West Urged To Pressure Iran On Its Human Rights Record

The website Unlock Iran documents what life is like for political prisoners in Iran. Activists say that little has changed despite promises by the new Iranian president to overhaul the country.

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And a new round of nuclear talks get underway with Iran today in New York. Hopes are high for a deal that would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. For one thing, just yesterday, Iran announced that international inspectors would be allowed to visit two key Iranian production sites there. Still, human rights groups are concerned that Iran's poor record on human rights are being ignored in a rush to reach a nuclear deal, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For more than a decade, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center cranked out dense reports detailing abuses in Iran. But Gissou Nia says this year, the New Haven-based group decided to try something new to reach a broader audience: Facebook users.

GISSOU NIA: That's what led to the idea of creating Unlock Iran, where a user who comes onto the site can see what life would be like if they were an Iranian prisoner of rights or somebody who's been jailed for their beliefs, their lifestyle or their profession.

KELEMEN: There are hundreds of political prisoners in Iran, so she says it was difficult to decide which stories to tell. And Nia says they wanted to do it in a very personal way. So, if you sign on to Unlock Iran through Facebook, the site makes a mock-up page, putting you in Iran's notorious Evin prison with your friends posting words of support.

NIA: Instead of saying where you went to university, it says you're now in Evin Prison, and it gives your sentence. Instead of the year you were born in and the day you were born, it says the day you were jailed.

KELEMEN: Scroll down, and you'll be introduced to real-life prisoners of conscience: an Iranian software developer jailed for creating a photo-sharing tool, or a blogger who's been in prison for years and injured in a recent prison raid. The U.S. helps fund this site, and Nia says tech-savvy Iranians have found their way to sign on. But the main goal is to get Western countries to pressure Iran to improve its record.

NIA: But I have to say that with recent developments, including this raid on Ward 350 in Evin prison, the ward in which a lot of political prisoners are held, and the brutal nature with which those prisoners were dealt with, I can't say I'm too hopeful.

KELEMEN: She also worries that the nuclear issue is overshadowing human rights. That appears to be the case. There are often tradeoffs when it comes to Iran and other foreign policy issues. Suzanne Maloney of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution says, for now, the nuclear issue has to take precedence, because the U.S. and other major powers are working well together on that issue and there is a chance for success.

SUZANNA MALONEY: There really is no consensus among these players - which, of course, include Russia and China - on the question of human rights. And so it would not be a viable venue for dealing with our concerns on human rights.

KELEMEN: And there are internal Iranian politics that the U.S. must consider, adds Ariane Tabatabai of the Kennedy School at Harvard.

ARIANE TABATABAI: The hardliners keep saying, you know, the U.S. is actually not relooking to solve the nuclear issue. It's just looking to put more pressure on Iran. And I think that combining the two and saying, OK, well, we're making progress on the nuclear talks, now let's talk about this issue, will actually prove exactly that point.

KELEMEN: She says human rights issues need to be addressed, but only after a nuclear deal is reached. She argues that such an agreement would weaken Iranian hardliners and allow President Hasan Rouhani to follow up on his promised reform agenda. And Tabatabai adds the U.S. seems to understand this balancing act.

TABATABAI: They know the priorities, and they know where the U.S. can have a positive impact and where it can't.

KELEMEN: Tabatabai says on some issues, there have been improvements. She points out that two female governors were recently appointed in Iran. But human rights activist Nia says, overall, Rouhani has been a disappointment.

NIA: So, I think it's very much a push and pull. And I'd say that we've seen no net improvement.

KELEMEN: In fact, she says there are some troubling indicators of human rights abuses in Iran, including a sharp increase in the number of executions. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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