Last month, Iran’s foreign minister took to Facebook not once, but twice, to denounce me as a warmongering liar. Think of the absurdity. Iran is a nation of nearly 80 million people. Its economy is plummeting. Hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. Its nuclear program has led to crushing international sanctions and isolation. Yet somehow, the foreign minister found time to post two online rants in a single week targeting the head of a small, New York-based human rights organization.
What did I do to get under Javad Zarif’s skin? During his recent New York charm offensive, I asked the foreign minister if he thought it was ironic that he enjoyed posting on Facebook when his government bans it in Iran. “Ha! Ha!” he laughed. “That’s life.” I asked when Majid Tavakoli, a student leader and political prisoner, would be free. “I don’t know him,” Zarif responded.
After exposing this publicly, thousands of Iranians took to social media to demand to know why their foreign minister was ignorant of one of the most famous imprisoned dissidents.
Days later, after four years in jail, Tavakoli was freed on furlough.
It turns out that even Iran—a rogue, theocratic, state-sponsor of terror—is susceptible to bad PR and global pressure.
The Soviet Union, though vastly more powerful in its day than Iran today, reacted similarly when confronted with the same dilemma. In 1997, human rights lawyer and former Canadian Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, asked Mikhail Gorbachev why he let Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky, out of prison. Gorbachev said that wherever he went in the world, he was confronted by people shouting Sharansky’s name. “It wasn’t worth the international price we paid,” Gorbachev said.
So it was with Tavakoli and Zarif.
Was Tavakoli’s release a sign of moderation? Not exactly. For one, he only had a few days to hug his mother and spend time with his family. The pressure waned and last week he was quietly returned to prison. Second, hundreds of more dissidents remain in jail: Shiva Ahari, Hossein Maleki, and Bahare Hedayat to name just a few.
Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, tells me, “We’ll only find out if [President] Rouhani genuinely wants change if he releases political prisoners. The government announced that they had released political prisoners on amnesty but that is not true. Those who were released had either come to a natural end of their sentence or had very little of it left.”
She continued, “The only one of these prisoners whose sentence was commuted by three years and was freed was Nasrin Sotoudeh and the reason for that is that she won the Sakharov prize last year and there was international pressure on the regime. The remainder are still behind bars: lawyers, Baha’is, writers and journalists.”
The Nobel Prize winner concluded, “We can only say that changes are happening if all these prisoners are released.”
One can feel the cracks in Iran’s armor. When the foreign minister of a regional superpower takes to Facebook to bully a human rights activist across the world, the insecurity is palpable. Zarif complained that the way I asked my question to him was “impolite.” Funny, I think jailing journalists and bloggers is “impolite.”
The brilliant Soviet dissident, Andrei Amalrik, likened tyranny to a soldier who must hold up a heavy gun which is always pointed at his enemy. The soldier’s arm fatigues and he begins to lower the gun. How Western nations act can help determine when the gun falls. Every meeting with Iranian officials is an opportunity to name political prisoners and demand their freedom. When dissidents are neglected, the West is effectively holding up Iran’s fatigued arm.
The late Vaclav Havel, former Czech dissident and president, was fond of saying that in order for there to be peace between states, there must be peace inside of states, that is to say, peace between citizens. Today, Iran talks a good game, but it remains a brutal theocracy that does not trust its people to speak or write freely. Why else does it ban Facebook and Twitter?
The Iranian regime imprisons students like Tavakoli for advocating democracy. That says it all. The wrong word or blog post will land you in jail.
The Iran crisis will not be solved at a negotiation table in Geneva. It will be solved in the cells of Evin prison in Tehran. When students, dissidents, bloggers and journalists are free to speak their mind without fear of imprisonment, then Iran will be a real partner for peace and stability.
Until then, the world simply cannot trust a regime that does not even trust its own people.