The Islamic Republic of Iran is master of the double standard. For instance, the regime believes it has the right to establish political groups in other countries, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council and a number of groups in Afghanistan. It openly supports Hamas to the tune of millions of dollars -- another example of this general modus operandi. So, by logical extension, the Islamic Republic asserts that opponents of a government have the right to create an armed organization, and foreign governments have the right to supply these opponents with money, weapons and training.
Yet within its own borders, the Iranian government has stifled all dissent. It has shuttered all opposition media outlets. It does not tolerate any independent organizations, even trade unions. If teachers demand back pay, they are dismissed, jailed or exiled. The regime will not accept even nonviolent protest. In order to crush opposition groups with impunity, it brands peaceful, legal activism “soft subversion” or a “velvet revolution.”
Iran claims to be a democracy. But in free countries, where the rule of law is respected, political parties vie for control of parliament or the executive branch by means of elections. The Islamic Republic accepts no electoral rivals; any independent party that aims to gain political power is declared illegitimate. What are groups expected to do when they gather? Answer: Extol revered religious figures or lament their own demise.
In truth, the Islamic Republic of Iran rules through quotas, both literal and figurative. Important political jobs are open only to clerics, starting with the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and extending through his appointments to the Guardian Council, the head of the judiciary and the intelligence minister. The Assembly of Experts, which chooses the supreme leader, is composed entirely of clerics.
University admissions too are decided by factors other than academic excellence. Slots are set aside for the family members of martyrs and members of the Basij, the volunteer militia that enforces clerical rule. Those jobs, educational perks and privileges translate into riches for those loyal to the regime. For example, many big infrastructure projects are awarded to the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most powerful wing of the military. As a result, a segment of the corps has emerged as a new economic class whose financial activity and growing wealth is unknown and unaccountable.
For those who oppose the Islamic Republic, there are reverse quotas of a sort, which ensure the regime’s survival. The Bahais, declared heretics for their religious faith, cannot attend universities. Professors who support democracy and defend human rights, such as Abdulkarim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar and Hadi Semati, are banned from teaching. Question clerical rule and you might be denied the right to travel abroad or to publish books. In addition, a number of activists recently have been beaten in the streets and publicly humiliated.
The regime seems to have a quota for its jails too. A number of opponents must always be imprisoned so that activists will not succumb to the delusion that they are free to engage in political activity. Many are already locked away -- including three students from Amir Kabir University sentenced last month. Prison sentences hang over the heads of others like the sword of Damocles.
And then there are the individuals who must be taken back to jail from time to time, such as Mansour Osanloo, the Tehran bus drivers union leader; Mahmoud Dordkeshan, a political activist; and journalists such as Said Matinpur and Emaddedin Baghi. Matinpur and Jalil Qanilu, both activists for the Azerbaijani ethnic minority, have been held in solitary confinement for about five years with no family visits or access to lawyers.
I was in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison from 2000 to 2006. I know what prolonged solidarity confinement can do to a person, and I know the sound of torture. I survived my ordeal in part because global civil society mobilized and pressed for my release. As I write, the Iranian regime is invoking the threat of a U.S. military attack -- which is very real -- and using that as an excuse for a major crackdown on dissidents.
No regime has the right to inflict such indignities on its own people. Those who are not in jail have a moral duty to raise their voice against the detention of all political prisoners. The Islamic Republic may try to dismiss international condemnation as illegitimate foreign interference or an affront to national sovereignty -- but human rights are universal, and we must persevere until all prisoners of conscience are free.