Iran's Nuclear Crisis: Obama Could Play the Human Rights Card

By Jamsheed K Choksy; Nina Shea | The Christian Science Monitor, September 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: Obama Could Play the Human Rights Card


Jamsheed K Choksy; Nina Shea, The Christian Science Monitor


Today's announcement by President Obama and European leaders that Iran is building a secret underground nuclear facility adds fresh urgency to an issue that's been festering for years. Tensions will now be considerably higher among negotiators at the planned Oct. 1 meeting about Iran's nuclear program.

Already, there is talk of much-harsher sanctions if Iran does not meet international demands in the next two months. "Everything must be put on the table now," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

One issue that should be put on the table was displayed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week in New York: Iran's religious minorities.

Iran's deplorable record on human rights is often treated as separate from the nuclear issue. It's not. If Iran's government can't be trusted to treat its own citizens with basic dignity, how can it be trusted with nuclear technology?

Mr. Ahmadinejad's theatrics involved including five religious minority parliamentarians in his entourage to the UN General Assembly, this week. This act shows how eager Tehran is to be accepted back into the community of nations. Thus, the human rights card could be considerable leverage for Western powers in coming weeks.

When he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23, Ahmadinejad professed concern for "justice, freedom, and human rights." He apparently thought his five props would help him project a tolerant, peace-loving face. It was a stiff performance.

Iran is one "big and unified family" with full legal rights for religious minorities, he declared when choosing these minority representatives, according to official reports. Yet these people could not refuse.

Not only could they be punished if they resisted, their religious communities would suffer the hard-line regime's reprisals as well. "Communal welfare is important," a well-placed Iranian religious leader explained before the New York trip. "So absence will not be possible."

Iran's Constitution technically grants all citizens freedom of worship, sanctity for holy sites, equal standing under the law, and access to employment. But the Islamic Republic has destroyed its great cultural patrimony and reduced freedoms to unconvincing, exploitative acts of propaganda.

Under the Constitution, the election of these five representatives is one of the few rights afforded the four "recognized" religious minorities predating Islam in Persia. These minorities live essentially as dhimmis, the protected though subjugated "people of the Book" of medieval times.

Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, they have been barred from high government office. Their religious ceremonies and celebrations are subject to police raids to ensure they abide by "Islamic standards."

Their synagogues, churches, fire temples, and tombs (including that of the prophet Daniel) are frequently defaced with monumental photos of ayatollahs and other propaganda. Their schools are administered by Iran's Education Ministry, which imposes a state- approved religious textbook and typically appoints the principals. …

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