There are all kinds of diplomatic abuse. While this blog usually follows Iran’s diplomatic subterfuge, this time I’d like to focus on how Iranian diplomacy threatens western groups that criticize the regime in Tehran.
What originally caught my eye in this context was a seemingly innocuous comment made in August by Foreign Minister Zarif, before he and President Rouhani took NYC by storm. In an interview in Persian, Zarif noted that “the biggest active lobby against Iran is ‘United Against Nuclear Iran” – a US group promoting anti-Tehran sanctions. A strange choice, but harmless enough.
Or was it? Perhaps, if that’s all there was to it. But unfortunately for Zarif, there is context to this story that cannot be ignored.
Turns out that a mere week after Rouhani’s election victory, Alireza Miryousefi Aval – past and present third counsellor and spokesperson for Iran’s UN mission in NYC – was quoted in the New York Times as saying that UANI’s “ founders had “worked within or were close to the U.S. government” and that Iran considered it “counterproductive and contrary to the policy announced by the new administration in early 2009, which purportedly sought to diplomatically interact with Iran.”
According to the paper, Miryousefi added in his statement that: “the formation of the group, taken in the context of other hostile American actions including cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities and unilateral sanctions, “convinced Iran that the U.S. does not mean what it says.”
Anybody ever hear of a foreign diplomat criticizing the host country’s constituencies? Only Tehran has the audacity – and the good fortune to get away with it. But the Iranian diplomat’s point is clear: there’s no difference between cyber attacks and legitimate, democracy-style criticism. Opposition groups in the west should be gagged, as they still are in Iran.
This sort of intimidation through diplomatic means didn’t start with Rouhani. Indeed, Zarif’s predecessor Ali Akbar Salehi, current head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, made that obvious when his said in an interview with the Wiener Zeitung earlier this year: “You see, every group has a right to have its own beliefs and positions. However, I want to emphasize that in one’s decisions, caution and wisdom should prevail. Otherwise one gets into trouble. Those who are looking for conflicts won’t achieve a positive result. My advice for these groups is this: You might have your differences with us, you might have your own beliefs, but at the same time we advise you to be more rational and more careful.”
Salehi was actually referring at the time not to UANI but rather to the European anti-Iran group STOP THE BOMB (STB), which like UANI also supports sanctions. And here lies the link connecting the Ahmadinejad administration and its Rouhani successor: STB has recently come under attack by official Iranian and proxy media organs such as Tehran’s Hispan TV and Hezbollah’s Al Manar. They exploited a visit by Austria’s vice minister of foreign affairs Reinhold Lopatka to do so, putting words in his mouth against the organization. The identical wording in the reports is unmistakable.
(For the unaware: Hispan TV is subordinate to the EU-sanctioned Iranian Broadcasting Authority – IRIB – the heads of which are appointed by Rouhani’s cabinet.)
Bottom line, Iranian diplomacy is not only providing cover for acts of subversion and the persecution of dissidents. It also thinks it can impose on the west its distorted view of what constitutes freedom of speech. Lucky for Iran’s critics that Tehran’s oppressive tactics will never take hold out side Iran.