On November 20, President François Hollande of France received two letters from leading Iranian dissidents about the nuclear negotiations in Geneva.
Heshmatollah Tabarzadi and Emadeddin Baghi, Iranian dissidents who have both recently been in prison, had strikingly divergent advice for Hollande. Baghi urged the president to support the nuclear deal. In strong language, he said France’s earlier opposition to the agreement with Iran “makes the task of Iran’s human rights activists even harder.” Tabarzadi, a leader of the 1999 student uprisings who has been considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, took a different tone. He thanked Hollande for standing in solidarity with Iran’s people in opposing the deal.
Four days later, a narrow and preliminary agreement limited to curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions was announced and accepted by the French, American, British, Chinese, German and Russian governments. It said nothing about Iran’s repression of its own people.
All political movements are subject to internal rifts on tactics and strategy, but for Iran’s besieged democratic opposition, the Geneva deal represents a particularly poignant challenge.
On the one hand, the agreement offers modest relief from the crippling sanctions that have punished Iran’s population by plunging the country’s economy into a deep recession and devaluing its currency, the rial.
But the deal also gives Iran’s government de facto recognition of its nuclear program without demanding that its supreme leader release political prisoners, including two politicians many Iranians say really won the 2009 elections.
Akbar Ganji, who along with Baghi documented a series of state murders of prominent political reformers in Iran throughout the 1990s, acknowledged the rift within the opposition. “The entire opposition inside Iran advocates a democratic state, but they do not agree on the way to achieve it,” he said. In this case, Ganji said he agreed with Baghi: “Economic sanctions punish the people of Iran, which is why the vast majority of democratic forces opposes them and views the nuclear accord as a way of getting the sanctions lifted and the threat of war removed.”
Ganji said he opposed linking human rights to the nuclear negotiations and said he believed that Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, wanted to release political prisoners but was blocked by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmad Batebi, the Iranian protester who appeared on the cover of The Economist in 1999 when he brandished a bloody shirt during the Tehran University uprising, said he disagreed. “We are worried that a deal with Iran will be like Libya, where the only issue was the nuclear issue,” he said. “We are worried that the Iranian government will say, ‘We won’t discuss human rights inside Iran while negotiating on the nuclear program.’ And this would mean there would not be pressure from the United States, Europe, and other countries to release political prisoners and human rights reformers.”
The issue of political prisoners is particularly acute in Iran today. Rouhani, who is the first president voted into office since the 2009 Iranian election, which the reformist Green Movement has called fraudulent, has failed to deliver on his promise to release many political prisoners. Indeed, the two leaders of that movement, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, remain under house arrest, and many of their supporters are detained in less humane prisons. On Friday, the secretary of Iran’s powerful Guardian Council said in a sermon that Karroubi and Mousavi were lucky the state did not execute them.
“The fact that human rights and democracy have not been the subject of any of these negotiations is not cause for celebration,” said Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, which monitors and tracks human rights in Iran. Since the election of Rouhani, who has been praised by anti-sanctions activists as a reformer, “the minimum has been done,” she said. The number of executions has increased, and few political prisoners have been released, she noted. “We cannot count on this government. We need international pressure for an opening.”
Still, Iran’s democratic opposition does not want help from the West, said Hamid Dabashi, an author and professor at Columbia University who has written extensively on the Green Movement. “I am not interested in the United States or Europe putting any pressure on Iran on this,” he said. “This is the task of the Iranian people in the next round of the presidential election, to use this development to their democratic advantage.”
The Iranian government’s engagement in negotiations with the country its leaders have called “the great Satan” since the 1979 revolution makes it difficult for Iran’s leaders to ignore the civil rights lawyers, labor organizers, and opposition politicians demanding more freedom in Iran, Dabashi said. “If the ruling regime is willing to sit down and talk with the quote unquote great Satan, the question is: How could they not talk to nonviolent civil rights activists who believe in the Islamic Republic and exercise their civil rights for peaceful assembly?” he said.
Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian political cartoonist who has pilloried the nuclear negotiations, said he respected the dissidents who have supported the deal. “But I prefer to read a letter that has the name of the Bahai prisoners as well as the Kurds and Arabs in prison in Iran,” he said. “Those are the main victims of human rights abuses in Iran. They are in prison because of their identity.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article's introduction stated that no political prisoners had been released from Iran. A small number have been released.