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EU, US Push for JCPOA Revival as Iran Batters Protesters With Impunity
Iranian citizens protest in Khuzestan, Iran, July 30, 2021. (Awmirsajjad/Wikimedia Commons). Inset: Khuzestan Province, Iran. (Creative Commons)

EU, US Push for JCPOA Revival as Iran Batters Protesters With Impunity

Past failures in the Middle East have caused Western governments to 'deprioritize' human rights, says expert

More than a month has passed since a wave of protest erupted throughout Iran. On July 15, demonstrators took to the streets in the southwestern Khuzestan Province, home to most of Iran’s Arab minority, in response to a dire water crisis. The protests went on to spread to other parts of Iran, including Tabriz and Tehran, and died down as government forces responded with deadly force, causing the deaths of at least 11 protesters and bystanders, Amnesty International reported.

Three weeks later, protesters belonging to Iran’s Kurdish minority protested in the western city of Naqadeh. The violent response of Iranian forces resulted in dozens of injured protesters, according to Amnesty International. Mass arrests were also used in the regime’s efforts to silence dissent.

Diana Eltahawy, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in response to the government’s actions that “it is high time the international community takes concrete action over the Iranian government’s repeated deadly deployment of unlawful force with impunity against protesters, including by supporting the establishment of an investigative and accountability mechanism at the UN Human Rights Council to collect evidence of crimes under international law and facilitate independent criminal proceedings.”

Yet, European governments and the Biden administration appear in no rush to take action against the Islamic Republic’s violations. The State Department’s spokesperson, Ned Price, released a statement in response to the violence in Khuzestan, saying, “We condemn the use of violence against peaceful protestors. We support the rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves, without fear of violence and detention by security forces.” Price urged the government to ensure its citizens’ freedom of expression. No concrete action, however, was taken. Quite the opposite, in fact.

On August 5, Ebrahim Raisi – who himself has a record of human rights violations – was inaugurated as Iran’s president. The EU chose to send a diplomat to the ceremony. At the same time, in the background, the US and its partners appear to be continuing on the path towards reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump left unilaterally in 2018.

There has been a scattering of protests by members of the Iranian diaspora in Europe and the US, in solidarity with the recent demonstrations in Iran, and expressing outrage at the presidency of Raisi. Faisal Maramazi, the executive director of the UK-based oppositional Ahwazi Centre for Human Rights, took part in such a protest outside the Iranian embassy in London. Maramazi, an activist fighting for the rights of the Arab minority in Iran’s Khuzestan Province, has been struggling for support from the British government and the EU’s parliament, so far to no avail.

“We as Ahwazi [Khuzestan Arabs] activists … [have] sent many letters to 10 Downing Street … but unfortunately, no one [has] replied to us” beyond acknowledging the receipt of the letters, he told The Media Line, using the colloquial term for the British prime minister’s office. Maramazi says that demonstrations have been held several times outside the European parliament as well, followed by letters to the parliament and its MPs, “but no one replied to us … the Europeans are preferring their investments … [to] human rights.”

“We want swift action,” he said, calling events in Khuzestan a crime against humanity, “we ask the European bodies – all of them – to condemn [the regime’s acts] and make a practical move against the Iranian atrocities, against Iranian crimes in Ahwaz and other places.” Ahwaz, or al-Ahwaz, is the Arabic name of Khuzestan Province or a larger stretch of land in southwestern Iran.

Abdulrahman al-Heidari is the spokesperson for the Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement in Ahwaz, an opposition party looking to represent the Arab population of Khuzestan Province. Based in the UK as well, Heidari said that part of their activity is focused on bringing the plight of their people in Iran to the awareness of both governments and the public in Europe and the US. “Unfortunately, up to now, we have received nothing” from the governments, he told The Media Line. This is not new to the activist, who has tried to enlist the support of the British government in the past, when protests erupted in his Iranian home province. “I sent them all the detainees, the name of detainees that we received, photos, I wrote a report,” he said. No answer was received from the British government, and during the last wave of protests, “they took no action … even verbally … they kept silent.”

Sharing a personal story, Heidari says that Iranian authorities arrested his brother last May because of Heidari’s activities in the UK. “So I wrote a letter to my MP, and to the British Foreign Affairs [Ministry],” asking them to protect his freedom of action as a British citizen, he said. “My family shouldn’t be threatened by the Iranian government because of my activity.” Nothing was done, however, and fearful of the future, Heidari believes that if he is assassinated, “the British government would do nothing, nothing.”

Heidari emphasizes that the issue, though, goes beyond the governments’ apathy, and says that part of “the problem is that Western media took no action.” With minimal coverage of the protests and their violent suppression, the public simply isn’t aware of events in Iran, he says.

“We tried [approaching Western media outlets] many times, [the] BBC, Sky News, but they said this is not our priority,” he relates. His overtures to the media during the most recent demonstrations were simply ignored. The complete lack of interest in the story leads Heidari to suggest that there is governmental pressure to avoid these topics, which could be harmful to the Tehran regime. Western governments are interested in preserving the Islamist regime in Tehran as a regional boogeyman, he explained.

Dr. Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, and deputy director of its Middle East and North Africa program, explained Western policy surrounding Iran’s repressive measures differently. “I think that the human rights agenda has been deprioritized by western governments,” she told The Media Line. “Perhaps it’s connected to the negotiations in Vienna designed to constrain and rehabilitate Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. But at the same time, I would say that western governments have probably made an assessment that human rights are, while important to protect … condemning or sanctioning violators of human rights have yet to result in tangible shifts from the Iranian government.”

Past experience in the region, she explains, has impacted Western governments’ appetite for championing the cause of human rights in the region. “European governments used to be much more interventionists, used to be more willing to sanction and to criticize and to elevate human rights issues,” she said, however, “the negative experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused European governments – if not the US – to reconsider their involvement and engagement in middle eastern countries, let alone their ability to translate and impact change on the ground.” This doesn’t mean that human rights issues are considered unimportant, “but in the hierarchy of priorities, human rights are not at the top.”

Speaking specifically of responding to events such as those that transpired in recent weeks in Khuzestan and elsewhere throughout Iran, Vakil explains, “The way European governments approach protests and demonstrations is to balance criticism against their national interests, which tend to be economic.”

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