What Do Iranian Human Rights Activists Want from the West? | Nader Hashemi


What do Iranian human rights activists want from the international community, the West in particular? What guidelines should be followed that can better support their heroic efforts? As someone who has written on the topic and spent considerable time studying the topic, reading their statements, and interviewing some prominent voices, I would like to address this subject. The focus here is on Iranian human rights/pro-democracy activists living within Iran today, not those who are active abroad.

The ethical framework that I adopt is rather simple. It is based on the premise that before prescribing solutions to problems that affect other people, one should first exercise a degree of humility. Do not assume a priori that you know the answers or have the best strategy. If you are serious about human rights activism, it is a moral imperative to consult with those most directly affected by human rights abuses; to listen to those voices who have organic connections to their own societies, and who are on the frontline of the struggle. Their advice should inform your human rights/pro-democracy advocacy.

The State of Human Rights in Iran Today

Amnesty International called the year 2018 “a year of shame for Iran” in the area of human rights. “The staggering scale of arrests, imprisonments and flogging sentences reveal the extreme lengths the authorities have gone to in order to suppress peaceful dissent.” Teachers, factory workers, students, and women’s rights activists were particularly affected by this crackdown. Embodying this state of repression, earlier this year, the famous Iranian human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was sentenced to 38 years in jail and 146 lashes. Since the release of this Amnesty report, a subsequent UN report last month by Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, confirms an expansion of political repression across society.

This situation has produced a sense of deep despair, despondency, and apathy among the forces for democracy and human rights. Many Iranians believe that they are caught between a rock and a hard place – between an increasingly repressive authoritarian regime that seeks to snuff out all dissent and the policies of Donald Trump and John Bolton that seem determined to collapse the Iranian economy and launch another Middle Eastern war.

International Context of Human Rights in Iran

President Trump’s new hardline policy toward the Islamic Republic is embodied in the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and the re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions. Threats, tough talk, and hardball politics have characterized this new U.S. approach toward Iran.

The effects of this new policy on Iran have been predictable. The Iranian economy has suffered a major blow, inflation has skyrocketed, and the Iranian rial has lost nearly 80 percent of its value. The IMF predicts that Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent in 2019 (it contracted by 3.9 percent in 2018).

The Iranian middle and lower classes – not the Islamic Republic Guard Corps or the ruling elites – have been most affected by renewed sanctions. The focus of activity within Iran, among a sizeable youth population that yearns for political change, is perforce not on mobilizing to resist the policies of the Islamic Republic but rather on economic survival and emigration.

Iranian hardliners are benefiting financially and ideologically from Trump’s new hawkish Iran policy. Financially, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard has expanded its smuggling networks to profit significantly from U.S. sanctions, as it no longer needs to compete in a free market. This development also allows the Revolutionary Guard to expand its patron-clientele networks to increase its influence among a beleaguered and desperate population.

Ideologically, Iranian hardliners, led by the Supreme Leader, have also benefited. They are invoking themes of Iranian nationalism and foreign threats. They repeatedly tell Iranian society: the West cannot be trusted to live up to a signed agreement; they are an implacable foe who must be forever resisted and diplomacy is futile.

Hardliners are also scoring points against Iranian reformist forces who are being blamed for compromising Iran’s national security by supporting a nuclear deal that has produced few benefits. They argue that “we gave up our crown jewel for a lollipop.” In other words, Iran’s nuclear program was ceded for negligible economic gain. As the threat of a military confrontation looms on the horizon, Iranian reformists are on the defensive.

Guidelines and Redlines

Given this bleak political context, what do Iranian pro-democracy/human rights activists want from the international community? The following points reflect a broad consensus within Iran among this constituency. Those who are genuinely interested in understanding the internal Iranian debate on human rights and democracy are advised to respect these guidelines and red lines.

  1. Keep the global spotlight on Iran’s human rights record; name and sanction individuals directly involved in human rights abuses.
  2. Oppose foreign-based “regime change” policies, especially the military adventurism by the United States and its regional allies (i.e. a strong repudiation of Trump/Bolton’s policy toward Iran).
  3. Oppose broad-based economic sanctions that affect average Iranian citizens (targeted sanctions against human rights abusers and high regime officials with blood on their hands are welcomed even if this cannot be publicly affirmed).
  4. Support the Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA) because it averts/reduces the prospects for war and removes economic sanctions and opens Iran up to the international community (i.e. yes, to diplomacy).
  5. Nonviolent strategy for political change is the only way forward. This suggests patience and a long-term approach to advancing human rights/democracy. There are no quick fixes. Stated differently, the struggle for democracy/human rights in Iran is a marathon, not a sprint.
  6. Give recognition to and elevate the work of human rights/pro-democracy defenders within Iran, especially those who are in prison. Key figures include Nasrin Sotoudeh, Nargess Mohammadi, Ismail Bakhshi, Sepideh Gholian, and many others.
  7. Emulate the example of French President Emmanuel Macron. Earlier this year, he formally invited Nasrin Sotoudeh to be part of the G7 gender advisory council. This type of creative thinking should be replicated by the international community ad nauseam.  

Between now and the next US presidential election, the possibility of a U.S.-Iran military confrontation is extremely high. If it were to happen, it would likely unleash a broader Middle Eastern war and represent a complete disaster for Iran’s beleaguered human rights community. The Islamic Republic would seize this opportunity to further expand repression and silence all dissent. Mass executions are probable.

Given this reality, a priority for those living outside of Iran who care about human rights should be to restrain the predatory impulses of the Trump Administration and its regional allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia) that seek a military conflict. While internal repression within Iran has reached new heights, further deterioration is possible. You need not take my word for it; simply listen to the heroic voices emanating from Iran who consistently, repeatedly articulate this position.


Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies and co-editor with Danny Postel of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s FutureThe Syria Dilemma and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @NaderAliHashemi

Photo Credit: Milad Avazbeigi 
The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights. 

One thought on “What Do Iranian Human Rights Activists Want from the West? | Nader Hashemi

  1. Pingback: What Do Iranian Human Rights Activists Want from the West? – LobeLog

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