How to deal with Iran?

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Speakers of the first panel of the conference focused on the internal developments in Iran.

By Erik Siegl, Heinrich Böll Foundation Prague

The question "How to deal with Iran?" has never been easy to answer and is hardly more timely. The Heinrich Böll Foundation Prague and the Association for International Affairs (AMO) jointly organised the International conference and a series of side events (13 - 15 April) which discussed current developments in and around Iran from different perspectives. Special attention was devoted to the alarming human rights situation after the June presidential elections as well as options for how to react to the progressing Iranian nuclear programme and Teheran’s refusal to allow international monitoring.

The first event on the eve of the conference offered an intense informal discussion among two dozens selected Iran watchers (Middle East experts, journalists, diplomats and interested politicians) on the human rights situation in Iran with a special focus on the situation of the women’s rights movement, the post-election crackdown on the “Green Movement” and death penalty for juveniles. The special guest of this informal evening debate was Shadi Sadr, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist engaged in the “End Stoning Forever” campaign and women’s rights activism. Shadi Sadr’s personal description of the charges and accusations raised against her and fellow activists by the state prosecutor provided the audience with a valuable first-hand account of the dire statistics of human rights abuses in Iran. While disregard for existing laws and abuse of political power on the part of Iranian authorities and paramilitary forces are mostly to blame, existing laws remain part of the problem too. This applies in particular to legality of juvenile executions and stoning in the Iranian Penal Code, as well as generally discriminatory laws against women. In this regard, recent developments such as the new draft Penal code passed by the Parliament (not yet approved by the Guardian Council), which omits the punishment of stoning for the first time since 1979, and the new draft “Family Protection Law” (further weakening the position of women in marriage and divorce) were pointed out. In her discussion with the audience, Shadi Sadr elaborated on various ways to react internationally to the human rights abuses in Iran, be it within the framework of the HRC as well as bilateral and EU relations with Iran. It was pointed out that the EU has imposed travel bans on and frozen the assets of high ranking human rights violators in a number of countries before and should not hesitate to do again this same.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation Prague together with the One World Film Festival also organised a separate screening of the documentary Women in shroud (2006) which portrays efforts by the Shadi Sadr and other lawyers and human rights activists who are trying to defend those sentenced to the cruel and inhuman punishment of the stoning in Iran and to put an end to these executions. About 180 persons (mostly students) attended the film evening and participated in a lively discussion on the situation in Iran with Shadi Sadr, especially the difficult conditions under which lawyers and civil society activists work. The documentary itself received one of the highest number of audience votes among more than 32,500 visitors to this year’s One World Film Festival in Prague and will be widely distributed on DVDs for small scale screenings organised by interested volunteers. 

The international conference “How to deal with Iran?” on April 14 brought together senior Iran experts, academics, policy-makers and human rights activists representing a variety of views and policy recommendations. The first panel, called “Iran in internal turmoil”, elaborated in detail on the protest “Green Movement” – its demands, strategies and leaders, as well as on the pillars of the current Iranian regime. Hossein Aryan, political analyst and deputy director of Radio Farda, described the Green Movement as “amalgamous” and pointed out its resulting strengths and weaknesses. He perceives on the one hand its lack of coherence (in ideology, policy and strategy) and on the other its high degree of resilience in terms of its ability to continually demonstrate its opposition in various ways despite harsh repression and censorship. Notwithstanding the claims of the opposition’s leaders that they are firmly determined to remain within the framework of current ruling system, full realisation of their demands (the release of all political prisoners, an end to censorship and freedom of expression) are irreconcilable with the regime’s current nature. Massoumeh Torfeh, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (SOAS), pointed out that the Green Movement is “young, educated and student”  but lacks strong support from the bazaaris and working class milieu. Compared to previous reform movements in Iranian history, Torfeh argues, the Green Movement is not so much driven by a particular ideology but rather by what she calls “modern thinking” and a desire for freedom and justice. Of course a secular girl and reform-minded clergy interpret these notions differently. It must be added that this multi-layered structure is also characteristic of the current Iranian regime which, unlike the Shah’s Monarchy, does not rest on a single but rather several pillars, the most important ones being the basiji militia force and Revolutionary Guards, whose main task is not to defend the Islamic Revolution against an external threat but to quell any public protest from Iranians themselves. Fred Petrosians from Radio Farda elaborated in his presentation on the civic journalism and role of modern media which remain important communication channel for the “Green movement” and free expression in Iranian society. In the second panel, focused on the role of Iran in international affairs, presentations were delivered by Patrick Clawson (The Near East Institute, Washington), Özlem Tür, (Middle East Technical University, Ankara), Meir Litvak, (Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University), Ralf Fücks, (President of Heinrich Böll Foundation) and Barbara Lochbihler (head of the EP’s delegation for the relations with Iran).

The conference was followed in the evening by a discussion in Cambridge style at the Charles University. The conference speakers were split up into two opinion camps along the issue of whether “the West is doing its utmost to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons” and offered an interactive and lively debate with more than 120 students present and actively taking part. The Prague conference received coverage in the Czech, Iranian speaking and Turkish media.

See the programme of the conference.