To believe Iranian officials, neither the decision to keep the leaders of the Green Movement under house arrest, nor that of releasing them, involves the judiciary. High level officials take publicly pride in the politically-motivated detention of the 2009 presidential candidates as they do in the rise in execution numbers. Recent statements in support of obvious violations of Iran's international human rights obligations are not the usual public relations stunts meant for domestic consumption. They, in fact, are part of a campaign aimed at undermining the United Nations' representative, Ahmad Shaheed, and serious UN efforts to document human rights abuses in Iran. Silence in the face of this unusually aggressive campaign may have a negative and long-lasting impact on the country's human rights situation and its cooperation with the United Nations.
To be freed, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karubi have to repent. According to Ali Larijani, whose statement was published in the French newspaper, Le Figaro, on February 17th, "Their understanding of issues has to be fixed." Larijani's statement echoed those of the Justice Minister, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, who emphasized, in a meeting with the press on February 4th, the need for those involved in the 2009 post-election events to repent and boasted about the wisdom of having kept them under house arrest without a trial. This wisdom Mr. Pour-Mohammadi is so proud of is the product of decades of impunity for Iran's human rights abusers.
Arresting citizens for exercising their rights to freedom of belief, association, or free speech, and keeping them in prison until they recanted, were common practices in the decade following the 1979 revolution. In the summer of 1988, Pour-Mohammadi was one of the judges evaluating thousands of political prisoners across the country and sentencing at least 4000 of those deemed "unrepentant" to be hanged in secret. Forced repentance, sometimes televised, remains a favored means of breaking and neutralizing dissidents.
That Iranian officials expect Musavi and Karubi to repent comes as no surprise. Silencing critics and coercing them into recanting their views fits a pattern of behavior by a leadership that is short of arguments, as does the effort to entice the international community into allowing Iran to decide which of its international obligations it will abide by or not.
In the late 1980s, optimism and hope brought about by the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the possibility of cooperation and détente with Iran, kept the international community from reacting to a crime against humanity in Iran. It also anchored Iran's leaders in a comfortable impunity, of which Pour-Mohammadi's nomination as the Minister of Justice and the refusal to cooperate and engage with the UN mechanisms are ongoing symptoms.
Iran has never been eager to cooperate with other UN rapporteurs working on torture or religious freedom, for example. The campaign of defamation against the person of a UN rapporteur, however, is a novelty. In less than a month, Pour-Mohammadi has insulted Dr. Shaheed publicly; officials of the Judiciary, Mohammad Javad and Sadeq Larijani, have gone as far as to call him "stupid," "evil," and "a puppet" of the United States; and the country's Chief Prosecutor, Mohsen Ejei, has accused him of being "biased." Similarly, members of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Judicial Commissions have attacked the Rapporteur for being "too small" to opine on human rights in Iran and lacking the knowledge necessary to understand Islamic law.
The Special Rapporteur does not owe these discrediting attacks to his reports, which are well-documented, but rather to the fact that, unlike other UN officials dealing with human rights in Iran, he is a Muslim. The very fact that he believes in and actively promotes universal human rights standards makes him a powerful counter-argument to the religious and cultural justifications Iranian officials excel at in dismissing criticism of their deplorable human rights record.
Iran's Judiciary's Chief dismisses international standards as irrelevant to Iranians' culture and religion, regardless of Iran's commitments and the fact that those who believe in those norms and whose rights the judiciary, security forces, and intelligence apparatus abuse, are practicing Muslims. But the spike in executions (200 reported executions since January), concurrent with ongoing negotiations on sanctions, cooperation, and future business relationships with Iran, is not a coincidence. The timing of aggressive public statements, during the weeks preceding the publication of Dr. Shaheed's report, is not a coincidence either and does not bode well for the future.
Leaving human rights off the agenda, at a time of intense negotiations and general optimism, may be convenient, but it is not wise as it emboldens rights abusers. It is also a distressing reminder of the deadly 1990s, when optimism prevailed and business ties were established with Iran without notable preconditions for improvements in the areas of rights and the rule of law. The international community should react strongly and publicly to Iranian officials' lack of civility and preposterous accusations against the UN Special Rapporteur and support the renewal of his mandate. Not doing so will undermine the UN's efforts, if not endangering the lives of many inside and outside of Iran.
Correction: An earlier version mistakenly attributed comments solely to Sadeq Larijani. It has been updated to reflect the comments were made by both Mohammad Javad and Sadeq Larijani.