Never mind the ‘thaw’, are human rights still in the deep freeze in Iran? | Press release me, let me go | 17 Feb 2016 | Amnesty International UK

Never mind the ‘thaw’, are human rights still in the deep freeze in Iran?

Jailed UK businessman Kamal Foroughi is a rare case of someone in Iran who may benefit from a diplomatic 'thaw'. Credit: Private

“It’s going to be chilly this weekend”. “Lovely weather if you’re planning a barbecue”. “What can we expect for the Bank Holiday? A lot of rain, I’m afraid”.

One of my many - many! – personal bugbears is the dumbed-down, science-free weather forecasts that most of the media inflict on us in weather-obsessed Britain. Cliché-ridden, full of value judgements (rain is “bad”, sun is “good”), and terminally dull (despite the forced cheeriness of the TV weather people), they’re nevertheless something we’re apparently stuck with.

The same goes for the language of international relations and diplomacy (or at least the media reporting of diplomacy). Also relying on overworked standard phrases (oddly, weather-related ones) like “coming in from the cold, “relations now in the deep freeze”, “a frosty meeting”, this clunky discourse actually tells you very little about what’s really going on.

Which brings me to … the supposed “thaw” in diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran. (Sorry about this). Since January’s nuclear deal there’s been a great deal of commentary on this diplomatic-meteorological phenomenon (examples here, here, and here). It’s supposed to be a relatively straightforward GOOD THING. US president Barack Obama said the deal was a “good day” that advanced US interests, while providing for a “better future that delivers progress for both [the US and Iranian] peoples and the wider world”. The White House also issued a lengthy appraisal of the deal, with endorsements from various big-name figures like Madelaine Albright and Colin Powell.

Naturally, the UK chipped in. David Cameron reportedly described the deal as “a very good day for international relations” in a phone call to the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. (Presumably “good day” was the agreed Anglo-American key message).

But now what? Another country not building nuclear weapons is probably better than the opposite (and for that matter does the UK need to spend something like £167bn on another nuclear weapons system?: discuss), but is that it? What about Iran’s atrocious domestic human rights record - is that going to change? Or what about Iran’s military support for the Syrian government's merciless attacks on its own people - is that going to change?  

I’m ... doubtful. One the one hand it’s encouraging that David Cameron has been able to take advantage of “warming” (sic) British-Iranian relations to raise the plight of jailed British people like Kamal Foroughi and Roya Nobakht. But I wonder how much store to set by the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond tweeting photos of himself shaking hands with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in London earlier this month. Let’s just take a quick look at what Zarif said during his time in London …

*Yes, Iran needs to improve its human rights record, but this should be the result of homegrown activities and not external pressure (“insisting on respect for human rights cannot be imposed from outside”)

*Iran doesn’t have fighters in Syria

*Iran will not take lessons from countries like the UK who sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and “turn a blind eye” to executions in Saudi Arabia

Not that much warmth here. Zarif is of course perfectly right to question the UK’s reckless exporting of weaponry to Saudi Arabia when Saudi forces are laying waste to civilians in Yemen (and Amnesty and others are pressing the UK to halt these exports). But Iran is reportedly supporting the Huthi insurgency in Yemen, which is itself causing terrible civilian hardship and suffering, not least in places like Ta’iz. Meanwhile, Iranian military support for the Syrian government is virtually an open secret (reported here and here for example). And Mr Zarif certainly has quite a nerve to castigate Saudi Arabia for carrying out executions when Iran has itself executed hundreds more than even Saudi Arabia’s eager executioners have managed in recent times.

And what of human rights in Iran, that province which is only supposed to be subject to pressure from within Iran? Well, if you’re an Iranian human rights activist - for example a hard-cases-type lawyer,  a journalist who reports on sensitive matters, or a film-maker who covers socio-cultural issues - then you’re far more likely to be intimidated, tortured and jailed than actually gain an attentive audience within the Iranian authorities. Frankly, Mr Zarif is simply - and rather insultingly - ignoring the very unattractive reality of how the Iranian state systematically crushes virtually all dissent at home.

No, I think the idea of a springtime in relations between Iran and the rest of the world is fanciful, a false spring no less. A new, slightly warmer relationship between London and Tehran might indeed lead to scheduled BA flights between the two countries, and it might lead to new commercial deals (not least in the oil and gas sector), but I’m unconvinced that anything fundamental has changed or is likely to do so. Despite the upbeat weather forecast, it looks to me as if human rights in Iran are still very much in the deep freeze.

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