Iranian Dissidents Explain Why They Support the Nuclear Deal

We know what politicians from the U.S. to Israel think about the Iran nuclear deal. How about asking some opponents of Iran’s regime?

Danny Postel

"If we reach an agreement, good opportunities will definitely develop, and we can demand our rights as human beings," says Iranian author Mahmoud Dolatabadi. (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran)

The debate on the nuclear deal with Iran has revolved main­ly around the geopol­i­tics of the agree­ment. Is it good for the Unit­ed States? Does the deal rep­re­sent a defeat or a vic­to­ry for the Islam­ic Repub­lic? Does it make Israel more secure, or less? How will the Saud­is respond? Will they pur­sue a nuclear pro­gram of their own? What will Wash­ing­ton do to pla­cate its ner­vous allies in Riyadh (and oth­er Gulf cap­i­tals) and Tel Aviv? What broad­er impli­ca­tions might the nuclear deal por­tend for US-Iran­ian rela­tions, and for the region­al pol­i­tics of the Mid­dle East?

61 percent of the respondents believe that reaching a deal on the nuclear issue “should facilitate progress toward greater rights and liberties” and that “the nation’s attention, previously monopolized by the negotiations, could now turn to critical domestic issues, among them, the state of basic freedoms in Iran,” according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

These are huge­ly impor­tant ques­tions, to be sure. But what does the nuclear agree­ment mean for inter­nal Iran­ian pol­i­tics? There’s been some excel­lent report­ing on Iran­ian for­eign min­is­ter Javad Zarif’s diplo­mat­ic crafts­man­ship, which has inspired com­par­isons—arguably exalt­ed — to Moham­mad Mosad­deq, and spec­u­la­tion about whether Has­san Rouhani can par­lay the nuclear deal into a domes­tic agen­da, pur­su­ing the kinds of reforms that the Ira­ni­ans who vot­ed for him in 2013 des­per­ate­ly crave and eager­ly await.

But how does this his­toric devel­op­ment look from the per­spec­tive of Iran’s grass­roots? We saw the jubi­la­tion in Iran’s streets, the euphor­ic pop­u­lar reac­tion to the news of the deal. But these scenes lacked con­text. What do Iran­ian dis­si­dents and civ­il soci­ety activists actu­al­ly think of the nuclear deal? An in-depth report issued by the Inter­na­tion­al Cam­paign for Human Rights in Iran pro­vides a refresh­ing­ly vivid sense of what such Ira­ni­ans have to say, in their own words.

The report, High Hopes, Tem­pered Expec­ta­tions: Views from Iran on the Nuclear Nego­ti­a­tions, fea­tures inter­views with an array of Ira­ni­ans — for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, film­mak­ers, polit­i­cal sci­en­tists, civ­il rights lawyers, play­wrights, jour­nal­ists, actors, econ­o­mists, nov­el­ists, pub­lish­ers, the­ater direc­tors (some of them belong­ing to two or more of these cat­e­gories, for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er being the most com­mon). In oth­er words, these are not big fans of the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment. Indeed, for per­son­al secu­ri­ty rea­sons some agreed to par­tic­i­pate in the report only on con­di­tion of anonymity.

And the Inter­na­tion­al Cam­paign for Human Rights in Iran itself is any­thing but enthu­si­as­tic about the Islam­ic Repub­lic: the vast major­i­ty of its reports, videos and activ­i­ty doc­u­ment the régime’s bru­tal repres­sion and con­demn its sys­tem­at­ic rights vio­la­tions in unflinch­ing terms.

This report thus pro­vides a vital per­spec­tive, one that’s been large­ly absent in the glob­al debate about the nuclear deal — and in some cas­es mis­rep­re­sent­ed (for exam­ple, by neo­con­ser­v­a­tive pun­dits who claim the deal is a gift to the régime and sells the Iran­ian oppo­si­tion short). This report reveals what the régime’s crit­ics, oppo­nents, and vic­tims, inside the coun­try, actu­al­ly think about this crit­i­cal issue.

Take a Breath and Demand our Rights

All of the indi­vid­u­als inter­viewed felt sanc­tions and Iran’s inter­na­tion­al iso­la­tion have pro­found­ly hurt Iran­ian soci­ety,” the report’s authors note, neg­a­tive­ly affect­ing all spheres of eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and cul­tur­al life, with espe­cial­ly dire con­se­quences for the low­er socioe­co­nom­ic strata.”

We hope an agree­ment is reached and that it is signed, so that our nation can take a breath after all this pro­longed pres­sure.”
—Shahla Lahi­ji (Pub­lish­er, Roshangaran and Women Stud­ies Publishers)

Prob­lems caused by the sanc­tions are pal­pa­ble in every home right now.”
—Ahmad Shirzad (uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor and for­mer mem­ber of Parliament)

[M]any of our patients have prob­lems obtain­ing their med­ica­tion and med­ica­tions are expen­sive. … [M]any of our pas­sen­ger air­planes have … no repair facil­i­ties … and we can’t [get] spare parts.”
—Abbas Ghaf­fari (film director)

[An agree­ment] will have its first impact on society’s col­lec­tive men­tal state. While many pre­dict this might be short-lived … the psy­cho­log­i­cal impact of this vic­to­ry in the dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the soci­ety will def­i­nite­ly not be short-lived. Such a pos­i­tive impact can even move peo­ple to take action to improve their con­di­tions.”
—a jour­nal­ist in Tehran and for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er (anony­mous)

If we reach an agree­ment, good oppor­tu­ni­ties in every area will def­i­nite­ly devel­op, and we can demand our rights as human beings.”
—Mah­moud Dolataba­di (author)

[Failed nego­ti­a­tions] would cause ter­ri­ble dam­age to the peo­ple and to social, cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties. The high­est cost imposed by the sanc­tions is paid by the peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly the low-income and vul­ner­a­ble groups.”
—Fakhrossa­dat Mohtashamipour (civ­il soci­ety activist and wife of a polit­i­cal prisoner)

[Fail­ure to reach a deal will result in] an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of anti-West polit­i­cal ten­den­cies in Iran [which] will help the over­all anti-West­ern cur­rents in the region, even if indi­rect­ly.”
—a civ­il rights lawyer in Tehran (anony­mous)

Social hope­less­ness would increase dras­ti­cal­ly [if the agree­ment fell through]. Peo­ple would once again lose their moti­va­tion for reforms. … The fail­ure of the nego­ti­a­tions would equal the fail­ure of mod­er­ates and the strength­en­ing of the rad­i­cal camp. … The atmos­phere for cul­tur­al activ­i­ties and jour­nal­ism would become tremen­dous­ly more dif­fi­cult. … [A] con­tin­u­a­tion of sanc­tions would place the coun­try in a defen­sive mode … [and] the domes­tic secu­ri­ty organs would increas­ing­ly pres­sure the media and jour­nal­ists in order to silence any voic­es of dis­sent.”
—a jour­nal­ist in Tehran and for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er (anony­mous)

This last com­ment echoes the sen­ti­ments of Akbar Gan­ji, one of Iran’s lead­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic dis­si­dents who almost died on a hunger strike behind bars. As a for­mer Iran­ian polit­i­cal pris­on­er who spent six years in the Islam­ic Republic’s jails and whose writ­ings have been banned in Iran, I sup­port the [nuclear] agree­ment,” he has writ­ten. Reach­ing a nuclear deal, he argued, would grad­u­al­ly remove the war­like and secu­ri­tized envi­ron­ment from Iran.” The Iran­ian polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Sadegh Zibakalam recent­ly made a sim­i­lar point.

We hope an agree­ment is reached and that it is signed, so that our nation can take a breath after all this pro­longed pres­sure” said tran­la­tor and pub­lish­er Shahla Lahi­ji. (Inter­na­tion­al Cam­paign for Human Rights in Iran)

No More Excuses

61 per­cent of the respon­dents believe that reach­ing a deal on the nuclear issue should facil­i­tate progress toward greater rights and lib­er­ties” and that the nation’s atten­tion, pre­vi­ous­ly monop­o­lized by the nego­ti­a­tions, could now turn to crit­i­cal domes­tic issues, among them, the state of basic free­doms in Iran,” accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Cam­paign for Human Rights in Iran.

That is, on the real issues in Iran. Or, to use an old-fash­ioned phrase, remov­ing the nuclear issue — and the con­comi­tant eco­nom­ic sanc­tions and threats of exter­nal mil­i­tary action — could height­en the con­tra­dic­tions” with­in the Islam­ic Repub­lic. To wit:

There are a lot of things that have all been on a wait­ing list in the hope that first the nuclear issue would be set­tled.”
—Ahmad Shirzad (physics pro­fes­sor and for­mer mem­ber of Parliament)

After the top­ic of nuclear nego­ti­a­tions dims, [Rouhani] will have to focus on human rights and civ­il rights, which were parts of [his] ini­tial pro­grams. … Cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal issues must be addressed side by side with eco­nom­ic issues.”
—Issa Saharkhiz (jour­nal­ist and for­mer polit­i­cal prisoner)

Fol­low­ing the nuclear and eco­nom­ic issues, the Rouhani admin­is­tra­tion will have to tack­le the issue of polit­i­cal free­dom. Polit­i­cal par­ties, uni­ver­si­ties, and the media will be seri­ous demands Mr. Rouhani will have to face, and he will have to take vis­i­ble steps and present them to pub­lic opin­ion. … [Pri­or­i­ties must include] the seri­ous pur­suit of cit­i­zen­ship rights.”
—a jour­nal­ist in Iran (anony­mous)

Nec­es­sary Even if Not Sufficient’

The respon­dents inter­viewed for the report har­bor no illu­sion that the nuclear agree­ment is a panacea that will mag­i­cal­ly end the régime’s human rights vio­la­tions or pro­duce demo­c­ra­t­ic plu­ral­ism in Iran overnight. But they do believe, as the report’s authors note, that a res­o­lu­tion to the nuclear issue is a nec­es­sary even if not suf­fi­cient require­ment for any progress toward greater rights and liberties.”

As a defense lawyer for indi­vid­u­als who are pur­sued or impris­oned for polit­i­cal rea­sons, my work will be pos­i­tive­ly impact­ed … and soci­ety will enjoy more free­dom as a result. … Unlike those who believe that a decrease in for­eign pres­sure would increase pres­sure inside the coun­try, I don’t believe this.
—Moham­mad Saleh Nikbakht (lawyer)

If the sanc­tions are lift­ed … anoth­er impact … I believe would [be] a big open­ing in the human rights dis­course. … the human rights issue, God will­ing, will find more flex­i­bil­i­ty after this agree­ment … if the nuclear issue is resolved, [many oth­er] issues will be influ­enced.”
—Mas­soud Shafiee (lawyer)

Whether lame or legit­i­mate, I hope that after a nuclear agree­ment there are no more excus­es … and that it would be pos­si­ble to expect, to demand things.”
—Hamid Amjad (play­wright, the­ater direc­tor, and pub­lish­er in Tehran)

The report’s respon­dents voiced an array of per­spec­tives on the like­li­hood of these demands actu­al­ly mate­ri­al­iz­ing — some expressed deep skep­ti­cism, giv­en the struc­ture of pow­er in the Islam­ic Repub­lic, while oth­ers were more hope­ful. Yet “[s]trong sup­port for the nuclear nego­ti­a­tions and hope for an agree­ment was unan­i­mous and unequiv­o­cal among all of the respon­dents, and was held regard­less of the respondent’s expec­ta­tions regard­ing the actu­al ben­e­fits of an accord,” the report’s authors note.

It is incum­bent upon the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty,” the report’s authors con­clude, to rein­force these voic­es of rea­son, patience, and hope, by sim­i­lar­ly sup­port­ing the peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of con­flict with the Islam­ic Repub­lic — and by doing every­thing it can in a post-deal envi­ron­ment to stand by the peo­ple of Iran in their efforts to achieve the most basic rights and freedoms.”

Indeed it is. Thanks to the Inter­na­tion­al Cam­paign for Human Rights in Iran, we have a much clear­er sense of what some of these voic­es sound like.

Dan­ny Pos­tel is Asso­ciate Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Mid­dle East Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver and co-hosts its series of video inter­views with lead­ing schol­ars. He is the author of Read­ing Legit­i­ma­tion Cri­sis” in Tehran and co-edi­tor of The Peo­ple Reloaded: The Green Move­ment and the Strug­gle for Iran’s Future and The Syr­ia Dilem­ma, which was named one of the best books of 2013 in The Pro­gres­sive. He is a co-edi­tor of PULSE and blogs for Truthout, Crit­i­cal Inquiry and the Huff­in­g­ton Post. He was a mem­ber of Chicago’s No War on Iran coali­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tions coor­di­na­tor for Inter­faith Work­er Jus­tice, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ist for Stand Up! Chica­go, a coali­tion of labor unions and grass­roots com­mu­ni­ty organizations.
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