Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why Human Rights Shouldn’t Get in the Way: Thoughts on Nuclear Talks with Iran

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Always at the right time, it seems, we are reminded of Iran’s deplorable human rights record.  Just as the P5+1 and Iran are approaching the deadline to conclude negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, our attention is to drawn to the innumerable violations committed there.  One particular story in Newsweek reported that:

[Iranian-] Arab and father of two Younes al-Asakirah, 34, died last Sunday as a result of his burns, which he received when he set himself ablaze to protest against the government who had confiscated his fruit and vegetable stall earlier in March.  The authorities were reportedly clearing away unlicensed stalls in preparation for state-organised tours which will bring visitors from other provinces to the city of Khorramshahr…to show them the destruction caused by the 1980s Iraq-Iran war.

This story, which was accompanied by a graphic image of al-Askirah’s burned body, left such an impression on my fellow Iranian-American friend that he made the following well-intentioned remark on Facebook:

If your Iranian friends aren't sharing stories like this, they're either clueless, trying desperately to show Iran in a positive light, or racists who hate Iran's Arab minority...

Needless to say, I agree that this was an unspeakably tragic event.  But I belong in a fourth category: one who suspects that tragic events like these are exploited for political - and often imperialistic - purposes, and refuses to let anyone play to his emotions.  It should be noted, by the way, that al-Asakirah operated an unlicensed stall. It wasn't cleared away arbitrarily.  Here in the States, you also need a license to operate various kinds of businesses.  I won't necessarily blame the government simply because someone whose unlicensed business was forcibly shut down chose to set himself aflame.  One should also be conscious of the timing of this story (which covered an event that evidently occurred 8 days prior), which seems politically motivated, as well.

Yes, the Iranian government is undeniably repressive.  But it seems to me that if we’re genuinely concerned about the Iranian people, we must learn to balance our priorities.  We should at least consider the possibility that the risk of war (of turning Iran into another Iraq or Libya) which may, if the neocons get their wish, result from a failure to resolve this crisis diplomatically, outweighs the risk of ongoing human rights abuse.

We’d do well to recall that problems abound here in the U.S. (e.g., police brutality, executions of minors, etc.) and one can be sure that foreign media outlets will jump on these stories to paint this country in a negative light.  The media, both here and abroad, is competing not only for our minds, but even more fervently for our hearts, and it's important to resist these appeals to our emotions.