Picture credit: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Horrors continue in Iran

Can we keep cooperating with a disgraced regime?

Did you hear the news? Schoolgirls are being poisoned in Iran. Whilst the Islamic Republic has been quick to apportion blame elsewhere, that’s often a telltale sign of culpability.

This latest shocking development in Iran, where protests persist more than five months after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, comes as the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister engages in his country’s latest act of deepfake at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Will you speak about those who have been killed, the ones who have been blinded, the 10-year-old child who was murdered?” one journalist asked as Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and his entourage strolled past.

“No-one has been killed,” comes the calm, cold reply.

Once again, the UN is being used as a convenient opportunity for despotic regimes, like the one currently accused of poisoning schoolgirls in Iran, to show a different face to the world.

It is a face of denial — of smiles and warm handshakes with senior figures like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk. In that particular meeting, even the Iranian FM seemed a bit surprised by the apparent warmth displayed by the man who is ostensibly responsible for ensuring UN nations like Iran uphold human rights.

The UN is perhaps the one place where regimes must answer awkward questions

In front of a banner reading “Dignity, Freedom and Justice”, Iran’s representative was afforded the moment he had been waiting for: a chance, once and for all, to show the world that Iran stands for human rights.

Come on, even the High Commissioner for Human Rights seems to believe it, so it must be true, right? Forget about the poisonings, the rapes, the killings of hundreds of protests and jailing of thousands more. Forget about the refugee crisis, sustained by regimes like Ayatollah Khamenei’s.

Why dwell on the negatives? Let’s look for the positives. Iran has been quite nice to Afghan refugees (within reason), as it likes to remind us at every UN session. The sanctions imposed by those nasty Americans are the real abuse of human rights. Did you hear?

What about the killings? The poisonings?

“Er, what killings?”

When regimes reach the level of rights abuses that the Islamic Republic has (for want of a better word) achieved, then denial and deflection become second nature.

Let’s change the focus. “Come on, Volker! … Can I call you Volk? Smile for the camera!”

It’s not all bad news. The UN, for all its imperfections, is still perhaps the one place in the world where regimes like the Islamic Republic must answer awkward questions. 

The key is ensuring that these moments, such as the mass walkout when the Iranian foreign minister took to the stage, are also given air. Likewise, spotlight the Islamic Republic’s actual responses, however absurd, to questions — along with the questions themselves.

In these moments, the UN is undeniably useful, by making regimes give at least some answer for their crimes. How to ensure this is the primary result of a UN session, rather than make it a PR opportunity for the rogue regime?

There was outrage when the Belgian foreign minister used the session to stage a public meeting with her Iranian counterpart, in part to discuss the ongoing detention in Iran of a Belgian national.

Sound familiar? It’s nearly a year since the much-heralded release of British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I’m sure many will recall the broad smiles on politicians’ faces, including one Liz Truss. (Remember her?)

Well might they smile. Nazanin’s release was eventually an undoubted success story, extremely hard-won. Just ask Nazanin’s husband, Richard, who engaged in unsurpassed advocacy for his wife throughout her nearly six years in detention.

Other lives, such as Belgium’s Olivier Vandecasteele, are at stake

Yet how does one balance the need for diplomacy — recognising that it can work, as in Nazanin’s case — with the need for uncompromising action, for truly calling to account violators of human rights?

When foreign ministers like ours, or Belgium’s, meet to discuss personal goals like the release from prison of a political prisoner, one unfortunate consequence is that the focus shifts. It becomes yet another opportunity for a regime like the Islamic Republic to change the narrative. 

“OK, yes, we have this prisoner. You want him released? Well, no problem. Just give us what we want in return.”

Whether that is a payment of nearly 400 million pounds, as happened in Nazanin’s case, or whatever the cost may be in Belgium’s case, the reality is that this cost will have far-reaching consequences.

It’s unsurprising that Iranians take umbrage when Western representatives continue to meet and take photographs with the smiling representatives of a regime that is killing their friends and family members.

What is the alternative? What most Iranians are calling for — the cutting off of diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic — is unthinkable for the majority of Western governments, for the understandable reason that this too would have far-reaching consequences.

It is not just the financial hit of the loss of cheap oil and gas, but also the reality that other lives, such as Belgium’s Olivier Vandecasteele, are at stake. So the game goes on; the Islamic Republic plays its cards and seems to be holding all the aces. Perhaps we make a show of support from time to time — the Belgian foreign minister cut her hair in solidarity with the protesters last year — but ultimately still kowtow to the despots.

It’s hard not to end on a despairing note, but perhaps hope now lies in the formation of a nascent coalition, which was recently invited to the Munich Security Conference instead of the Islamic Republic. Whilst many are understandably cautious about the presence of the son of the former shah among the coalition, he assures us his aims are honourable. The coalition is certainly winning supporters from across the spectrum of political views. Perhaps it will obtain the moral and political authority to truly represent the Iranian people.

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