A year on from JCPOA, Iran views civil society as security threat


To thwart widespread expectations that more open relations with the West would follow the signing of the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program last year, Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly warned of the dangers of political and cultural “infiltration” of Iran by the U.S. and its European allies, notes

Haleh Esfandiari, director emerita of and a senior scholar at the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Iran’s security agencies, including the fearsome intelligence arm of the Revolutionary Guards, take such warnings as a green light for their activities. The persecution of dual nationals has been a predictable result, she writes for The Wall Street Journal:

Ayatollah Khamenei is skeptical of the social openness that President Hassan Rouhani has sought to pursue, fearing that such policies would destabilize the regime. His nightmare is a recurrence of the massive protests that followed the 2009 presidential election in which the unpopular incumbent was declared the winner. Many Iranians believe the election was rigged; the supreme leader has talked about it as a blessing.

To ward off what he perceives as threats to the regime, the supreme leader increasingly relies on the Revolutionary Guards and its police arm, on the basij paramilitary forces, on the intelligence agencies, and on the judiciary, with its compliant array of Revolutionary Courts, which often operate behind closed doors.

“Meanwhile, President Rouhani focuses on improving Iran’s economy and employment situation,” Esfandiari adds. “He appears to have given up on efforts to end the most blatant violations of human rights.”

Activists claim that the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has failed to open up economic and political space within Iran.

Last week, Germany’s intelligence agency produced a report detailing Iranian cheating, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

“It must be remembered that the Islamic Republic of Iran is an authoritarian system that views elements as innocuous as civil society and intellectuals as security threats,” said Payam Akhavan, an Iranian-born former United Nations war crimes prosecutor, now professor of law at McGill University. “There have also been occasions when the Iranian government has used foreign nationals as hostages to extract concessions such as obtaining the release of Iranian spies and assassins.”

Meanwhile, Iran continues to be deeply involved in the sectarian fighting in Iraq, notes Matthew Levitt, the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Stein program on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. According to the State Department, Iranian combat forces in Iraq “employed rockets, artillery, and drones” and “increased its arming and funding of Iraqi Shia terrorist groups” which, together with Hezbollah, train and advise Iraqi Shiite groups in their efforts to combat ISIS, he writes for The Hill:

ISIS aside, however, many of these groups, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, “have committed serious human rights abuses against primarily Sunni civilians. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which reportedly receives between $1.5 million and $2 million a month from Iran, has been accused of numerous human rights abuses amidst the current violence in Iraq, and was responsible for more than 6,000 attacks on American troops between 2006 and 2011.

Hard-line media affiliated with the IRGC have hailed the Iranian dead in Syria as selfless individuals driven by religious conviction, RFE/RL reports:

IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and other officials have paid visits to their families to pay their respects, and many of those same relatives have appeared on state-controlled media to rejoice over the martyrdom of their loved ones and announce that other family members are ready to follow their path… Video clips and songs have praised them, including one produced by a group allied with Iran’s conservative volunteer militia, known as Basij House Of Music, with the participation of the son of a shrine defender.

Iran’s “authorities are using martyrdom as a tool to justify the increasing number of deaths of [Iranian troops] in Syria in the face of questions by some people who, I believe, are asking why are these people killed there,” said Stanford University’s Abbas Milani.

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