Interview with Karim Lahidji, FIDH President, following the 14 July 2015 agreement between Iran and the “P 5 + 1” (United States, Russia, China, France, United Kingdom and Germany) on the Iranian nuclear programme.
Why is the agreement so important?
Karim Lahidji: In a general sense, this agreement, the result of 12 years of discontinuous negotiations, shows the international community, and all States, that it is better to dialogue. When a State adopts a strategy of isolation, it loses out, and so do its people. Isolation never leads to a solution. That is the main lesson of this agreement, particularly for countries like Iran that are seen as being closed to the outside world.
While the arms-related sanctions were, in my view, absolutely necessary, the economic sanctions have inflicted enormous hardship on the Iranian people. This is why, as a human rights activist and FIDH President, I believe that the economic sanctions should be lifted as completely and as rapidly as possible, so that the Iranian people are able to benefit from the agreement at last. The lifting of sanctions on pharmaceutical products, in particular, is a matter of great urgency.
What is the domestic impact of the agreement?
KL: On Tuesday 14 July, after the breaking of the Ramadan fast, tens of thousands of Iranian men and women took to the streets. It was like a great victory for them, and a tremendous relief. For them, this opening towards the international community also means greater openness on the domestic level. Iranians experienced the rupture of relations between their government and the international community as a severing of ties between them and their own government. This is why the demonstration served as an indirect message to the Iranian government:
“For ten years you have used your dispute and media war with the West and the international community as a justification for domestic repression. That cold war is now over. Why are you opening up to the international community, but not towards you own people?” they ask.
We know that for several years, and particularly since 2009, repression in Iran has been steadily increasing. Hundreds of political activists, lawyers, human rights defenders, like our friends and FIDH members Abdolfattah Soltani, Mohammad Seifzadeh, Nargess Mohammadi, as well as dozens of journalists, are still in prison. They have been handed prison sentences meant for criminals. Abdolfattah Soltani, for instance, a lawyer, was sentenced to 13 years in prison simply for having defended prisoners of conscience and peacefully promoted human rights. It’s incomprehensible!
After Hassan Rouhani took office, we expected him to fulfill the electoral promises he made during the presidential campaign. On the evening of 14 July, the people in the streets sought to make a point: “Alright, you have succeeded in getting your message across to the six world powers. Now it is up to you to go further, and carry out your project and fulfill your campaign promises.”
Despite the continuing repression, I think the agreement will create more dynamism in Iranian civil society. In the medium term, I think Iranian civil society will force President Rouhani, and perhaps also the Supreme Leader, to back away from their policy of repression, and make Iranian society more open.
The next important test of whether they have received the people’s message will of course be the March 2016 general elections. Dialoguing with the Iranian population also means respecting the people’s choice.
What is the impact on the region?
KL: The agreement is a step towards peace, for Iran and for the region. It is a region in which there are victims of conflict everyday, especially since the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is therefore a relief for the Iranian people, and for the region, that a new armed conflict has been avoided. Will that facilitate a tacit agreement between the Islamic Republic and the Western countries present in the region? I don’t know.
There is of course a common enemy, the Islamic State (ISIS). ISIS is an enemy of the States in the region, including Syria and Iraq, but also of the Western countries present in the Middle East (the United Sates in particular, but also France). However, it seems to me that it will be very difficult for them to agree on a common plan to fight ISIS.
As long as there is war in the region, it will be difficult to talk of any improvement in the respect for human rights. On the other hand, the agreement has perhaps sent a message to the region: negotiations can triumph over violence.
What steps should be taken in the coming months?
KL: The Iranian Parliament must first approve the agreement. I think it will, because the Supreme Leader – whose authority can be challenged neither by the conservatives, nor by the reformists – has implicitly endorsed the agreement by thanking his team. We shall see in the days to come. In any case, the conservatives will continue to oppose it and will continue to try to block Rouhani’s reforms; but I don’t think there will be too many obstacles to the approval of the agreement, not in the United States Congress, nor in the Iranian Parliament.
On the other hand, the lifting of the sanctions will take a little more time. The UN Security Council endorsed the agreement without delay, but the lifting of the sanctions cannot start before the UN receives confirmation that Iran has introduced certain reforms in its nuclear installations. I think the Islamic Republic will comply with the agreement, at least until the sanctions are practically lifted and its frozen assets are unblocked.
In this context, regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are indispensable. The IAEA has a very important role to play, and there must be regular visits to ensure that the terms of the agreement are being complied with.
I do not think that we shall see continued tensions between Iran and the international community in 2016. Everyone knows that a reversal of the UN Security Council decision on lifting the sanctions is easily possible. If the international community realises that the Iranian regime is not keeping its promises, the countries opposed to the agreement will not hesitate to raise the issue with Iran and the six signatory nations.