By Eli Lake
June 8, 2021
When Iran is scheduled to hold its presidential election, Narges Mohammadi will be staying home. One of her country’s most courageous human-rights activists, she views the upcoming vote as a sham.
“The principle of absolute jurisprudence has invalidated all the principles of the Iranian constitution and reduced the power of other institutions to zero,” she told me in an WhatsApp interview from Iran. The country’s unelected supreme leader and the country’s Guardian Council, which vets presidential candidates and can overturn laws passed by Iran’s legislature, have consolidated power.
As if to prove her point, the Guardian Council last month disqualified all but seven candidates from running for president. That decision has drawn rebukes even from Iranian leaders who are supportive of the ruling regime.
But Mohammadi’s criticism is deeper. As a journalist in the late 1990s, she supported the reformer president, Mohammed Khatami. Now, she has concluded that elections offer no chance for Iran to make the transition to a true democracy.
In previous elections, she said, Iranians voted for candidates who “could create a rift in the system.” This split could then create “breathing space for the people to achieve democracy and political and civic activity,” she said. Now this strategy has “reached a dead end.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was one of the hardliners who foiled the reforms of Khatami when he authorized a crackdown on student protesters in 1999. Nonetheless, when he won the presidential election in 2013, he was often portrayed as a moderate capable of bringing his country into the community of nations.
Instead, under his presidency Iran has become far more repressive — which Mohammadi knows firsthand. Since the late 1990s, she has been prosecuted and jailed for her advocacy work. Under Rouhani, her plight worsened. The organization she helped lead, Defenders of Human Rights Center, was closed. For the last six years, the state has barred her from seeing her children. Last October, after serving more than eight years of a 10-year sentence, she was released from Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.
Now she faces 30 months in prison and 80 lashes for the crime of participating in a prison sit-in to protest the violent repression of popular protests in November 2019. She does not necessarily fear a new trial, she told me. But she wants the world to know that “I was brutally and shamelessly assaulted by the security and non-uniform agents of the head of the prison.”
One might think that a person so brutalized by Iran’s regime would favor the harsh secondary sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump in 2018. But she considers the sanctions a mistake.
She told me that the secondary sanctions — which freeze revenue from Iran’s main export, oil — have the effect of harming both the regime and the Iranian people. (Like Mohammadi, many Iranian human-rights activists do not support the sanctions, though some dissidents do.) That said, Mohammadi supports individual sanctions on human-rights violators in Iran. She supports the idea of prohibiting their participation in international forums and said the international community should work “to cut off and control their movements.”
At the same time, Mohammadi is critical of the current nuclear diplomacy with Iran. As she sees it, current talks in Vienna should focus not just on Iran’s nuclear program but on the issue of human rights.
Western governments should “respect the concept of the right to self-determination and national sovereignty in the true sense,” she told me. This right is enshrined in the charter of the United Nations — and it is systematically flouted by the current Iranian regime, which continues to erase the few remnants of that country’s history of constitutional government.
And that brings things back to Iran’s upcoming presidential elections. They are best seen as a kind of propaganda to persuade gullible outsiders that a clerical tyranny has democratic legitimacy. Narges Mohammadi knows better. That’s why she will be boycotting them.