People who care about human rights and democracy should be appalled by the recent news of the unprovoked raid on a Tehran prison housing many of Iran’s political prisoners. However, as is often the case with these things, it can be important to recognize something of a hopeful story that lays buried beneath the major narrative.
There is a counterpoint to the repressiveness and tyranny on display in these sorts of actions by the Iranian regime. It is showcased in the indomitable spirit of the opponents of the regime, who carry on the fight for freedom and democracy even under the threat of repression, imprisonment, violence, even death. It is on display in those who continue to resist even from within the walls of places like Evin Prison, and those who carry on their opposition activities even in exile at a time when the international community seems far too keen to forgive and cooperate with the oppressors.
The government of Iran has a habit of doubling down on its repression of dissent during times when the world seems to have its attention focused elsewhere, and to be unlikely to hold Iran very much to account for its actions. Nuclear negotiations have been a ready distraction from the domestic situation in the country, and from the fact that a supposedly moderate president has carried on very much the same policies as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the unchanging power structure that stands high above the office of the presidency.
Case in point: executions have continued at a frighteningly high rate since Hassan Rouhani took office. There have been more than 700 so far under his tenure. Meanwhile, his presidential cabinet is staffed with individuals who are tied to the original architects of the Iranian Revolution, and who had a hand in some of its most repressive activities, including the 1988 massacre of as many as 30,000 political prisoners. Beyond the borders of Iran, the regime has supported the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad; it has directed attacks against members of the Iranian opposition living in Iraq at camp Liberty; and it has attempted to appoint a suspected assassin as ambassador to the UN.
To all of this we can now add the attack on political prisoners in Ward 350 of Evin Prison, which took place on the morning of April 17. Tehran has evidently made no effort to explain why more than 100 prison guards and Ministry of Intelligence officers descended on that ward in full riot gear. Neither has it explained why 32 prisoners, including lawyers and human rights activists, were transferred to solitary confinement during the raid. Reports indicate that prisoners were beaten along the way, one having to be hospitalized due to a heart attack and others suffering broken ribs.
However, up to this point it is unclear how much the Iranian government will even be called upon to explain these things. Despite a concerned response to the raid from Amnesty International, the world community in general seems generally inclined to set its policy toward Iran according to its behavior in nuclear negotiations. And negotiators have done a fine job of telling the U.S. and Europe what they want to hear. They are apparently dazzled enough to not be looking very closely at other happenings in a nation that they once rightly distrusted.
Of course, this strategy doesn’t work on everybody. That is, there is still vigorous opposition to the Iranian regime coming from some circles. And clearly it is enough to make the Iranian regime concerned for the security of its hold on power. The mullahs are tyrannical, but they aren’t stupid. They wouldn’t tempt fate with raids and conspicuous repressions if they didn’t feel that the push for democracy in their country was once again growing too strong.
Activists, including those wrongfully incarcerated in Evin Prison, suffer greatly as a result of reprisals like Thursday’s raid. But they are having an effect. Well-organized, international efforts to expose the persistent tyranny of the regime are coming in particular from the Iranian resistance group, the MEK. Associates of that organization appear to have been specifically targeted during the raid on Evin Prison.
Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a political coalition that includes MEK, responded to the raid in part by saying that “executions, oppression, and discrimination are the principal pillars of the mullahs’ rule,” and that the attack upon political prisoners “demonstrates the fragile state of the mullahs’ regime and its horror of its inevitable demise.”
And perhaps Rajavi is correct to describe that demise as inevitable, because reports from inside Evin Prison indicate that even at the heart of the political repression, it isn’t having the effect of stamping out opposition. Even as prisoners were being beaten with batons, rounded up, and shuffled into uncertain fates in solitary confinement, other inmates gathered in the prison yard and chanted “down with dictators,” still defying a regime that has spent over thirty years attempting to beat them into submission.
The violent strategy of the Iranian government isn’t working abroad either. Even as nearby as Iraq, the dissident community has been driven from its long-time home of Camp Ashraf and currently lives in a makeshift encampment in Baghdad, called Camp Liberty. The 3,000 activists for democracy have been subject to rocket attacks and they lack basic infrastructure and utilities. But they have clearly not given up their fight for democracy in their Persian homeland.
Someday the activists both inside Iran’s prisons and outside of its borders will go home to a free country. Until that day comes, the international community should shake its head and demand justice whenever Tehran once again redoubles its repressions. But freedom-loving people everywhere should also feel a sense of triumph when it proves true that those repressions failed to break the spirit of opposition. It means that the chant from the Evin Prison yard was not for nothing. The fall of dictators is inevitable.
Lord Carlile of Berriew CBE QC, is a Liberal Democrat member of the U.K. House of Lords and a leading member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom (BPCIF). He was the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in the United Kingdom (2001-11)