‘No Nuke’s’: we shouldn’t let the diplomatic barking and growling deflect us from Iran’s atrocious human rights record

The media commentary on the warming of relations between Iran and the USA can be summed up as an intense discussion of “nuclear diplomacy”. It’s all about “Iran’s nukes”, the “Shia Bomb”, “Rouhani’s olive branch” and Obama’s “second-term gambit”. You know the kind of thing.

So the Economist, for one, says that only if Iran’s hardline power-brokers can be “weaned” from a belief that nuclear weaponry is the key to the country’s survival should Iran “be welcomed back as a full member of the international community”. For his part, the ever-lively Simon Jenkins in the Guardian insists that Western powers should take the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s recent “charm offensive” seriously and rachet down economic sanctions to encourage Iran’s leadership to steer the country away from the Bomb.

Meanwhile pretty much everyone else with a diplomatic bent is talking about this as well. Everyone from Roger Cohen in the New York Times (who fears that Iran’s “heroic flexibility” will give way to the Shiite tradition of “defiant martyrdom”); the FT’s leader writers (cautiously believing a nuclear deal could be “the first step to a grand bargain at a later date”); and the Independent blogger Rakesh Ramchurn (sharing the view that “the US should seize the opportunity of dialogue with Rouhani”). Throw in some rather over-excited stuff about how this is shaping up to be a diplomatic breakthrough on a par with Nixon’s famous visit to Mao Zedong’s China in 1972 (can’t commentators ever come up with another yardstick for a historic diplomatic breakthrough!?), and you pretty much have a flavour of it.

Except, hang on a minute … how much has really changed and how “deserving” is Iran of the diplomatic accolades it’s now getting? Peyvand Khorsandi sounds a very different note in the Evening Standard, reminding us that Iran’s security forces have committed horrible prison massacres in the fairly recent past. (Peyvand is the comedian Shappi's brother; the Khorsandi family have first-hand experience of the cruelties of the Iranian authorities).

In a similar vein, I can’t help wondering what six Kurdish men currently facing execution in Ghezel Hesar Prison near Tehran might think of the praise being heaped on Rouhani? Like numerous other condemned prisoners in Iran, they face the gallows after being convicted of vaguely-worded offences, including “enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”. Indeed, perhaps Mr Rouhani, now so keen on high-profile international speeches, would like to give another talk on why Iran has executed more than 400 people so far this year (a colossal number making Iran the second-highest user of capital punishment in the world, behind only China with its massively larger population).

Yes of course it’s good that prisoners of conscience like Nasrin Sotoudeh (pictured) have been released, but why on earth was she ever jailed (on charges of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “acting against national security”) in the first place? And what about all the others that remain behind bars, including those featured in the Guardian's large database of jailed students, lawyers, journalists and others? Similarly, of course it’s good that Iranian bloggers - so often on the receiving end of the authorities in the past - feel encouraged by a recent relaxation of internet controls. But for how long? And what about those already jailed, like Hossein Ronaghi Maleki? Meanwhile, and more widely, what about the use of torture in Iran’s police cells and prisons? The arbitrary arrests? The endemic discrimination against women, against ethnic minorities, and against gay, lesbian and transgender people? There's more - it’s an enormous list.

To be sure, any attempt to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world is worthy of support - and we shouldn’t forget about the rest of the world’s “nuclear states” either (BTW, check out this amazing and deeply frightening time-lapse film of every nuclear explosion since 1945). But my point is that we shouldn’t become blinkered, blind-sided by the thought that Iran has “come in from the cold” or whatever. Nuclear disarmament is a worthwhile goal, but so too is stopping torture in Iran or bringing an end to the round-ups and the show trials.

While all this high-level diplomacy was unfolding in glitzy New York there was another political gathering this week in the no-less-attractive location of Brighton - the Labour Party’s annual conference. Apart from Ed Miliband’s big no-notes speech, one of the conference’s most eye-catching incidents was the strange sea-front scuffle between the blogger Iain Dale and an anti-nuclear protester called Stuart Holmes. Holmes’ dog, with two “No Nuke’s” (sic) signs attached to its back, got involved in the fracas, barking and snapping around the two men as they grappled each other to the ground. It’s a bit like the strong-arm Iran-USA diplomacy. Important, but intensely and slightly worryingly single-issued. We shouldn’t let all this diplomatic barking and growling deflect us from Iran’s atrocious human rights record. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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