The human rights issue and Rouhani’s coalition

In November 2013 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had a foreign policy success which has eluded his two predecessors: He took a major, concrete, step toward resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis by signing an interim-agreement with the United Nations Security Council permanent five members plus Germany (P5+1). While the agreement is temporary, it goes a long way toward fulfilling his campaign promises, namely ending Iran’s international political isolation and rescuing its sanctions stricken economy. Yet even before he can savour this victory, he is confronted with the important domestic issue of human rights which is rapidly taking on international dimensions.

On 18 December 2013, the UN General Assembly accepted a resolution criticizing Iran for human rights violations, including the use of flogging, amputation, torture and executions, by a vote of 86 to 36, with 61 countries abstaining. The resolution is not legally binding. This was followed by a meeting between a European Union delegation and Nasrin Sotoudeh and Jafar Panahi at the Greek embassy in Tehran, a move which was not announced as part of the delegation’s diplomatic schedule. Nasrin Sotoudeh is a very prominent human rights lawyer who was arrested in 2010 during the crackdown on the Green Movement. Jafar Panahi is a prominent film-maker and outspoken critic of some of the policies and practices of the Islamic Republic who was also arrested in 2010. They were jointly awarded the 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament, which they were unable to personally receive because of their imprisonment. These recent events have stimulated a heated debate over the human rights issue in Iran and once again put the spotlight on President Rouhani to take concrete actions and ameliorate human rights conditions in Iran.

Human rights is certainly a major concern for many Iranians, particularly the Green Movement and Reformist-leaning voters who are believed to have been crucial to Rouhani’s presidential election upset on 15 June 2013. Yet as we’ve argued in the past, the coalition which elected President Rouhani is heterogeneous, being composed of Traditional Principalists, Centrists, and Reformists, and this creates complications for him when it comes to acting on human rights. While there is arguably a consensus within this coalition for resolving the nuclear dispute, no such consensus exists on the issue of human rights, with Centrists and Traditional Principalists being leery of international pressure over this issue.

Rouhani’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was critical of the EU delegations meeting with Sotoudeh and Panahi, stating that:

“The Islamic Republic of Iran rejects these selfish games and instrumentalization and political use of human rights by Western governments against independent countries, and we are deeply saddened about the utilization of United Nations human rights dynamics and instruments in a political game.”

She called the portrayal of the human rights situation in Iran as “exaggerations and blackwashing”, claiming that “Countries who claim that they support human rights, in their historical and contemporary background, have instances of systematic and horrifying human rights violations on their record.”

A similar sentiment has been echoed by Traditional Principalists. Ali Larijani, speaker of the parliament and a leading Traditional Principalist figure, reacting to the EU delegations meeting, stated that:

“What this delegation did was a cheap and bad thing. When a delegation travels to a country for meetings it must act according to the [official] schedule and conducting secret meetings, especially for the Europeans, is unbecoming…The European delegation, if they had plans for a meeting, should have announced it and we would or would not have accepted. By doing this they have broken diplomatic protocol.”

Just as critically, Neo-Principalists such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) senior leadership, who exercise profound influence over the Islamic Republic’s policy-making, are especially sensitive to the issue of international pressure over human rights, seeing it as a nefarious tool for destabilizing the Islamic Republic. Sobh-e Sadegh, the IRGC’s weekly newsletter, declared in an article on 23 December 2013 that the issue of human rights was being used by the West as a political instrument to create leverage against Iran. The article said that the UN resolution passed against Iran on the human rights was brought forth by Canada under the influence of the Israelis. According to the author, the resolution laid the groundwork for shifting the basis of sanctions against Iran from the nuclear dispute to human rights. The article went on to say that:

“The behavior of the West shows that the nuclear issue is only an excuse for excessive demands and the human rights issue, like the passing of the resolution in the United Nations, is also one of the factors and scenarios of the West for intensifying pressure against us to [force us to] accept their excessive demands. In fact, every step of retreat [we take] in the face of their demands, in the hopes of decreasing their excuses, equals an advance and greater demands from the West so that ultimately they reach their final desire: disintegration and domination of Iran.”

This creates an important question of political strategy for President Rouhani. On one hand, pursuing human rights at this juncture and appearing to cave into Western demands, especially in the short-term, would likely antagonize his Traditional Principalist partners in the parliament and elsewhere and some in his own Centrist base, and most definitely raise the ire of Neo-Principalists who in the wake of their defeat in the 2013 election have been licking their wounds and biding their time. It could create an issue which Neo-Principalists could rally around and even use to alienate some Traditional Principalists from President Rouhani. Could this weaken his coalition? Could this undermine his ability to conduct nuclear negotiations and give politically costly concessions to the P5+1?

On the other hand, not vigorously pursuing the human rights issue domestically could antagonize his Green Movement and Reformist-leaning social base, who will be crucial to winning future parliamentary and presidential elections. Given Rouhani’s small margin of victory in 2013, alienating this important constituency could hamper his political agenda by denying him a more compliant parliament in 2016 and/or a second presidential term in 2017.

Navigating human rights will likely be one of the most complicated tasks of Rouhani in his first term as president, and has the potential to both strengthen and weaken him depending on how he manages it and circumstances outside his control.