Iran's Leader and Mandela

Since Nelson Mandela's death last week, many across the globe, including in Iran, have been celebrating his anti-apartheid struggle and his conciliatory role during South Africa's transition. Mandela's call for forgiveness was critical to the peaceful transfer of power and to democratic consolidation in South Africa, as were the repealing of discriminatory laws and the public truth-telling process that brought victims and perpetrators face to face, shedding light on the apartheid era abuses and cruelty. The Islamic Republic's leadership's expressed admiration for South Africa's transition is a timely opportunity to reflect on the historical parallel between the two countries.

If Iran's leadership seriously intends to move away from the violence that has become its trademark inside and outside the country, it will have to acknowledge past abuses and stop the cycle of violence. In theory, the Iranian officials understand this need, since they praise Mandela for his courage and wisdom to move South Africa on the path of national reconciliation without bloodshed. Iran's Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, goes as far as attributing Mandela's strategy during the 1990s transition, to the advice he gave him during a 1992 visit to Tehran:

I told [Mandela], "Our experience in Iran may be applicable to your country; this experience consists of people, volunteers, ... women and men [who] came to the streets, and they only brought themselves: no fists, no arms, no hand grenades, no safe houses. ... And they disarmed the regime. ... He shook his head. After he left, a couple of months later, we read in newspapers of massive popular protests in South Africa. I realized that the seed had grown. ... Exactly as it happened in Iran, the streets in major cities in South Africa were filled with black South Africans, and white people came and marched with them."

Hundreds of thousands of peaceful Iranians did indeed come to the streets during the Iranian revolution and the Shah was under pressure from Iranians and his American allies to open up. However, South Africa's transition was not "exactly" like Iran's. Unlike Mandela, Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had no intention to put his mandate to popular vote, and revolutionary groups refused to compete through a democratic process, a path that was made available to them when a long-time dissident became prime minister, hoping to ensure a peaceful and democratic transition.

Instead of negotiating a peaceful transition, the Ayatollah's armed supporters had engaged in a campaign of assassination and intimidation targeting army and police officers and civilians alike. After the fall of the Shah, the revolutionary leaders did not show the ability to forgive and compromise that they claim to admire in Nelson Mandela. In fact, revolutionary courts led by religious leaders who knew nothing of forgiveness or fairness summarily executed thousands of Muslims.

Apartheid-stricken South Africa has more in common with Post-revolutionary Iran, where a minority of Shi'a Muslims, close to the regime's founders, monopolizes power and controls resources. Discrimination based on religion, gender, and political ideology is enshrined in the Islamic Republic's constitution. As in South Africa, citizens with diverse backgrounds and beliefs, including Shi'a clerics, have protested peacefully in the streets or elsewhere, but the call for change has fallen on deaf ears.

Iran's leadership has responded to those who struggle for freedom and against discrimination by killing, torturing, and imprisoning them. No one knows how many have died, but the list of victims includes thousands of Muslims, Communists, nationalists, democrats, Arabs, Kurds, Baluchis, Baha'is, and Christians of all professions and backgrounds.

Iran violates its commitments under international law, be they related to Iranians' human rights or nuclear energy. Unlike in South Africa, Iran's leadership has missed every opportunity to move towards peaceful transition and reconciliation in Iran. The non-inclusive nature of the regime's ideology and greed for power explain in part this uncompromising attitude. The resolve of Iran's leaders not to acknowledge their crimes and move towards the path of reconciliation is strengthened by our silence and the absence of a clear international will to hold them accountable.

Khamenei is a shrewd politician. If he compares Iran and South Africa, it is not because he fails to see the obvious differences. It is because 34 years of experience has taught him that he can get away with murder. He knows that most Iranians are too young to know, or too scared to speak-up, and that with minimal concessions, he can convince stakeholders outside Iran to forget Iran's serious history of belligerence and brutality. And the most recent political developments are not proving him wrong.

Many Iranians have given their support to a new president, Hassan Rouhani, albeit not a dissident -- those are not allowed to speak or run for office. Burdened by the nuclear-related economic sanctions and the legitimacy crisis triggered by the 2009 election crackdown, Iran's leadership has shown willingness to compromise. But on the home front, unlike in South Africa, citizens continue to be executed by the hundreds. Dissidents, journalists, and civil society members remain in prison on baseless charges and the new government has not repealed any discriminatory laws. Instead, Mr. Rouhani has offered an ambiguously articulated and toothless collection of citizenship rights and has refused access to the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on human rights.

The outcome of the first round of nuclear negotiations in Geneva was encouraging, but it does not make political opening and transparency less necessary. Not prioritizing Iran's violation of its human rights obligations in the 1980s and in the 1990s did not make its leaders more reliable international partners. But a more serious and persistent international focus on Iran's human rights record in the past few years had an impact on Mr. Rouhani's campaign promises, if not election. Iran's leaders can and should think about a peaceful transition and reconciliation, but they will not do so if they are allowed to get away with mass killings and torture.

If Iran's leaders genuinely admire South Africa's transition, they should see in recent political developments an opportunity to open the political space, repeal discriminatory laws, and engage in a genuine truth-telling process. This is no easy task, but it will bring more respectability for Iran than any gain in the nuclear dispute. Transparency and accountability will also benefit those concerned with the country's nuclear ambitions. The time to discuss the Islamic Republic's human rights record is now, while its leaders are willing to compromise. This window of opportunity will close if the international community remains focused on the nuclear issue only.