Leaders of major democracies are intensifying their denunciations of the Iranian government for its continued brutal crackdown on the protests in the country, which are moving into their third month as Iran has issued four death sentences so far linked to demonstrations. Not only are countries levying new sanctions on individuals and entities implicated in the repression, but they are also using the United Nations more actively to demand accountability from Tehran.
Are these vocal condemnations by more UN member states working?
After the Security Council met informally on Nov. 2 to deliberate on the protests, highlighting the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement in Iran, the human-rights committee in the General Assembly met on Nov. 16 to vote on a draft resolution on the “alarmingly high frequency of the imposition of the death penalty in the country,” urging Iranian officials to “cease the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters, including women and children.”
The draft resolution approved in the Third Committee was sponsored by Canada and the United States. Eighty members voted in favor, 28 against and 68 abstained. The vote infuriated the Iranian authorities, but the resolution was a heavily symbolic gesture, given the high number of traditional Iran partners that voted yes or abstained. The full General Assembly will vote on it in mid-December. Although Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, the decisions send strong political messages, since all member states have an equal say and use it to project the attitudes of global coalitions.
This week, one of the most significant developments in the global condemnation of the violence unleashed in the past months on Iranian protesters is a special session of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, to be held on Nov. 24. The session was requested by Germany and Iceland. Currently, 44 countries, including 17 Council members and 27 observer states, have thrown their weight behind it. (Iran has never been a member of the body.)
Many of the Council members maintain smooth relations with Iran, including several African countries, such as Eritrea, Senegal and Mauritania. Armenia, Bolivia, Cuba, Indonesia, Pakistan, Qatar and Venezuela also get along with Iran. This means that any vote on a prospective resolution will have major connotations for the authorities in Tehran and could reflect their increasing estrangement from the rest of the world. (Until April, Russia was a Council member, but it was dropped by a vote in the General Assembly, as Russia withdrew from the Council at the same time. The country is now relying on Iranian-made drones to fight the war in Ukraine.)
Experts say that if these and other friendly countries of Iran prioritize political expediency and vote against a resolution or abstain, the results could be considered an appeasement of the Iranian government. But if they act on their role as member states of the main international body tasked with safeguarding human rights, the message would be entirely different if a strong resolution were adopted.
“The UN and the international community at large should deliver a strong condemnation of the Islamic Republic for the horrendous treatment of its citizens,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an expert on Iran and dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Education at Missouri University of Science and Technology, in Rolla. “What we have witnessed over the last 10 weeks in general, and in the cities of Zahedan and Mahabad in particular, can be considered crimes against humanity.”
“The Islamic Republic should not get away, once again, with just a slap on the wrist,” he added. “It deserves more consequential punishments, including banning it from certain councils, legislation censuring it and perhaps expanding the mandate of the special human rights rapporteur for Iran to be able to do more.”
The General Assembly committee vote on its recent resolution could serve as a guide on how the Human Rights Council might vote on its own draft. In the Assembly, aside from Japan, Maldives and South Korea voting in favor of criticizing Iran’s human-rights abuses, abstentions by Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Kuwait, Malaysia, Nigeria, Qatar and Senegal — all of which Tehran routinely maintains cordial relations with — possibly revealed discomfort with Iran’s deadly crackdowns on the peaceful protesters. The 28 nations that voted against the resolution are not surprising: they include Belarus, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Russia and Turkmenistan, all considered authoritarian countries.
Moreover, a vote in the General Assembly, where all nations, including Iran’s allies, can express their views on the human-rights backsliding in the country, could signal to Tehran how the world perceives this sprawling crisis.
The Iranian government has historically emphasized the importance of the Assembly as an inclusive body, as opposed to the Security Council, which it argues is a despotic arrangement. Over the past two decades, Iranian presidents have mostly addressed the annual high-level week of the General Assembly in person, using the rare opportunity to be in the UN to amplify their voice on an internationally visible stage.
Yet even in the General Assembly, Iran is not popular. In 2008, the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad introduced Iran as a candidate for a nonpermanent seat in the Security Council from the Asia-Pacific group. Iran got only 32 votes out of 193. It was only once, in the 1955-56 cycle, that Iran became an elected member, three decades before the Islamic Revolution.
The informal Security Council meeting on Nov. 2, led by Albania and the US, both of which have no diplomatic relations with Iran, could be dismissed by Iran as politically motivated. Iran claims these countries and others in the Council are driven by their adversarial relations with Tehran.
Iranian commentators and academics say that to deter the government from exerting more violence, it is not enough for Western governments and their allies to issue strongly worded statements or enforce new sanctions, as the clerical establishment invalidates them as a display of hostility by antagonistic states. Iran’s allies, especially those in Africa and Latin America, which Iran promotes as its bastion of strategic support, should back a Human Rights Council resolution so that concrete change is prompted, commentators and academics contend.
As a result of years of protectionist policies and limiting its international integration, Iran has become an insular state that doesn’t play by the standard rules of engagement in the global arena. Yet there is little evidence that outside pressure can coax Iran’s security apparatus into showing restraint or drawing back from its campaign of targeting academics, journalists, activists, artists and lawyers — most particularly, young people and women.
As long as the ruling elite strives to maintaining the status quo and holding its grip on power even through force, and while powerful nations such as China and Russia keep arguing that what’s happening in Iran is a domestic issue and not within the purview of world bodies, the choices of the international community could be limited.
Sina Toossi, a senior nonresident fellow at the Washington think tank Center for International Policy, says that Iran’s isolation is so entrenched that external pressure from the UN and its powerful member states is not likely to change its behavior.
“Political pressure from the United Nations or Western powers is unlikely to significantly affect the Islamic Republic’s calculus with respect to repressing protests,” Toossi told PassBlue. “Iran is already largely politically isolated from the West, and US sanctions have completely cut it off economically from Europe and most of the international community.”
As such, he added, “the US and its allies have little leverage to influence the decision-making of the Islamic Republic.”
Yet the Human Rights Council special session on Nov. 24 and the full General Assembly vote in December on the recent committee resolution could deliver the message to Iranian authorities that it is time to change course.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the UN's approach to Iran?
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and an Asia Times correspondent. A recipient of the Chevening Scholarship from Britain’s Foreign Office, he is a 2022 World Press Institute fellow with the University of St. Thomas and a Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow with the United Nations. He was recently selected as the silver winner of the Prince Albert II of Monaco and UN Correspondents Association Global Prize for Coverage of Climate Change. He contributes to Foreign Policy, openDemocracy, Middle East Eye, Responsible Statecraft, The New Arab and Al-Monitor. His Twitter account: https://twitter.com/KZiabari