The massacre of 108 civilians in Houla on May 25 is but one instance of a wider Syrian policy of terror that has claimed more than 10,000 innocent lives. It is the tragic but predictable response of a tyrannical regime that will stop at nothing to stay in power. For Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, any compromise is a sign of weakness. Instead, his reply to the legitimate demands of Syrian citizens is systematic violence. This is the catastrophic logic by which the leadership is digging its own grave ever deeper as its cruelty steadily alienates both the Syrian people and the world community.
But Syria can always count on its staunchest ally, Iran. Having crushed their own popular uprising in 2009 and facing increasing isolation, Tehran’s authoritarian rulers are well aware that their fate is tied to what happens in Damascus. The issue is not merely the loss of regional influence, including a vital supply route for Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The Syrian example is shaping Iran’s own calculus of terror as it prepares to deal with renewed democratic threats to its power. The prevention of future atrocities requires a change in this cost-benefit calculus. Ensuring that the nuclear issue does not eclipse human rights and holding Iranian officials individually responsible is an essential part of the equation.
The Iranian Green Movement – which followed the disputed June, 2009, presidential elections – was the precursor of the Arab Spring. Tehran responded to peaceful protests by millions of citizens with appalling violence. Since then, there has been a significant increase in human-rights abuses which (as in Syria) is the surest sign of weakness and illegitimacy. Iran has the highest per capita rate of executions in the world; at least 664 people were put to death in 2011 and at least 218 have been executed so far this year. Public hangings, together with torture and rape in prisons, instill a culture of fear aimed at preserving the regime’s authority.
Ahmad Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, has described a deteriorating situation. This includes harsh prison sentences for renowned human-rights defenders like Nargess Mohammadi. Accused of threatening “national security,” she became mysteriously paralyzed while serving a six-year sentence in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was raped and murdered in 2003. The ailing Ms. Mohammadi was then exiled to the remote Zanjan Prison, making it exceedingly difficult for her four-year-old twins to see their mother. Another example is Elham Ahsani, who was imprisoned for belonging to the “Mourning Mothers” and threatened with rape and execution merely for asking about the fate of murdered and missing children from the 2009 protests.
As in Syria, cruelty against children is used to ensure the obedience of parents. Consider the blacklisting of elementary school students belonging to the persecuted Baha’i minority so they can be singled out for mistreatment. The regime’s hate propaganda has gone to extraordinary lengths to scapegoat this peaceful religious community. Iran’s 300,000 Baha’is are legally deemed to be a “heretical sect” and denied basic civil rights. They are collectively criminalized as the epicentre of an all-purpose “foreign conspiracy” embracing U.S. imperialism, Zionism, Wahhabism, Satanism, espionage, usury, promiscuity, incest and every other wickedness in the fertile imagination of the regime’s demonologists. Human-rights activists – including the authors of this article – are then smeared by association with Baha’is and subject to abuse.
Such desperate measures are an ominous sign – as noted by Canadian Senator Roméo Dallaire – that if threatened by renewed protests, the Islamic Republic may be tempted to execute Baha’is to deflect attention from its woes.
The biggest threat to the regime is the Iranian people, not foreign enemies. The nuclear controversy and threats of war with Israel and the United States are actually helpful in stirring nationalism and buttressing political legitimacy. Bombs cannot bring democracy, but a popular uprising can. Unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, the Iranian romance with radical Islam has reached its end. Having suffered the reality of totalitarianism, the sober but idealistic discourse of Iran’s burgeoning civil society is post-ideological, nonviolent and rooted in secular compromise rather than fanatical utopias. The nuclear question can only be resolved through the triumph of these progressive forces. Just as the secret nuclear programs of the Argentine and Brazilian military regimes and apartheid South Africa were abandoned under democratic rule, a democratic Iran would base its power on improving its citizens’ lives rather than hate-mongering, atrocities and militarization.
The world community must prevent future escalation of violence by conditioning its relations with Iran on respect for human rights. After years of struggle by Iranian activists, the European Union and the United States have adopted travel bans and asset freezes against officials implicated in human-rights violations. Despite its leadership in adopting UN resolutions, Canada is the only Western country that has not enacted similar sanctions, Ottawa’s actions being limited to Iran’s nuclear program. Amidst the shocking reports emerging from Syria, calls to refer the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court have intensified. As the Iranian leadership calculates its survival strategy, the time to discourage mass atrocities is now rather than later, with the hope that the country will see a nonviolent democratic transformation that does not repeat the horrors of Syria.
Payam Akhavan is professor of international law at McGill University, a former UN prosecutor and founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre. Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian human-rights lawyer and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.