Dr. Antonio Stango is the President of the Helsinki Watch in Italy
Recently Linda Mason of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership wrote an editorial for CNN, suggesting that Americans have a mistaken view of the people of Iran. She describes a recent trip that she took to the Islamic Republic and the surprise that she felt at finding the people to be warm, open, and interested in Western culture.
I’ve heard this argument many times before, but I have a hard time believing that the average westerner views everyday Iranians, as Mason says, through the prism of the 1979 hostage-taking at the US embassy. I’m sure that the average American understands that that incident was the work of a group of Islamist revolutionaries, and not the entire population of the country, working in tandem.
About half of the population of today’s Iran hadn’t even been born yet at the time of the revolution and the hostage crisis. A person would have to have a one-dimensional view of the country and its people to believe that such events reflect on the character or ideologies of people who had nothing to do with them.
Sure, it is theoretically possible for an entire population to be culturally corrupt and to share all their enemies in common. But it is much more likely that the actions and public statements of government officials reflect only the ideology and aggression and hatred of the handful of people who are in charge.
For those who aren’t sure, stories like Mason’s can be helpful. But the lesson should come as no surprise. On the whole, the Iranian people want to be freed from the tyranny under which most of them have been living for their entire lives. Our negative perceptions of the country should have always been focused on the government and not on its citizens.
And unfortunately, her pleasant experiences with the people of Iran seem to have led Mason to under-emphasize the regime’s abuses and the danger it poses. Her op-ed references “social and economic reforms under President Hassan Rouhani,” implying that the nature of the government has improved and stands a chance of aligning itself with the democratic, pro-Western views of the people it has been coercing and brutalizing for 36 years.
In fact, there have been no real reforms under President Rouhani. No doubt many people with whom Mason interacted on her trip would have told her as much if they had felt secure in speaking freely. To be sure, the Rouhani administration promised a number of reforms when it took office, but as has been noted by several of his former supporters, by international analysts, and by human rights groups, none of those reforms have actually materialized.
Indeed, in many respects the country’s domestic situation has gotten worse. Executions, already dispensed in greater quantities by any court system in the world other than China’s, have been on the rise since Rouhani took office and are poised to exceed 1,000 for the year 2015. Government censorship remains vigorous, as evidenced by the forced closure in April of Iran’s only women’s magazine, and by the 14-year prison sentence just handed down on the political cartoonist who recorded a YouTube video discussing the conditions of Iran’s prisons. She is only one of an ever-growing number of political prisoners held by the regime. In an exclusive Fox News interview, Maryam Rajavi, leader of the Iranian opposition explains why Rouhani cannot be trusted.
The young, tech-savvy Iranians whom Mason described are well aware of these trends toward worsening repression. But in order to actually hear their views on the situation, a visitor would have to follow them into the underground locales where ordinary citizens conceal themselves from the eyes of government security forces even just to dance and remove their veils and go on dates, all of which are criminalized by the country’s religious laws.
However, for a Westerner who is curious about the character and political views of real Iranians, visiting the country directly can be terribly dangerous. Americans have been arrested and given stiff prison sentences for much less than asking such questions. The ongoing trial of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian may be the latest example of this. Like Mason, Rezaian demonstrated an interest in detailing the lives of ordinary Iranians, in order to give Westerners a better view of the country and its people. Yet now he has been accused of espionage, apparently because he merely spoke to American friends about current events in the Islamic Republic.
Because of this danger to both visitors and citizens of Iran, those who are curious would be better off speaking to Iranians outside of their home country, or to the friends and family of those still living their day-to-day lives under the thumb of the clerical regime. Only speaking in an atmosphere of freedom, they could tell you that their ideals are diametrically opposed to those of the government, that they see no reform there, and that they are eager for the end of the current regime.
But if you want to hear that message directly from the people concerned – or if you want to know what the Iranian people are really like – there is no better opportunity than June 13. You don’t have to go to Iran to hear from a broad segment of the Iranian population. You only need to go to Paris. In that place and on that date, the National Council of Resistance of Iran will be holding its annual rally against the continued rule of the ayatollahs, and the event is expected to draw about 100,000 people from Iranian exile communities spread across five continents, as well as from political circles in the US, Europe, and other modern democracies. I have personally attended several of such gatherings in the past few years, and I would suggest anybody to have such an experience. Maryam Rajavi was the keynote speaker at the gathering in 2014. Learn more on Iranfreedom.org.
If you are among those who apparently don’t understand the vast differences between the Iranian government and the people of Iran, keep your eyes on Paris on June 13, and things will be as clear as if you had traveled there yourself.