How To Treat Ahmadinejad
Yesterday, President Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations General Assembly. In front of the world's cameras, he pointed to the widespread violations of human rights by powers that "do not value human beings" and presented himself as a man of peace. Now, behind closed doors, he will talk nuclear weapons. A new International Atomic Energy Agency report describes his government's attitude to nuclear negotiations as "uncooperative," to use diplomatic language.
Thus the need to negotiate will lead most of Mr. Ahmadinejad's interlocutors to avoid subjects that would alienate the Islamic Republic's president. Once again, the international community will avoid any reference to the unrelenting violence against the only group which could force Mr. Ahmadinejad to change his ways: the Iranian people, millions of whom do not share his views about Iran's foreign policy, or anything else.
Only a few years ago, Iranians did have means to express themselves, albeit limited. Today, any efforts to communicate opinions that do not conform to the ruling elite's stated views are severely punished. The international community can help open a space for the Iranian public opinion once again. But it cannot do so unless it supports Iranians who fight for their rights and challenges the Islamic Republic's leaders on their human rights record, over and over again.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's interlocutors in New York can challenge him, for example, when he presents his usual list of grievances. In a recent interview, he mentioned the 1953 American-sponsored coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mossadegh. This is a legitimate complaint if it were coming from the Iranian people. But coming from Mr. Ahmadinejad, it is a farce.
After the revolution, Iran's Islamic leaders killed, exiled, or reduced to silence all of Mossadegh's coalition. November 2008 will be the 10th anniversary of the gruesome stabbing of Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar, leaders of the Iran People's Party and Mossadegh supporters, by the regime's intelligence operatives. Seven years before, Revolutionary Guards butchered, in Paris, Shapur Bakhtiar, leader of the Iran Party and member of the Mossadegh government.
Mr. Ahmadinejad also referred to the violence of the Shah. Again, this grievance is legitimate coming from dissidents who were punished by the Shah, who was indeed supported by the American government. It is a mockery coming from the leader of the Islamic Republic, which re-arrested the previous regime's prisoners of conscience and subsequently executed many of them in addition to thousands of other political prisoners.
This month is the 20th anniversary of the events of September 1988, when a three-man committee traveled from prison to prison across Iran, and evaluated each prisoner's "commitment" to the Islamic Republic's official ideology. The result: between 4,000 and 5,000 prisoners were secretly hanged for the crime of not recanting their beliefs.
When Mr. Ahmadinejad complains about indiscriminate violence by other countries, he should be reminded that the summer of 2008 is also the 30th anniversary of the tragic Cinema Rex fire, which was deliberately set in the city of Abadan by religious leaders and during which nearly 400 men, women, and children were burned alive.
By starting that deadly fire, those revolutionary leaders achieved their goal of raising revolutionary fervor and, at the same time, sending a clear message to those Abadan residents who went to the movies during the month of Ramadan.
The Islamic Republic's leaders know perfectly well what terrible things they have done, and continue to do, which is why they try to hide them. Anyone who publicizes human rights violations; anyone who takes part in an exchange program with America; any member of a religious or ethnic minority; and even those who fight polygamy can be accused of "acting against national security" or instigating a "velvet revolution." At this very moment, several civil rights activists are on death row.
In the three decades the Islamic Republic's leadership has controlled Iran, the leaders have, using patience and long-term pragmatism, succeeded in spreading their destructive influence as far as Latin America. Perhaps it is time for policy makers in democracies to behave like long-term pragmatists too and have a strategy beyond that of sitting around a table with Mr. Ahmadinejad.
His interlocutors in New York should hold him accountable for his government's appalling human rights record. They should remind him that hundreds of executions each year, censorship, and the harsh treatment of journalists, dissidents, and human rights activists reflects the fact that his views are not shared by millions of Iranians.
The consistent and persistent inclusion of human rights in the agenda will not distract from "real" issues like nuclear weapons. But denying them the moral superiority of victims will have a sobering effect on the Iranian negotiators, as it always has done in the past. At the least, it will demonstrate that the international community is neither duped by them nor indifferent to the suffering of the Iranian people.
Ms. Boroumand is the executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran.