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The best solution? True democracy in Iran

By Payam Akhavan, National Post
July 24, 2009

Hillary Clinton's recent statement that the United States would extend a "defensive umbrella" over the Middle East if Iran acquired nuclear weapons reflects the world's increasing acceptance that, sooner or later, the Islamic Republic will acquire such capability. While some advocate a military solution and others propose diplomacy, an obvious truth is overlooked: A democratic Iran that respects the rights of its own citizens is less likely to be a regional threat than an authoritarian regime sustained by terror and intimidation.

While violent repression of dissent can ensure a regime's survival in the short-term, legitimacy is vital for the long-term survival of most authoritarian governments. This explains why, in the aftermath of the brutal repression of pro-democracy protests following last month's controverted Iranian election, hardliners loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are doing their utmost to conceal the extent of atrocities committed by security forces.

Those atrocities are on a far larger scale than most in the West have imagined. While state-controlled media in Iran have claimed only 20 protesters were killed, evidence has emerged that at least several hundred protesters have been murdered, and thousands more detained and tortured.

In addition to the shocking images of violence the world has witnessed in Iran's "Twitter revolution," credible human-rights organizations have prepared a partial list of 700 dead or missing people from Tehran alone. There are indications of atrocities on a similar scale in other cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz, where information is even more difficult to access.

On July 14, reliable reports emerged that families seeking information about their missing children had been taken to a cold-storage facility in southwest Tehran where they saw hundreds of corpses awaiting identification. They were told the bodies could be retrieved for burial only if they certified that their loved ones had died of "natural causes." Thousands are in prisons and temporary detention facilities where they are tortured to extract "confessions" that the protests were part of a foreign conspiracy.

Amid these ongoing abominations against the people of Iran, the Ahmadinejad regime has suddenly offered a "new package of proposals," which is claimed to be "a good basis for talks with the West." Having survived an initial threat to its power from within, the hardliner regime is now eager to gain international legitimacy to help consolidate its grip on power, after which further repression is sure to follow.

Some political "realists" in Western capitals are tempted to exploit the Islamic Republic's current weakness to strike a deal on security issues at the expense of the Iranian democracy movement. This would be a grave mistake. Leaving aside moral considerations, the only lasting solution to regional security is a democratic Iran that respects the rights of its citizens instead of a militaristic state that relies on violence to perpetuate its power.

At this crucial juncture, the only principled and realistic option is to isolate the hardliners in order to empower those who are sacrificing their lives for a free, prosperous and peaceful nation. In view of Canada's leadership role in adoption UN human-rights resolutions on Iran, the legacy of murdered Canadian-Iranian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi and the fear that imprisoned Canadian-Iranian Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari could face a similar

fate, Ottawa should call for a special session of the UN Human Rights Council and an investigation to identify those responsible for massive human-rights abuses.

As a promising first step, the government of Canada and the International Centre for Rights & Democracy in Montreal have supported an initial investigation by the U. S.-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center into the protest violence. This and other credible reports should identify leaders responsible for atrocities so they can be declared persona non grata and subjected to travel bans and asset freezes.

If they are not brought to justice in Iran, the matter should eventually be referred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Instead of collective sanctions that hurt the Iranian people, the UN must focus on punishments against individual leaders.

In addition, while Canada has not had an ambassador in Tehran since December 2007, it should encourage the European Union -- which includes Iran's biggest trading partners -- to recall their ambassadors in protest of the mass killings. This is exactly how the EU responded to the bloodless coup in Honduras. There is no principled reason why it should not do the same in relation to the far worse situation in Iran.

The same regime that legitimized its authoritarian rule for years through chants of "Death to America" now leans on diplomatic recognition by the West to maintain its legitimacy. That is because the regime's biggest enemy is not the conspiratorial machinations of the "Great American Satan," but the Iranian people's legitimate democratic aspirations.

In the realpolitik calculus of Western powers, the human rights of Iranians have never been a priority. But even if oil, nukes and Israel are top of mind, the best choice is to invest in a democratic Iran rather than continuing under the illusion that those committing mass murder against their own citizens can be trustworthy partners in diplomacy. - Payam Akhavan is professor of international law at McGill University, a former UN war crimes prosecutor and co-Founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre.

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