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Iran still has a long way to go yet

Iran has been in the headlines fairly consistently over the last two years, as talks over the country's nuclear programme have reached their crescendo. The preliminary deal agreed this month could mean a new chapter in the history of relations between Iran and the West. Of course, as American officials have been keen to stress, a tentative agreement over Iran's nuclear programme does not mean that the two nations are set to become allies any time soon. One of the criticisms levelled at the diplomatic process by opponents in the US is that officials overlooked Iran's dire human rights record in order to secure an agreement. Of course, this is a basic tenet of diplomacy – talks cannot deal with all issues all the time, or nothing would ever be achieved. The deal was only possible because of a narrow focus on preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, rather than seeking effective regime change.

But there is no doubt that the abuses perpetrated by the state are real. Even as the nuclear talks built up to the historic deal, American-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian remained in jail. The Washington Post reporter has been imprisoned for 12 months, during which time he has been denied access to basic medical care and refused the right to an attorney of his own choosing. He has suffered harsh interrogation and months of solitary confinement. His trial, which began in late May, is taking place behind closed doors. His family have been barred from attending.

Of course, while the treatment doled out to Rezaian is appalling, it is only the thin end of the wedge, and has been widely publicised because of his American nationality. Numerous Iranian journalists, bloggers and social media activists have been arrested and subjected to similarly unfair trials. Iran is one of the world's biggest jailers of journalists; according to Reporters Without Borders, at least 46 are currently behind bars.

When Hassan Rouhani was elected as president in June 2013, it was on a reformist platform. It was largely his election that made productive nuclear talks with the US possible, and it was also hoped that he would introduce human rights reforms. These were much needed. For years, the authorities have restricted freedom of expression, association and assembly. Journalists, women's rights activists, human rights advocates and other dissenters have been arrested, detained and prosecuted – mostly in unfair trials. Yet thus far, Rouhani has done little in this regard. The administration made some attempts to relax official controls on academic freedom, but this was met by a backlash from conservatives within parliament.

According to Amnesty International, Iran has executed nearly 700 people in the first half of 2015 alone. Some of those executed were juveniles. Many of the executions were on non-violent drugs-related charges, while others were for sodomy and adultery, or vaguely worded crimes relating to national security. Judges have handed out sentences of execution by stoning, although it appears that none have been carried out. China may carry out the biggest number of executions per year, but Iran carries out the most per capita. Elsewhere in the justice system, torture is committed with impunity. Sentences such as flogging and amputation are carried out, sometimes in public. Just one example given in Amnesty's annual country report is that "In August [2014], two photographers who criticised in writing a book of photographs published by a government official in the city of Qazvin, northwest Iran, were sentenced to floggings."

The overall picture is of a country where rights are placed second to authoritarian control and where elements of the state apparatus act with total impunity. Against this context, the dire treatment faced by Rezaian can be seen as the natural result of an unfair and brutal justice system. Despite Rouhani's reformist promises, repressive elements in the judiciary, security forces, and intelligence agencies remain empowered to commit an array of rights abuses. The daily lives of thousands of Iranians are affected, while those responsible remain totally unaccountable.

The lifting of harsh sanctions against Iran raises the prospect of increased international integration in terms of business, trade, and politics. Campaigners for human rights – and all the political prisoners languishing in Iran's jail cells – will be hoping that this will also lead to increase pressure on the government to enact reform. In a speech last year, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei accused the international community of using the nuclear issue as an excuse to cripple Iran with sanctions. He said that the country would turn to "human rights" when the nuclear issue was resolved. Now that the issue is at least approaching a resolution of some sort, we must wonder whether he will stick to his word.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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