With His Eyes on the Nuclear Prize, Rouhani Hedges on Human Rights

At the foot of the mountains in northern Tehran, nestled just above the capital’s swank neighborhoods and just below the teahouses and hiking trails where Iranians flock to escape the city’s smog, sits one of the country’s most infamous facilities. In contrast to its picturesque location, Evin Prison has served as the setting for some of the most vicious moments in modern Iranian history. Many of those who helped bring down Iran’s secular monarchy in 1979 served stints in Evin. Tragically, the repression that fueled the revolution only worsened after the monarchy’s overthrow, and so did the brutality at Evin.

Reports surfaced several weeks ago of yet another awful episode at Evin, a raid by security forces of the prison’s Unit 350 that culminated in the beatings of dozens of political prisoners.  It is neither the first, nor the worst, incident of official abuse committed by the Islamic Republic in the facility built and financed by the Shah’s secret police. And though the parliament has promised an investigation and the country’s prisons chief — who denied the attacks with a smile on state television — has been relieved of his responsibilities, there is no reason to presume it will be the last.

Evin remains the scene and the symbol of the routine violence that underpins the Islamic Republic. Thirty-five years after millions of Iranians came out on the streets to demand a say in their governance, this prison stands as an affront to those aspirations that have been suppressed by force, abetted by faith. (For more details on previous assaults at Evin, read the detailed reports by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center here and here, or check out historian Ervand Abrahamian’s compelling study, Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran.) Evin remains home to a pantheon of writers, lawyers, and political activists, whose path to prison chronicles the historical ironies in Iran’s painful political evolution, and starkly illustrates the shifting prospects for changing the revolutionary regime.

Many hoped that last June’s election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency might change all this. After all, Rouhani invoked human rights concerns repeatedly during his campaign,  promising in deliberately vague but soaring terms to “open all the locks which have been fastened upon people’s life.” And his rallies drew throngs of young Iranians, chanting appeals for the release of political prisoners and relishing that this time, their votes might count.

Since Rouhani took office in August, there have been a few small steps forward — a handful of dissidents and activists released from prison; a verbose and jargonistic “citizenship charter” drafted that is intended at least to advance equality under law; a subtle loosening of the ever-changing ‘red lines’ for what is acceptable public discourse. By most accounts, life in Iran is easier today than it was only a year ago under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure coincided with the ascendance of the hard-liners at the helm of the security forces and whose 2009 reelection came at the price of a rigged ballot and the crushing of massive public protests.

However, after nine months in office, Rouhani’s achievements in the arena of human rights remain meager. They are vastly outweighed by the perpetuation of abuses: the accelerating pace of executions, the new arrests and newspaper closures, the cynical deployment of new media and technology by a leadership that denies access to the same outlets by its citizenry.

And Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two candidates who contested Ahmadinejad’s 2009 victory and briefly galvanized a nation-wide opposition movement, remain sequestered under a severely restrictive house arrest , along with Mousavi’s wife. Their three-year isolation has drastically impacted their health, and Mousavi was reportedly rushed to a Tehran hospital earlier this week for an emergency cardiac procedure.

Like Rouhani, the two men were loyal functionaries of the revolutionary state; they occupied several of the system’s highest posts in the 1980s and 1990s. But five years ago, they chose to fight for the principle of representative rule and popular participation in the political process. The two men and their families have paid a heavy price for their unwillingness to accept the creeping absolutism of the theocratic institutions of the revolutionary state.

Rouhani is himself a fighter — his pugnacious criticisms of Ahmadinejad earned him the opprobrium of the system’s hard-liners and even the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for much of his predecessor’s eight years in office. But the issue of human rights has never been his chosen battle. Fifteen years ago, in his position as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Rouhani endorsed a bloody crackdown on student protests at Tehran University. He carefully navigated the political minefields of Iran’s post-2009 environment to avoid any overt sympathies with the movement dubbed “sedition” in the regime’s official argot, and continues to avoid appealing for the release of Mousavi and Karroubi too overtly.

Instead, Rouhani’s focus remains on foreign policy — precisely where it has been throughout his post-revolutionary political career, which has included leadership roles in Iran’s war-time air defense system, its parliamentary foreign affairs committee, and its national security apparatus. At the top of his agenda is extricating Iran from the costly isolation of international economic sanctions, and as a result, the sole big bet of his presidency has been placed on the nuclear negotiations. There, he can already claim dramatic — if still impermanent — achievements: most notably, an interim nuclear accord that has intensified expectations that Tehran is on the cusp of rejoining the international economy.

It is a profoundly pragmatic gamble, one that is consistent with the hard-headed realism that has characterized Rouhani throughout his career. A comprehensive nuclear deal would unlock Iran’s economy, which in turn would revive the legitimacy of the aging theocracy.

The president’s partisans hope that such an environment might facilitate newfound progress on human rights. That is certainly possible, but nothing in Iran’s post-revolutionary history, with its enduring atrocities at Evin, implies that it is inevitable. The end of the war with Iraq saw an intensification of repression, including mass executions of oppositionists detained at Evin. A decade later, the rise of a movement for political reform provoked hardline backlash that shuttered the press and filled the prisons. Iran has evolved considerably since the revolution, but Iranians’ rights and freedoms have been persistently under siege.

The real uncertainty is one of political will. If Rouhani’s gamble succeeds, if he can persuade his own government to rollback its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for a truce with the world, if the European trade delegations that are now selling out Iranian hotels come back with their checkbooks extended — what will Iran’s unusually empowered president do next? Given the opportunity, will Rouhani invest his influence in the theocracy’s liberalization? No one can say with certainty, but to date his ‘government of prudence and hope,’ has offered little basis for optimism that Iran’s respect for its citizens’ rights will improve.

Either way, the specter of Evin and all that it symbolizes will continue to loom over Iran’s nascent rehabilitation. Stabilizing the economy alone will not end popular discontent in the Islamic Republic, and one significant success may only whet the appetite of Iranians for the political dividends from the receding of a crisis. The real test of Rouhani’s leadership is not whether he can obtain a tolerable nuclear accommodation, but whether he can extend his foreign policy breakthroughs to the home front.