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People walk past a mural highlighting the plight of women in Iran, on Dame Street in Dublin. Alamy Stock Photo

Opinion Ireland can play its part in helping people pushing for freedom in Iran

Colin Lee is an experienced humanitarian worker – he outlines the ways in which the Irish government can help the people of Iran.

THE SENTENCING OF Bernard Phelan to 6.5 years in an Iranian jail on charges of ‘providing information to an enemy country’ has naturally come as a great worry to his family and close friends. The 64-year-old has already spent over 170 days locked up. His case is undoubtedly also cause for concern within the Irish Government.

Phelan’s arrest, detention and sentencing are typical of many foreign nationals in Iran, where the regime has used them as bargaining chips with respective governments.

iran protest muiris Supporters of Bernard Phelan gathered at the Iranian Embassy on Thursday. Muiris Muiris

It’s a business model that has served Tehran well since 1979, both domestically and by proxy in Lebanon during the 1980s. It comes at a time when the Iranian regime continues to oppress the nationwide protest movement.

‘United and determined’

The large-scale anti-government demonstrations by the Iranian diaspora throughout Europe and beyond highlight a unified and determined stance against vicious oppression.

Earlier this year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen backed listing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation in a response to the “trampling of fundamental human rights”. Interestingly, the EU remains on the sidelines with a suspicion that proscription of the IRGC would kill off the small chance of reviving the Iran nuclear deal.

One of the most significant roles allocated to Ireland on the Security Council over the past two years was the facilitator of Resolution 2231, which underpins the Iranian nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Relations between Ireland and Iran appear stronger than many of our European neighbours. The leadership and experience displayed by Ireland in the recent two-year term of the UNSC are invaluable when understanding the mindset of the leadership in Iran.

With that in mind, there are areas in which Ireland could influence the EU and utilise relevant diplomatic channels for positive change:

i) Involve Iranian civil society in sanctions influencing and harm assessment processes

Because of the intensity of the current set of sanctions, Iranians abroad cannot send money back home. In addition, Iranian students studying abroad struggle as their parents cannot transfer their tuition fees. Some within the diaspora have developed a system whereby they send funds to the students, and their respective families channel money to the wider family in Iran.

With the constant devaluation of the Iranian rial and the inability to transfer money in or out of the country, the impact of sanctions on ordinary civilians is colossal.

Whilst ensuring a ‘do no harm’ approach, those leading on sanctions must have the complete picture. Targeted sanctions against individuals, particularly on regime members’ families overseas, can have a more desired effect. The international community should engage with civil society in Iran and develop a grassroots approach.

tehran-tehran-iran-20th-mar-2022-a-handout-photo-made-available-by-the-supreme-leaders-office-shows-the-supreme-leader-of-iran-ayatollah-ali-khamenei-addressing-the-nation-on-the-occasion-of-now Tehran, Tehran, Iran. 20th Mar, 2022. A handout photo made available by the supreme leader's office shows the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah ALI KHAMENEI addressing the nation on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in Tehran, Iran, 20 March 2022. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

A recent proposal from US lawmakers will now target not only Iranian officials but their family members overseas. The Regime Act revokes any visas issued to family members of IRGC, the supreme leader’s office, and state security. This initiative by the US government follows from the targeted sanctions introduced to some members of the political elite in Lebanon. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the son-in-law of former Lebanese President Michel Aoun, for his role in corruption in Lebanon, (E.O. 13818), which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, targets corruption and serious human rights abuse around the world.

ii) Bolster the internet

Iran’s population of 84 million people relies hugely on the internet for uncensored news. The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Iran controls the internet. In 2019, it blocked the entire internet for a lengthy period. 

Earlier this year the regime ran a cyberspace protection act with restrictions completely blocking access to all websites excluding those hosted in Iran. Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube, all remain blocked. The US government issued licence D-2 sanctions relief for American internet companies to help the Iranian people. To help Iranians circumvent internet restrictions imposed by the regime, the US has allowed Elon Musk to provide ‘Starlink’ satellite internet receivers. These have been carried in illegally over borders and provide some hope.

Up to 800 terminals are believed to be in use across Iran. In order to create a shadow web, experts estimate 5,000 units are required.

The EU has been playing its part too. Restrictive measures now apply to 164 individuals and 31 entities. They consist of an asset freeze, a travel ban to the bloc, and a prohibition to make economic resources available to those listed. A ban on exports to Iran of hardware, which might be used for internal repression, and of equipment for monitoring telecommunications, is also in place. Deployment of high technology is critical, as is the continuation of the D-2 sanctions relief by the US.

iii) Role of International organisations

Despite the limited information coming out of Iran, the media and international organisations, including international NGOs, must utilise their constituencies, ensuring a far greater level of advocacy than what we have seen to date.

The protest’s initial slogan ‘woman, life, freedom’ started as a response to the killing of Masha Amini, but now Iranians want freedom, a secular democracy, and an end to the Islamic Republic.

new-york-city-new-york-usa-nov-12-2022-mahsa-amini-tribute-mural-by-street-artist-lexi-bella-first-street-green-cultural-park-houston-street New York City, New York, USA - Nov 12 2022: Mahsa Amini tribute mural by street artist Lexi Bella. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Horrific atrocities have been reported in recent months – many of them targeting girls in school. International organisations with rights based approaches, must support the bravery of those risking their lives on the streets of Izeh, Arak, and Ishfahan.

In the past, the international community’s direct interference in Iranian affairs has often been counterproductive. There would appear to be a fine balance between supporting the Iranian people and confronting a brutish regime. As a nation, we have the capability and maturity to make the correct calls. Irish influence in Brussels, combined with our recent experience on the UNSC, allows Ireland to help shape a safer future for the Iranian people.

As the protests appear to have died down for now, the Irish Government must stand in solidarity with ordinary Iranians and rule out any plan of reopening a full-time residential embassy in Tehran. This will need to be balanced with the fact that an innocent Irish national, in failing health, faces a lengthy prison term.

Colin Lee has lived and worked in Beirut for 14 years, 2007 – 2021 as a Humanitarian Director covering the Middle East region with programmes impacted by sanctions. 

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