines were devoted to the story in May of six youths being arrested for dancing to the Pharrell Williams song, “Happy.” The outcry helped to secure their release, and it also prompted a response from President Rouhani, who said in a tweet that Iran should avoid being “too hard on behaviors caused by joy.”

While the West was quick to interpret this statement as confirmation of their optimistic assumptions about Rouhani’s policy positions, neither the tweet nor any subsequent statements actually said that their arrest was wrong or that similarly “obscene” or pro-Western activities shouldn’t be punished in some fashion. And indeed, many others have been, even though those cases have tended to garner fewer headlines. Indeed, in July eight Facebook users were sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years for purportedly insulting Islam and state officials.

All of this paints a rather clear picture of a “new” Iran that is largely characterized by business-as-usual. In the domestic sphere it is worth noting that perhaps the soft-approach observers do not care about Iran’s domestic sphere. Perhaps they see Rouhani’s charm in meetings with foreign leaders, and feel that this is a foreign president with whom the US can do cold pragmatic business with.

If that is the view that Western optimists are taking, then it must be emphasized that a leader’s foreign policies cannot be viewed in total isolation. What Iran and Rouhani do at home is relevant to what they do abroad. Iran’s continued support for Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki, and its advocacy for an expansion of the fighting in Palestine might be more surprising if the Rouhani administration was defined by the moderation that so many people assumed it would be.

As it is, these foreign policies are perfectly predictable. They are the same sorts of policies that the Islamic Republic would have pursued under Ahmedinejad and earlier. Other Iranian actions, including their follow-through on the nuclear issue, could be equally predictable. But to draw sound conclusions on these topics, we have to recognize what Rouhani’s Iran looks like from the inside, and judge his presidency accordingly.

Lord Alex Carlile of Berriew CBE, QC was the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation in the United Kingdom (2001-2011). He is a senior member of UK House of Lords and co-chairman of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom.