The Iran of May 2005 is, in some ways, looking very similar to the Iran of November 1979. Back then, when the American embassy in Tehran was seized by hardline university students, every other domestic issue was cast into oblivion. Nothing mattered more than the hostages. Nothing superseded the war with the “Great Satan.” The hostage crisis became so giant of an issue that all else alongside it was immediately dwarfed — in particular, the issues of freedom, civil liberties and human rights.
With each passing month in 1980, as the world’s attention increasingly focused on the hostages, more and more arrests took place throughout Iran. Given the absence of both domestic and international scrutiny, acts of summary justice were performed far more swiftly. After January 1981, when the hostages returned home, the state of oblivion only deepened.
Today the dominant discussion about Iran is focused around another giant issue: Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. More attention is now focused on Iran than at any point in time since the 1979 revolution; nearly all of it is in regard to Tehran’s intentions for its uranium-enrichment program. As media around the world report on the day-to-day details of the European Union’s ongoing negotiations with the Iranian regime, the story of the Iranian people’s daily struggles is increasingly buried.
In 1999, two years after the election of President Mohamed Khatami, a nascent reform movement in Iran seized the world’s imagination. Now little thought is given to what became of its masterminds, or of the brave students who took to the streets in defiance of the regime.
Think, for instance, of journalist Akbar Ganji, who through in-depth investigations uncovered ties between a handful of top leaders and the assassinations of intellectuals and writers such as Mohammad Mokhtari. Overnight, Ganji became a sensation in Iran, the beloved editor-in-chief of the most popular daily.
Today he’s spending his sixth year in prison, much of it stuck in solitary confinement. Ganji is watching those whom he jeopardized his life to expose now running as presidential candidates. How can Iran — how can any country — ever reach democracy when truths are so constantly twisted, when acts of heroism prove merely ethereal and are vulnerable to the will of the rulers?
If the since-crushed reform movement of the late 1990s teaches anything, it is that another state of oblivion must never again be allowed to surround the subject of Iran. A permanent space for the issue of human rights must be carved out so that they will no longer be subject to political trends and headlines.
These days, among Iranian scholars a dangerous argument seems to be gathering momentum, one which essentially brands any criticism of Tehran’s human rights record as unpatriotic — particularly given the presence of American troops in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq. However, those of us who lived through the 1979 revolution and its aftermath know better than to agree.
Back in 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini proposed reinstituting the Islamic dress code, Iranian women who took to the streets in protest were accused of being unpatriotic. With the revolution still in its infancy and with the grave threat posed by the United States, the argument went, truly conscientious Iranians were those who sacrificed their personal happiness on behalf of collective unity. Women who advocated for free choice were, among many other things, slandered as selfish.
The Islamic dress code, of course, soon became mandatory. We were driven under the veils and the uniforms and the scarves. In retrospect, it is clear that the enforcement of the dress code paved the way for the loss of other civil liberties.
Given this history, now is the best time — indeed, the only time — to be talking about the issue of human rights in Iran.
Will the E.U.’s negotiations with Iran succeed? Will there be a military strike? Will there be a deal? If a deal is struck, those who care about the cause of democracy in Iran must play their humble part in making sure that Iranians’ human rights won’t be sacrificed for the sake of diplomatic considerations.
Tyrannies thrive on forgetfulness. Their hold over society is made clear to the public every time they manage to obliterate someone’s record of opposition — or someone’s existence.
As the international community converges on Iran to sort out the nuclear problem, it should remember that focusing on human rights is, in itself, an exercise in sovereignty — it infuses the debate with preoccupations that ultimately affect only Iranians. It is a way for the Iranian people to make our own demands. It is a way for us to wrest the subject from political and partisan wrangling and claim it as our own.
Roya Hakakian, co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, Conn., is the author of “Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran” (Crown, 2004).