Seeking Conviction on Iran
Spring 2010 - Number 18

Seeking Conviction on Iran

Mark Kirk

o n November 4, 1979, Iranian militants raided the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 53 Americans hostage. That siege lasted 444 days and changed history. Now, more than 30 years later, we see an Iran rotting from the inside out—a regime trying to silence a people crying out for freedom.

Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran looks much like other dictatorships of the 20th century. Its leaders may wear a different uniform and speak a different language, but the repression rings familiar. In Iran, the basic human freedoms we take for granted in America do not exist. Men, women and children are rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to prisons, never to be heard from again; some for their religion, others for their politics and others because they dare to stand for the human dignity of all mankind. According to Freedom House:

Freedom of expression is severely limited. The government directly controls all television and radio broadcasting. Satellite dishes are illegal…
Press freedom remains extremely limited. The Ministry of Culture must approve publication of all books and inspects foreign books prior to domestic distribution…
Journalists are subject to arbitrary detention and criminal penalties including the death sentence, and ethnic minority journalists appear to be particularly vulnerable…
…the government systematically censors internet content by forcing internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to a growing list of “immoral” or politically sensitive sites…
Religious freedom is limited in Iran… The Special Court of the Clergy investigates religious figures for alleged crimes and has generally been used to persecute clerics who stray from the official interpretation of Islam…
Academic freedom is limited. Scholars are frequently detained, threatened, and forced to retire for expressing political views, and students involved in organizing protests face suspension or expulsion…
The 1979 constitution prohibits public demonstrations that “violate the principles of Islam,” a vague provision used to justify the police dispersal of assemblies and marches.1

This summary of human rights in Iran was published before the Iranian election in June. At the time, Western news organizations hailed the coming democratic change in Tehran. Détente was at hand. Diplomatic rapprochement was only days away.

A rigged election, and after

A detailed examination of Iran’s presidential election results shows just how fraudulent the election was.2 While only 63 percent of Iranian voters turned out in 2005, official election results claim 84 percent turned out in June 2009. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received approximately 13 million more votes in the 2009 presidential election than the total number of votes cast for all conservative candidates combined in the 2005 election.

In June, Ahmadinejad faced three key opponents: reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi, reformist Mehdi Karrubi, and conservative Mohsen Rezai. According to the official election tally, Ahmadinejad won 71 percent of the votes cast in Mehdi Karroubi’s home province of Lurestan. Lurestan is where the Lur ethnic minority lives, and Karroubi is the province’s most famous son. Amazingly, after receiving more than 440,000 votes (or 55 percent) in 2005, the province gave its hometown candidate just 44,000 votes—less than 5 percent—in 2009. By contrast, those for Ahmadinejad jumped nearly 10 times to 678,000 in 2009, up from fewer than 70,000 votes in 2005.

A similar situation played out in Eastern Azerbaijan, where Ahmadinejad won 56 percent of the vote, defeating native hero and ethnic Azeri Mir-Hossein Mousavi. By some sleight of hand, votes for Ahmadinejad increased from less than 200,000 in 2005 to more than 1.1 million in 2009. By the official count, turnout in Eastern Azerbaijan rose from 51 percent to 82 percent.

And in Khuzestan, Mohsen Rezai’s home province, Ahmadinejad won 65 percent of the vote. In Mazdaran, Ahmadinejad won nearly 1.3 million votes in 2009—compared to just over 159,000 in 2005. In 2005, the ethnic Kurdish provinces of Kermanshah and Kordestan gave Ahmadinejad roughly 92,000 votes; in 2009, Ahmadinejad surged there to more than 889,000.

Other statistics provide even more obvious proof of fraud. In two conservative provinces—Mazdaran and Yazd—a turnout of more than 100 percent was reported. According to Ali Akbar Mohtashami, a former interior minister on the Mousavi campaign’s election monitoring committee, the number of counted votes in 70 municipalities exceeded the total population of eligible voters in those regions. In all those cities, Ahmadinejad won by 80 to 90 percent.

In the wake of the election and the street protests that followed, human rights in Iran have deteriorated. We saw the face of Neda Agha Soltan, the innocent young woman murdered by the Iranian regime. We know the names of the political prisoners:

  • Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American scholar recently sentenced to 15 years in prison;
  • Abdollah Momeni, a reformist supporter arrested after the election and beaten in detention;
  • Mohammed Maleki, the former chancellor of Tehran University;
  • Seyyed Mohammad Ali Abtahi, an Iranian theologian, scholar, pro-democracy activist and chairman of the Institute for Inter- religious Dialogue;
  • Mohammad Atrianfar, an Iranian journalist and reformist;
  • Behzad Nabavi, a reformist politician;
  • Seyyed Mostafa Tajzadeh, an Iranian reformist;
  • Mohsen Safaei Farahani, a reformist politician;
  • Dr. Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, an academic, writer and politician; and
  • Mohammad Ghouchani, an Iranian journalist.
  • And the prisoners of conscience:

  • Mansour Ossanloo, a labor leader fighting for workers’ rights, imprisoned without proper medical attention;
  • Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Boroujerdi, imprisoned because of his views on the relations between religion and state;
  • Sadiq Kabudvand, an ethnic Kurdish journalist;
  • Ronak Safarzadeh, imprisoned because of her activism on behalf of women’s rights; and
  • Kamiar and Arash Ala’ei, two internationally-recognized AIDS researchers imprisoned because they attended HIV conferences abroad.
  • We know the names of the leaders of the innocent Baha’i minority who were imprisoned solely on the basis of their religion:

  • Raha Sabet;
  • Sasan Taqva;
  • Haleh Roohi;
  • Fariba Kamalabadi;
  • Jamaloddin Khanjani;
  • Afif Naeimi;
  • Saeid Rezaie;
  • Behrouz Tavakkoli;
  • Mahvash Sabet; and
  • Vahid Tizfahm.
  • I publish their names because no matter how hard the Iranian regime tries to silence these voices, it cannot succeed so long as freedom-loving people around the world plead their cases.

    Silence and complicity

    In the wake of the brutal crackdown against election protestors, most Americans expected outrage from world leaders. In capitals across Europe, condemnations were loud and clear. But in Washington, the nation that delivered victory in World War II and the Cold War gave a surprising response.

    In the days after the election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We, like the rest of the world, are waiting and watching to see what the Iranian people decide.”3 “We hope that the outcome reflects the genuine will and desire of the Iranian people,” she said in another statement.4 The President of the United States—the leader of the free world—announced that while he deplored violence, how Iran goes about electing its leaders and establishing freer debate and democratic principles “is something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide.”5 And the White House press secretary went so far as to call Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the “elected leader” of Iran—a statement he later had to “walk back” with the press.6

    The money trail tells a similar story. Under previous congresses, appropriations for Iran democracy programs increased from $1.5 million in Fiscal Year 2004 to $60 million in Fiscal Year 2008. For Fiscal Year 2009, the Bush Administration requested $65 million for Iran democracy programs. But with a Democratic White House and Congress, the final FY 2009 omnibus appropriations bill came to the House floor with no line item for Iran democracy. Instead, the majority invented a new account—the Near East Regional Democracy Fund—and gave it only $25 million. While no official document exists stating the purpose of this fund (appropriately nicknamed the NERD), State Department officials claim it will be used for Iran democracy programs. But to date, none of the funds has been obligated—and Fiscal Year 2009 ended on September 30th.

    On October 6th, the Boston Globe reported that at least four groups that previously received funding for Iran democracy programs had been cut off by the Obama Administration.7 Most notable were the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which received word its State Department grant was terminated just as it was ramping up investigations into the post-election crackdown, and Freedom House Iran, a leader in exposing the regime’s violence via cell phone images, photographs and eyewitness testimony.

    As Americans, how can we justify this apparent retreat from human rights? Is the President afraid that public discussions of human rights abuses in Iran will offend the regime and undermine talks over the Iranian nuclear program? If that’s the case, this Administration has lost its way when it comes to our most basic American values.

    A page from the anti-Soviet playbook

    History teaches us how to win this conflict. In the 1980s, President Reagan did not ignore Soviet human rights abuses. Instead he made them the basis of discussions and negotiations with his Soviet counterparts. When President Reagan visited Russia, he made sure to meet with Soviet dissidents at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

    “I came here to give you strength, but it is you who have strengthened me,” the President told a group of dissidents in Moscow in May of 1988. “While we press for human rights through diplomatic channels, you press with your very lives day, day in and day out, risking your homes, your jobs, your all.”8 An individual Soviet citizen, President Reagan said, must sense that the government “respects him enough to grant him all his human rights.”

    Soviet leaders condemned President Reagan for that meeting. They called it an unprecedented interference in Soviet internal affairs. President Reagan knew better. The American people knew better. And because the United States stood firm in its demand for human rights and democracy, freedom-fighters like Natan Sharansky, Yuri Orlov and Andrei Sakharov lived in freedom. Communism did not kill them; they killed Communism.

    What if America silenced its human rights agenda for fear of accusations it was “meddling” with internal Soviet matters? The Soviets accused America every day of trying to foment revolution, but we never stopped our support for human rights.

    Today we hear the same rhetoric from the Iranian dictators, and now hear the argument echoed in the halls of Congress, the State Department and even the White House. As someone who stood on the front line of freedom in the 1980s, I pray we do not believe the propaganda of dictators.

    The start of a human rights strategy

    It’s time for a new American strategy to promote human rights and democracy in Iran. To start, this Administration should make human rights and democracy a central tenet of future negotiations with Iran. No meeting should go by with Iranian diplomats without an American diplomat raising the issue of human rights, specifically including the names of prisoners of conscience.

    The President should speak directly and publicly to the dissidents of Iran—name their names from the White House podium—and make them heroes in homes across America. He should invite members of the Green Movement to meet with him at the White House. And if any U.S. Government officials are invited to visit Iran, they should not accept the invitation unless meetings with Iranian dissidents are secured.

    Funding for groups like the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and Freedom House Iran should be reinstated. Overall funding for Iran democracy promotion should be increased with an appropriations line item dedicated to Iran—with control transferred from the State Department to the National Endowment for Democracy. From there, the United States should take the lead in facilitating Green Movement conferences outside of Iran—whether in the United States or Europe.

    At the same time, we need an injection of creativity and originality in our international broadcasting programs. While Radio Farda continues the mission of Radio Free Europe, we should work to establish new public/private partnerships to fund independent Iranian filmmakers and producers—using them as a new way to foster more original content. VOA Persian and Radio Farda should set up a “Green Hour” for their broadcasts, and expand their interaction with Iranian dissidents.

    These are just a few ideas that could go a long way toward advancing human rights and democracy in Iran.

    It is time for this Administration to review the lessons of the Cold War and apply them to this 21st-century threat. A dictatorship that murders its own people in the streets on television will not be an honest broker in international affairs. A country that denies its citizens their basic freedoms will not be at peace with its neighbors.

    We need to believe in the America that liberated the concentration camps, defeated Communism and brought liberty to millions. For diplomacy with Iran to succeed, we must be that Shining City upon a Hill once again. We must speak directly to the Iranian people, and let them know we will never stop fighting for them—no matter what their dictators do or say.


    Mark Kirk represents the 10th Congressional District of Illinois and co-chairs the bipartisan Iran Working Group in the U.S. House of Representatives. This article is adapted from his remarks before the U.S. Institute of Peace on November 4, 2009.

    1. Freedom in the World 2009 (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2009),
    2. Figures derived from Freedom House, Chatham House and the Institute of Iranian Studies of the University of St. Andrews (UK).
    3. “World Reacts to Iranian Election Result,”, June 15, 2009,
    4. “US Monitoring Reports of Irregularities in Iran Vote,” Agence France-Presse, June 13, 2009,
    5. Jeff Zeleny and Helene Cooper, “Obama Warns against Direct Involvement by U.S. in Iran,” New York Times, June 17, 2009,
    6. Peter Baker, “Gibbs Steps Back from ‘Elected Leader Ahmadinejad,’” New York Times Caucus Blog, August 5, 2009,
    7. Farah Stockman, “US Funds Dry Up for Iran Watchdog,” Boston Globe, October 6, 2009,
    8. As cited in “Moscow Summit: Preaching to the Unconverted; Excerpts from Reagan Talks to Dissidents and at Monastery Democracy,” Associated Press, May 31, 1988,