Under the relatively recent former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, severe suppression of press freedoms, harsh justice exacted on dissenting voices, general human rights abuses and belligerent rhetoric against the U.S. and Israel were often heard about in Western media, thus adding to the multi-lateral atmosphere of fear and mistrust between peoples and nations. During last year’s presidential election in Iran however, then presidential candidate, Hassan Rouhani, campaigned on a platform that promised, among other things, a “civil rights charter”, more transparency and improved relations with Western nations. Due to decades of mistrust, would now President Rouhani actually deliver on these promises?
This question becomes all the more powerful when one considers the threat ISIS currently poses in Iraq, Syria and the entire region. So much so that Iran and the US are actually in dialogue with each other in how to confront this shared threat together. This one simple development is highly significant and should therefore be embraced with cautious optimism. Such optimism, however, would be inextricably linked to what President Rouhani has done during his relatively short time in office. Has he followed up on his campaign rhetoric promising the civil rights charter, more transparency and improved relations with Western nations?
During last week’s Oslo Freedom Forum, I had the privilege of conducting a short interview with one of the VIP delegates of the Forum – Mohammad Nahavandian, Chief of Staff to Iranian President Rouhani. Since Our Times is fundamentally focused on promoting more peaceful interactions between nations and people, and since there is currently an ever-so-slight shift in collaborative attitude between the U.S. and Iran, we of course wanted to get a sense, face-to-face, with one of the top leaders in Iran, if there was indeed substance to the rhetoric.
Mr. Nahavandian is probably the best person within the Iranian government that Our Times could interview, especially with regards to this publication’s overall mission. He studied at, and received an economics degree from, George Washington University in Washington DC. He also maintained, until recently, a permanent visa to the U.S. Such potent Life experiences shared between two significant and unique cultures gives Mr. Nahavandian a distinct insight that is highly valuable when threading the strands of trust and mutual understanding.
The following are the questions and answers from our interview with Mr. Nahavandian:
Mr. Nahavandian, thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed. My first question concerns human rights in Iran. Several human rights organizations report that your government is severely abusing, both mentally and physically, a significant number of its prison population. Would you care to comment on these alleged human rights abuses?
“One of the main issues in President Rouhani’s campaign for presidency was his emphasis on citizen’s rights. And that was emphasized after his election, also when he announced that he had put together a declaration of citizen’s rights to be implemented by the government and regarded and respected by all government agencies. That responsibility was given to a group of experts to draft (a declaration), which was done and was presented to the public, asking everyone to comment on it. This included the citizens of Iran, NGOs, experts, lawyers. Thousands of comments were gathered on this. It was then given to a committee of experts to look into and inserted in a draft to be considered (by parliament). In President Rouhani’s latest interview during the anniversary of the election, he said this (declaration of citizen’s rights) would be finalized in the coming months and would be announced on the anniversary of the start of the new government. The part (of the new legislation) that has been ratified,is up to the administrative body to be implemented. The part that still needs new legislation will be presented to our parliament to be adopted into law.
This declaration, which is available on the Internet (for public review), addresses all different issues from education, to freedom of speech, to the press, to cyberspace, to legal rights and all sorts of concerns, that emanates from our constitution and which looks into the principle rights of people. So this is a sincere effort for bringing that chapter in the constitution into a law to put aside any ambiguity that might remain, and harmonize the behavior and the treatment by different government agencies (of the citizens of Iran). This was for actually the legal support, and legal emphasis, on the issue.”
Are there any results from President Rouhani’s initiatives?
“On the implementation front you see that some issues of concern have already been in practice. For example when you look at the freedom of press, you can already see different kinds of publications in print or in cyberspace, criticizing especially the government, as the most available target. All groups of different opinions, pro or con have the opportunity to have their words heard.”
And are women included in this new social contract?
“In Iran, the amount of women who are entering the labor force is tremendous. That is why you see women’s presence in all sorts of professions visible in Iran – lawyers, professors, engineers, architects and educated positions of all kinds.
It was at this point that the handler of Mr. Nahavandian stepped in and stopped the interview. Mister Nahavandian had run out of time and needed to get back to the location where the Oslo Freedom Forum was being held. This was unfortunate as I was just getting warmed up with questions that were contradictory in nature to the above claims given by Mr. Nahavandian, especially with regard to our first question, which Mr. Nahavandian did not answer directly.
After a brief photo session, I accompanied Mr. Nahavandian to his car. The interview had had indeed appeared to have been full of goodwill while pursuing the principles of objectivist journalism. As we walked I informed Mr. Nahavandian that I, as an American, had always dreamed of going to Iran to feel the culture, meet the people, soak up the deep history, and that all the Iranians I have ever met have been warm, open and very intelligent. Mr. Nahavandian smiled kindly, and as we shook hands one final time, we both looked the other in the eye, and at the same exact time said, “See you in Tehran”.
Whether or not Our Times will be invited to Iran to conduct a second, more extensive interview with Mr. Nahavandian, or any other high ranking Iranian government official for that matter, is speculative. I have already requested this, and now only time will tell. For my part, if I am invited, I will be very thorough in asking the hard questions. That said,the objective in asking the hard questions is not to put anyone on the spot, or shame the government of Iran. This makes for fantastic sensationalist media (unfortunately the norm within today’s profit-driven media centers), but serves nobody’s best interests in that it destroys goodwill. The point in asking the hard questions is to provide a sharp relief when asking the questions that allow for Iran to talk about it’s victories, progress and evolution as a critically important nation state. In other words to let them talk about where they are proud of themselves. Establishing dialogue, providing objective information on highly complex issues, building goodwill and trust, and letting this vibration resonate throughout the geopolitical spectrum will do more to achieve peaceful relations than confrontation and judgment ever will.
I’m game, Tehran. Are you?
Substantiation to information Mr. Nahavandian provided in his interview
The Guardian published an article entitled “Iranian Press Freedoms Grow For Still-wary Journalists”on November 30th of 2013, where it conducted over half a dozen in-depth interviews with mostly reformist Iranian journalists. One of these journalists, according to The Guardian, described “more relaxed conditions” since Rouhani took office in August of last year, with another saying that he feels “much safer” than he did under President Ahmadinajad. One of the journalists in another interview went so far as to say that, “fear, terror and censorship are gone. The police-state atmosphere is gone. Today, you can actually criticize politicians.”
Ahmed Shaheed, as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, published a report on March 13th, 2014 documenting extreme abuse of the population in Iranian prisons. The report included the following information:
“In 90 per cent of cases, former detainees claimed that their interrogators had subjected them to psychological abuse, including prolonged solitary confinement, mock executions, threats to life, sexual harassment, threats to family members, harsh verbal abuse and threats of rape and other torture. Some 76 per cent also alleged that their interrogators physically abused them in the form of severe beatings to the head and body, often with a baton-like object. Some reported having been subjected to suspension and pressure positions, sexual molestation, electric shocks or burning.”