Welcoming Rouhani ignores human rights

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Protesters gathered in Paris last week to demonstrate against President François Hollande's receiving of the Iranian leader. [Davide Espinosa]

Europe’s rapprochement with Iran will only prove damaging, as European leaders welcome the head of a regime that is guilty of violating basic human rights, writes Alejo Vidal-Quadras.

Dr. Alejo Vidal-Quadras is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ) Committee and was Vice-President of the European Parliament between 1999 and 2014.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ended his tour of Italy and France last week, and no doubt the trade agreements that were signed during those four days seem lucrative to the governments involved. They could have done better, considering that the decision to so warmly welcome the Iranian president into the borders of Europe depended upon selling out some of the core concepts of what it means to be a European and a resident of a free, democratic country.

Fortunately, there were many people who responded by trying to remind their representatives in Rome and Paris of those concepts, which include an abiding interest in human rights and a willingness to confront international figures who represent state terrorism, the foment of instability, and a disdain for popular sovereignty. Contrary to what some Western officials would have us believe, Rouhani represents all of these things. If the simple fact that he visited Europe as the envoy of a repressive, theocratic regime is not enough to prove this, his record over the past two and a half years should be.

An international rally drawing thousands of Iranian dissidents, who were accompanied by French and European politicians, human rights lawyers and activists took place in Paris, with the aim of calling attention to that record and demonstrating to Western governments that they send completely the wrong message to the Iranian people when they roll out the red carpet for Rouhani in spite of his crimes.

Although the cynic in me wants to believe that the decision to host Rouhani for high-level trade talks was motivated only by greed, I am willing to accept that the people behind that decision genuinely believe that they can foster a moderating trend in the Iranian regime by reaching out to its president. But such a notion is painfully misguided. Similar efforts with other Iranian leaders in the past have already proved fruitless and ultimately damaging, and the aftermath of this visit to Europe will surely turn out to be no different.

To make such an effort all over again depends upon willful ignorance on the part of Western officials, especially in the midst of current conditions. This should have been obvious to those officials if they had simply asked the Iranian people themselves, especially Rouhani’s former supporters. One after another, progressive activists who had supported his candidacy have come forward to express disappointment and frustration at the fact that he has delivered on none of his campaign promises to improve the state of human rights in Iran.

As Thursday’s protests (28 January) took pains to point out, this is not nearly enough to demonstrate an impulse toward reform or moderation. Many Iranian expatriates and former victims of the regime participated in elaborate street performances and exhibitions to portray the human rights violations that are still running rampant in the country to this day.

Speeches called attention to the fact that Rouhani has overseen the most active period of executions in the last 25 years of the Islamic Republic. Some 2,200 people have been put to death during his tenure, most of them for non-violent offenses, and many for vague, political crimes like “insulting the Prophet” or “enmity against God”.

It is perhaps somewhat understandable if the advocates of rapprochement in the West failed to notice these things as they were pointed out by Rouhani’s former supporters inside Iran. After all, the climate of repression has remained so intense during that time that there is a limit to the number of people who are able to be heard with any criticism of the government, even its so-called moderate wing.

Rouhani is not bothered by executions. He has said publicly that executing people “is either the commandment of God or a law approved by the parliament that belongs to the people and we only execute it”. It is hard to imagine, when the whole world is abhorred by the number of executions in Iran, that the President of that country says it has nothing to do with him.

That repression has been particularly noteworthy among persons with ties to the main democratic opposition People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI or MEK), as well as persons with avowedly pro-Western attitudes or an inclination to create art and cultural expressions deemed “un-Islamic” by the clerical regime. Notwithstanding the negotiated release of four American-Iranians this month, their stories are still indicative of a strong anti-Western tendency that has only intensified especially in the aftermath of the July 14 nuclear agreement.

Now that those prisoners have been released, their testimonials are steadily making their way to the media, describing physical and psychological abuse and bearing witness to the appalling mistreatment and mass execution of political prisoners. With such messages on the minds of Europeans and American voters, it will be increasingly difficult for Western officials to maintain a policy of willful ignorance towards human rights abuses in Iran.

Subscribe to our newsletters