THE BLOG
16/12/2013 06:32 GMT | Updated 14/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Iran and the West: From Nuclear Nightmares to Facebook Friends?

Nuclear apocalypse has been avoided. Iran has agreed to curb its nuclear activity.

That's what they tell us anyway. Let's not get ahead of ourselves; even if Iran's cooperation is genuine, world leaders and their Iranian counterparts are not about to hold hands, hug it out or start tweeting funny cat memes to each other.

Iran is still the bogeyman of global politics. A nuclear deal and a less defiant President do not suddenly mean Iran has leapfrogged the Nordic countries on the Global Democracy Rankings. The nuclear tinderbox may have been temporarily doused, but Iran still presents grave foreign policy challenges to the West; just look at the atrocious human rights record to see why.

The human rights situation is not improving. Upon his recent election, President Hassan Rouhani did release a handful of political prisoners. He lifted restrictions on academic freedoms, increased access to social media and urged police leniency on violations of Islamic dress codes. Many Iranian officials have even opened Facebook accounts to at least appear more open.

But are these initiatives anything more than supercilious tokenism?

The human rights situation is still dire. Violations of civil, political, socio-economic and cultural rights are rife. Press freedom is practically non-existent. Over 600 journalists are considered to be part of an anti-State network and the Government has issued arrest warrants due to "seditious activities" such as breaching national security and "spreading propaganda against the state".

A recent UN report noted that there are limits on Internet connection speed. Up to 5 million websites have been blocked, including Wikipedia entries on sexual health, and safe sex. Nearly 70 Internet cafes were closed in July and around 1,500 "anti-religious websites" have been shut down, including news, music and women's rights pages.

In October 2013, three men involved in producing Iranian underground music were arrested as part of a crackdown on IT professionals and musicians, who need government authorisation even to play music, hold concerts or produce albums and videos. Typically, Government officials maintain that their policies mirror "the fundamental principles of Islam and the public rights" enshrined in Iran's constitution.

International organisations have repeatedly questioned Iran's Penal Code, in which drug trafficking, homosexual acts, alcohol consumption and insulting Islamic prophets are considered to be some of the most serious crimes. In the first half of 2013, 724 executions took place in the country, with the majority related to drug-trafficking. The code also allows prosecution for "sowing corruption" or "damaging the economy" and retains a provision for execution by stoning in cases of adultery.

Flogging, amputation and crucifixion are also allowed. UN figures show that 123 individuals were flogged in June and July for drinking alcohol and non-penetrative homosexual acts. In the last year, nearly 11,000 flogging sentences have been handed out in the Mazandaran Province alone; the same province where an amputation machine was reportedly built and installed in a public square in January 2013.

Despite Iran signing various UN human rights mechanisms, the UN is losing patience and has called for the release of at least 30 aid workers still detained after being arrested while providing shelter and supplies to survivors of an earthquake in east Azerbaijan. A UN Special Rapporteur slammed abuse suffered by religious minorities and reports that hundreds of non-Muslim children are pressured into converting to Islam. The Special Rapporteur also criticised laws which allow a custodian to marry his adopted child if it is deemed to be 'in the best interest of the child'.

Gender discrimination is pervasive. To get married, women need a male guardian's approval. They cannot obtain a passport or travel outside the country without the written permission of a male guardian. Several universities banned female enrolment in engineering/sciences and quotas limit the number of women in university courses. The UN also reported that all 30 female candidates in the June 2013 presidential elections were disqualified because they lacked "executive and political experience".

The nuclear breakthrough will undoubtedly be hailed as the international achievement of 2013, but it does nothing to address these systemic abuses of human rights. Even if Iran's nuclear aspirations have been quelled, it is still a country built on a radical religious ideology. There may be less inflammatory rhetoric in President Rouhani's regime than President Ahmadinejad's but the leadership still revels in a shroud of secrecy.

The country's human rights violations are deeply rooted in law and state practice, meaning sustainable reforms won't come quickly or easily. More needs to be done to ensure that they come at all. World leaders focus heavily on economic sanctions, Iran's links with Hamas and Hezbollah and the supposed threats to Israel. While they do so, the human rights crisis only deepens.

With grassroots human rights lost in the quagmire of diplomacy and international geo-strategy, is it time to ask if our current approach to Iran is fundamentally wrong?

With the nuclear issue sorted, even temporarily, is it time to refocus our attention, not on the threats to people in other countries, but to those facing the people within Iran?