Part I: Key Reflections on the Military Option
This section of the report extracts the dominant concerns of most of the interviewees, distilling their recurring and most notable conclusions.
Many of the insights and analytical points offered by the individuals surveyed in this report are consistent with and support arguments against military action that have been made by American and other international commentators. Repeatedly, the interviewees expressed concerns that an attack would (1) lead to further militarization of the state, exacerbating the human rights crisis in Iran and undermining Iranian civil society and the pro-democracy movement; and (2) strengthen the current regime by stoking nationalism and dividing the opposition, while undercutting the Iranian public’s goodwill toward the United States.
The interviewees also expressed fears that any military action against Iran would (3) be predicated on the pretext of human rights and democracy promotion, derailing Iran’s long trajectory of internal political development; and (4) cause disastrous humanitarian, economic and environmental repercussions.
Additionally, some Iranians who spoke to the Campaign offered other insights, which will be reflected in Part II of this report, “In Their Own Words.” For example, several lawyers argue that a military attack against Iran would likely be illegal under international law. A few observers argued that a strike on Iran would lead to regional instability and would strengthen the regime’s resolve to obtain nuclear technology.
The Impact of a Military Strike on Civil and Political Rights
Since the disputed presidential election of June 2009, and the subsequent mass protests for civil rights and democracy, the Iranian government has been engaged in a crackdown on government critics and activists and a wide-ranging program to intimidate the population at large. Authorities have undertaken mass arbitrary detentions of journalists, student activists, human rights defenders, and opposition figures as well as conducted routine torture. Moreover, the government has increasingly imposed restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly. This crackdown is largely aimed at crippling the work of human rights defenders and dissident journalists, as well as pro-democracy activists and opposition groups, many of whom work under the banner of the pro-democracy Green Movement.
Numerous US policymakers and international figures have expressed concern for the human rights situation in Iran. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a written statement in December 2010:
To all those Iranians struggling to lift your voices and speak up for fundamental freedoms and human rights, you are not alone. The United States and the international community stand with you.1
Even given the government’s severe repression, the prospect of further serious deterioration of civil and political rights is a major concern for the civil society actors interviewed for this report. Nearly all of the Iranians the Campaign interviewed feared that a military attack on Iran, even one limited to Iran’s nuclear facilities, would have a dramatically negative impact on basic civil rights and political freedoms. They warn that such a strike would lead to the full militarization of the Iranian state and serve as a pretext for increased civil and political repression. Moreover, the increased repression would likely translate into the complete dismantling of the remaining elements of the Green Movement.
It is significant that these interviews were conducted nearly two years into the government’s violent postelection crackdown. Despite the human rights crisis, the interviewees were largely united in their view that an attack would not diminish the current repression and would instead elevate it, proving fatal to civil society and the pro-democracy movement.
Kambiz Nowruzi, an attorney and former legal secretary of the Iranian Press Association until it was banned in 2009, warns, “If the United States, by itself or in cooperation with its allies, attacks Iran, we will witness severe and widespread violations of human rights. No doubt all social layers will be harmed by such an action. During wartime, civil, social, and political freedoms will be extremely constrained.”2
Mohammad Maleki is the former Chancellor of Tehran University and a prominent dissident intellectual who was detained after the 2009 election. Maleki similarly warns that a “military intervention will undoubtedly lead to a much more closed environment inside the country and give the regime the perfect excuse to oppress the people even more.”
Mohammad Seifzadeh, a leading human rights lawyer, who at the time of this writing was serving out a prison term, shared this concern. Prior to his imprisonment, he told the Campaign, “If a war were to take place right now, the atmosphere would definitely become more restricted and more limitations would be imposed upon intellectuals, human rights activists, social elites and students.”
Sadeq Zibakalam, Professor of Political Science at Tehran University and a leading political analyst, spoke specifically about how a strike would militarize the state and undermine pro-democratic forces:
First of all, a military strike will not help the democracy and reformist movement at all because it will cause militarization of the country. The military and Revolutionary Guards will increase their power and radical elements on the conservative right will be strengthened. All of these will seriously harm the movement for greater freedoms.
An attack will seriously harm the reformist and democracy movements in Iran, providing a pretext for the government to increase its pressure on them.
Freedom of Expression
Many of the Campaign’s interviewees spoke specifically about the potential repercussions of a military strike for freedom of expression. They stressed that while the government currently prohibits many forms of free expression, it would restrict these rights even more if Iran were attacked.
Nima R., a journalist, explained that censorship and limitations on the press are at an all time high because the state considers itself to be fighting a “soft war” against its enemies.3 He continued to explain why he believes that a “real war” involving foreign powers would lead to the complete elimination of freedom of expression:
[Today] as soon as newspaper editors and staff start their daily meetings to choose the headlines, a fax arrives from the press officers of the Intelligence Ministry. It outlines the topics allowed to be discussed in detail and those that are off limits. The justification given by them is from a security-minded framework that ‘we should not strengthen the views of enemies and cause uncertainties and in general aid the enemy’s soft-war.’ The newspaper staff has learned to implement such restrictions through self-censorship as well. Now, imagine if a foreign power were to attack Iran, then, with or without reason, any kind of activity by civil society and democracy advocates will come under complete attack and become the perfect excuse for repressing any critical thoughts.
Thus, I am of the belief that a war or military intervention would provide an opportunity for the state to finish off all civil society, social and political activists, journalists, academics, students, and [others]. It will certainly give more power to military men to take over the helm of the state, more than before, and to confront democracy advocates even more brazenly.
Several artists and writers said that, in the context of a military attack on Iran, censorship of arts and literature would increase dramatically. Ali Abdollahi, a well-known poet, said “The truth is that under the present circumstances life for writers and artists has been very difficult, but in case of war it would be much more uncertain.”
Renowned author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi echoed this sentiment, saying:
I believe we writers can write more freely in Iran and publish our books if there is peace in the world. During a war, all conditions are compulsory, and in fact the government finds excuses to prevent cultural activities. I believe that with a war, the conditions for writers and artists not only do not improve; they get a lot worse.
Abbas Ghaffari, a theater director and actor, drawing on his experience during the Iran-Iraq war, said:
We, in theater, have the fresh experience of the Iran-Iraq war. We saw that during those years, because of the militarization, the cultural space was further closed. I think even if after a war, the environment were to open up, for theater it will not, and will remain closed. We don’t wish to repeat the same bitter experiences.
Alireza Behnam, a journalist, noted that even the threat of war would provoke the government to further subdue the activity of pro-democracy intellectuals and activists:
In my opinion, a foreign military intervention would have very negative consequences and will bring to a halt the gradual and natural movement and development [towards democratization]. It will bring to a halt democratic aspirations within the society. Even discussions of an American military strike will lead to [the government] preventing the activities of intellectuals and civil society activists. It will be the activists who will pay the price for foreign threats.
Since the ruling class and traditional segments of society accuse [pro-democracy intellectuals] of having such beliefs that make them supporters of foreigners, with the onset of a war, they will experience the most pressure. I believe, under the present circumstances, it is best to drop any discussions or threats of war.
Other interviewees noted that a strike on Iran would likely lead to an increase in political violence and arbitrary executions, likely endangering the lives of hundreds of prisoners of conscience and opposition figures.
Ramin G., a lawyer and political activist involved in the Green Movement, explains:
Under a military situation, violence and its consequences would spread throughout society, but its implementation would remain hidden from the public eye. The government could use the situation to settle political scores on a wide scale to eliminate its opposition. In parallel to violence unleashed during a war, the rule of law and a minimum respect for its standards and people’s rights would be completely ignored.
Hassan B., a student activist, specifically feared that state violence would be aimed at the opposition. He warned:
If war breaks out, democracy, human rights, and civil society will be the main losers. The Iranian government would militarize and such a militaristic government has the potential to carry out widespread killings of its opponents, such as what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan or against Shi’as in the South of Iraq [under Saddam’s rule]. Human rights crimes will be at their zenith.
Keyvan P. expressed a similar worry. As a journalist, he is specifically concerned about the ability of domestic media to challenge the government’s attacks on its opponents. He noted that from 1980-1988, during the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian government used the fog of war to execute thousands of its perceived enemies.
He warned that even in today’s modern media environment such crimes could again take place without getting public notice:
During [the Iran-Iraq War], the press had no ability to reflect what was happening inside prisons, either domestically or on the international level. This scenario could very well be repeated if a new military situation arises. Many prisoners who hold on to their beliefs in opposing the Islamic Republic could be executed.
Today there are many forms of alternative media, such as those empowered by the Internet, but due to government control, they won’t have much impact inside the country and may only inform the outside world in a limited way. The bulk of the population would be under the grip of government propaganda and would not know of large numbers of executions or widespread torture inside prisons. Under a military crisis, all security related sentences would be expedited and no form of civil action or movement would be tolerated. This has been demonstrated in a limited way during the post-election events of the last couple of years.
1DIPNOTE BLOGGERS, “Secretary Clinton Welcomes UN Resolution Calling on Iran to Respect Human Rights,” post to “DIPNOTE” (blog) US Department of State, December 22, 2010, http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/site/entry/clinton_statement_iran_human_rights (accessed July 14, 2011).
2 All interviews conducted by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran between January and June 2011.
3 Interviewees identified by a first name and last initial were given pseudonyms to conceal their identities upon their request due to security concerns.