In 2009, Nazanin Afshin-Jam chaired the first Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, where she spoke on the human rights crisis in Iran and the crimes committed by the Islamic Republic. More than a decade later and the situation in Iran has only worsened, igniting mass protests following the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police. In a conversation with Hillel Neuer, Nazanin discusses the unprecedented nature of the current protests, activism in the Iranian diaspora, and how the international community can support the people of Iran in their fight for freedom and democracy.
Hi everyone. It’s Hillel Neuer, and I’m delighted to welcome here Nazanin Afshin-Jam, who is an international human rights activist, and is doing tremendous work on Iran. I’m interviewing her on behalf of the Geneva summit for Human Rights, which is a coalition of 25 groups that Nazanin’s group, Stop Child Executions, is part of and UN Watch, which I direct, is also part of. Welcome Nazanin.
Thank you, Hillel. It’s nice to see you after a while.
I had the sense that the support for the protests, which are effectively a revolution in the making, is dramatically different from the support that existed six months to a year ago, for the cause of human rights in Iran. And I had the feeling, to some degree, that it was kind of a Churchill moment. People like Masih Alinejad, people like yourself, like Nazanin Boniadi, and so many others, what you’ve been saying all along is reality. Today, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), an organization of apologists for the regime to varying degrees, seems to have shriveled away and the people that have been speaking out and calling it like it is seem to be recognized. Any thoughts on that shift?
There’s an evolution in thought. When I was fighting for children on death row through Stop Child Executions, I learned early on that this regime is not reformable. They’re not even listening to international human rights law, the same covenants that they themselves have signed. Whether it’s the ICCPR or the CRC that says that you can’t execute anyone under the age of 18, they bypass it. They say Sharia law supersedes all international law and they continue with their own agenda. I knew that the only way for there to be real change in Iran was a complete change in regime. And like Masih and others at the time, 15 years ago when I was advocating for this, I too was being called a warmonger even though at no point in time, in any of my speeches, did I advocate for military intervention on Iran. Just the mere fact of calling for a change of regime put this title on me. [Because of this] a lot of others shied away from even speaking out even though inside they believed it.
Since the 1979 revolution, for the last 43 years, people have tried to work within the system to make slow changes. And there have been protests and uprisings since 1979. There was the student uprising in 1999. They were upset about the reformist newspapers shutting down and university students rose up. And then there was the 2009 Green Revolution, where people were saying where is my vote because they felt the elections were rigged. People couldn’t believe that Ahmadinejad came to power. Then in 2019, there were more protests with the surge of fuel prices and the recognition that this regime is very corrupt and mismanages and basically is causing the downfall of the people; they can’t live proper lives. Throughout all of this time, people have been really angry and dissatisfied with this regime.
This revolution that you’re seeing since Mahsa Amini’s death in September, is not a new thing. Political, ethnic and religious minorities have been angered. Journalists, lawyers, were detained just for doing their job. This is an accumulation of 43 years of anger that has now finally spilled out on the streets.
“People are now comfortable with saying that this regime is not reformable and that the only way is the collapse of the regime in its entirety.”
We’ve gone through that evolution and we’re now at the stage where we can work as a team. And we can hopefully cause the fall of the regime and establish a free and democratic Iran.
Speaking about the history a little bit. Before we come back to what’s going on now, maybe you could share a word or two on your own history in connection with this regime because your family lived in Iran.
Many Iranians had to flee at the start of the 1979 Revolution. So many people who feared execution from the Islamic regime escaped. And not just at that time, but throughout the last 43 years, people have been fleeing as refugees to escape persecution. And that, as you were asking, is the story of my family.
My father wasn’t even a political man. He was working for the Sheraton Hotel and he was allowing business as usual with the serving of alcohol, mingling between men and women, and playing music. And just for these things, the Revolutionary Guard busted in and detained him. He was tortured and he was going to be executed. But through some luck, we managed to get him out. He went to Spain. The rest of my family followed. And then when I was two years old, we emigrated to Canada. And that story is not unique.
If you ask any Iranian in the world, you know what their story is, they’ll have something similar. They’ll have a family member or a friend who has somehow been affected by this regime in a terrible way. And there’s so much trauma in this community that we’re going to have to get over in time. I think that trauma that I’m speaking of is what has contributed to some of the fragmentation and disunity in our community for so long. There’s been so much distrust. At the start of the 1979 Revolution, Khomeini himself said that he was going to come to Iran, bring freedom to the people and step aside from politics. But that’s not what happened.
And he was in a coalition with the left wasn’t he? And then he killed them.
Yes. And they believed this was going to happen. And then they were betrayed. This led to this theocratic, bloodthirsty regime that has so much blood on its hands, has killed millions of people. And so there is that distrust. And this regime is very sophisticated in the way that they continue to try to drive wedges between the different opposition groups. They have a very strong cyber army whose specific aim is to try to cause chaos. They make up lies, and they try to wedge differences between people.
But I think in this climate right now, since Mahsa Amini’s death, people have had this awakening, as you called it at the start of our talk. They’re starting to put down some of these differences and starting to realize that if we are going to have a chance at bringing down this regime, there has to be unity. And they have to put down their political differences at this moment. There’s going to be a time in a free and democratic Iran where there will be debate among different political parties and different political leanings. But this is not the time to have those fights.
“Right now, we have to unite in our common cause of wanting this regime to be ended. The common cause of wanting freedom and democracy, free elections, the rule of law, and a constitution based on the Declaration of Human Rights.”
These are things that we all have in common. So we must come together in what unites us, put aside our differences for now, and then in the new Iran, free for all. Even the workers Communist Party can have their debates with the Secular Democrats or even those that are advocating for a return to the monarchy. Only Iranians themselves will be able to decide that in free and fair elections and in a type of a referendum to choose their system of government.
Absolutely. As someone who’s non-Iranian, but who’s been involved in this cause for a long time, I’ve been in direct contact with a lot of Iranians, people in Iran and outside. And of course, one of the things that comes up a lot is unity. And I know that you’re working very hard for that. I’ll share with you some thoughts that I saw about this, and then I’d like to hear your thoughts.
On New Year’s, there was something terrific, which was that a number of leading figures, Iranians, tweeted a joint tweet with a New Year’s message calling for freedom to come to Iran for the next year. Activists such as Reza Pahlavi, Ali Karimi, Masih Alinejad, and Nazanin Boniadi. It was clearly a common tweet and it gave people tremendous hope because they saw the first major sign of some unity among these leaders. But then I saw maybe a few days later, some people had criticized it for only being a tweet. My response was that it is only the beginning. Do you have a message to people in Iran and in the diaspora who are looking for unity?
I think they have to have hope. And I say this because I’m out here and I’m speaking to different people. People are talking with each other and there is a camaraderie. We might not see it happening online but it is happening. Masih is speaking to Nazanin, Nazanin is speaking to Reza Pahlavi, Reza Pahlavi is speaking to the next… They’re all speaking at different times. That common tweet was to do just that; to exhibit a show of solidarity, to exhibit that there is this common purpose to bring about change in Iran.
It wasn’t a tweet saying we are the official new coalition. I think people were quick to jump on that message. In one way, it gave a lot of hope to people. But then there were, of course, always some distractors who try to create disunity. And they said where is this ethnic representation, why is there not a religious minority representation in this, etc. And the answer is simple. We’re not trying to say that this is the be all end all. It is just to show that there is something happening.
Again, these members, these influencers, or leaders, or whatever you want to call them, they also recognize that they’re not going to be the ones necessarily to decide, once the regime falls, what’s going to happen in the first 100 days, how the transition is going to look, etc. They understand that there are experts, political thought leaders, who will be debating these questions in a more formal setting, in conferences, and in the committees and subcommittees. There’s going to be subject matter experts that are going to be taking on a lot of these difficult questions. But those particular influencers that you mentioned, they’re saying that they’re here, they’re willing to help in any way they can, they’re willing to work together and just to stay tuned. I think there’s a lot to be hopeful for. I know that right now they’re in the midst of speaking. And then there’s other groups too that are trying to create that second tier.
I’m also connected to a lot of different Iranian diaspora groups who are working day in and day out, on top of their full-time jobs. They are working every minute to see that we support, echo and amplify the voices of the Iranian people. And that part really needs to be emphasized too because the Iranian people on the inside of Iran are the ones that are doing the heavy work. They’re sacrificing their lives, their livelihoods, their everything, to see that Iran moves towards a free and democratic system. And so what they rely on from the outside, from the diaspora groups, who are living in safety, is to help with the organizational part and to help with identifying certain spokespeople who could then go into different Western governments and to, again, echo their demands. I think we’re at a stage, a very crucial and urgent stage, of creating that alternative voice.
[With regards to unity], the one thing that I have heard from political leaders in Western countries, Canada, different European countries, and the United States, is that they are a bit confused on who they’re supposed to speak to. Because there has been that fragmentation for many years, they don’t know who is that official or alternative voice to listen to. And so that is why it is very important for us to be able to create a structure or some kind of coordinated council where we can present to them the actual voices of the Iranian people. So that’s the stage where we’re at right now.
The message is to people that they need to have hope and a bit of patience. It’s very hard, as you said, for people inside Iran. They’re suffering, they’re being shot at, being tortured, they’re being killed, their livelihoods are at risk. They and their family members, in a certain sense, don’t have the patience because there in an emergency now. And, obviously, the people you’re in touch with, they do feel that. They do feel that people are impatient, and that there is a pressing cause and that they need to come together.
They do feel a lot of pressure on their shoulders too to be able to deliver something proper. They don’t want to just make a statement, have a photo op, and then not be able to deliver on something. This is a very delicate movement. One wrong move – as you can see, one coordinated tweet – there could be fallout. They’re very cognizant of this, and they understand that we don’t have one shot at it. But if we’re going to do something, we have to set it up right and do it right.
The other thing is, we have to treat this as somewhat of a marathon. Even though it is urgent, you can sprint, but then not have something that will be long term and ongoing. That’s why you have to have all the pieces properly set up before you can have longer lasting change. And while it is nerve racking – and I’m probably one of the most impatient of the bunch, I want to see things happen and see them happen fast – there needs to be a lot of proper thought. But at the same time, we can’t wait till things are perfect before we proceed either because then it could take years. We want to do the best we can, given the urgency, but also have a proper system in place to do it.
I have a lot of hope in those individuals that did do that joint tweet. Each one of them has so much to offer. If we can take, for example, Hamed Esmaeilion, who used to be a dentist just living his normal life in Toronto. His wife and young child were killed in that PS752 flight and his whole life was uprooted. He has dedicated his life to bring truth and justice to the families of the victims of PS752. As a result, it’s through his sadness and his anger that he’s been able to mobilize so many people. It was his organization that was able to mobilize all those people in those huge rallies that you’ve seen across the world. Then you take somebody like Masih Alinejad who’s a bomb wherever she goes. She lives out her spirit and she effects so much change because she has a lot of ties to those on the inside of Iran. She’s on the phone with the mothers of the victims who have been killed by this brutal regime and she wears their sorrow. She uses that sorrow to enact change. And she is very effective in marching towards political leaders and saying it as it is. She will say what needs to be done and she’s not afraid. And she brings that passion with her. Nazanin Boniadi, such a sweet lady and huge activist, who has been fighting for human rights for over a decade, she has a huge following herself. And then of course, Reza Pahlavi has had a following for the past 43 years. He has so much grace, he has so much experience. He is very polished when it comes to expressing the needs of Iranian people. Just based on these things, each one can offer so much. And again, not just those individuals, there’s so many others. You’re connected to them Hillel too. So many human rights activists, and as I said, political thought leaders and economists, that can offer their own perspective and add a lot to this unity project.
You came to Geneva in September 2009 to ask for an emergency special session and it finally happened. We had an emergency special session a few months ago, and they created a commission of inquiry. It’s a fact-finding mission to investigate human rights abuses in Iran. That’s something good that’s happened. Finally, the world paid attention to the huge majority for the fight to create a commission of inquiry.
Then of course, this amazing thing happened, which was the Islamic regime was kicked off the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the UN, which never happened before by any country. The crazy thing that happened was that they were elected [in the first place]. There’s nothing more absurd, obscene, and surreal than a regime – which is the enemy of women, which treats women as second-class citizens at best, and which is killing women who are demanding their rights – to be on a Women’s Rights Commission. Nevertheless, you went ahead and pursued their dismissal. So many people worked on this and it happened. A very large majority kicked them off, which was amazing. I just want to thank you for your very important role in these things, especially the UN Women’s Rights Commission.
People will ask, why does it matter? Why do these things matter?
It definitely matters because in that certain case, it is a symbolic thing. It delegitimizes the government, it delegitimizes the regime. And it, again, emphasizes that this regime doesn’t represent the voices of the Iranian people. Each time we see one of these acts – like for example the Islamic Republic being kicked off of the CSW or just having this fact-finding mission at the UN which is going to formally recognize the abuses that are taking place and the killing spree of this regime – it basically says that this regime is like ISIS, it’s like the Taliban. It’s a terrorist organization and it shouldn’t be on any world stage.
“You shouldn’t be shaking the hands of these regime officials that have literal blood on their hands.”
Also, I think it educates political leaders in the West as to what is happening, and who they should be speaking to. By big acts like this, it makes [people otherwise unaware of the depth of the crisis in Iran] realize that they shouldn’t be working with this regime and they should be supporting the Iranian people towards their movement for freedom and democracy. And that’s why I see how important it is. And then they know that, when they are going to be sitting down with the alternative voice, they’ll give more weight to them. Maybe they’ll be more willing to let go of their ties, their economic and diplomatic ties, with regime officials. They’ll be more inclined to sanction them; not just individuals, but their family members. They’ll oust them from our borders. They’ll apply Magnitsky sanctions. And, very importantly, they’ll list the IRGC in its entirety on the terrorist list.
You’ve talked about sanctions that the government should impose, listing the IRGC as a terrorist entity. You’ve also talked about regime-connected individuals who exploit the freedom of Canada and Switzerland and other countries who should be kicked out. Are there some other things that governments should do?
As you said, all those sanctions, Magnitsky, and relisting the IRGC, but also, I think, again, giving a platform to the right voices once this coalition or this coordinated body is established. Providing meetings with the heads of state of a country and their foreign policy makers to be able to know what the next steps are.
I know there’s an inter-parliamentary group that has formed in Canada to try to seize the assets of certain of these regime officials, and potentially repurposing it to victims of the regime, or even potentially creating a fund that will then help those inside Iran. Whether it’s helping them buy satellites or telecommunications that will allow them to broadcast what’s happening inside the country. Because, as you know, the regime puts up internet blocks. And a lot of the time it is in those blackout periods that thousands of people are imprisoned or killed. That’s very important, the whole communication channel. So Western countries can financially help out in that regard.
You have to understand those inside Iran are already living a meager experience. They’re under a lot of economic pressure at the moment. But to lead this revolution along, a lot of them are closing up their shops, and striking. Truckers are putting up strikes and we’re hoping, eventually, oil refineries will too. But to be able to expedite the downfall of the regime, we’re going to need to see more and more coordinated action. If there is a striker’s fund in place that will help some of these families put food on their table and that of their loved ones, then it’ll help expedite the downfall. These are some of the things where I can see Western countries at some point being of help.
“But just as Masih Alinejad, who you have much respect for, has already called out, we’re not asking for even the western countries to go and save Iran. We’re just asking them not to save the regime, not to appease them, not to aid them.”
We’re just asking you to support the Iranian people so that they can achieve freedom and democracy. Stop appeasing these regime leaders, and halt any talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal. This is not the time to talk about the nuclear deal, absolutely not. Stop negotiating with this murderous regime. And that’s all the Iranian people are asking from the west.
What about people at home? I rely on people. I follow you, Masih Alinejad, Kaveh Shahrooz, Nazanin Boniadi, IranWire, and many other good people and accounts. There’s a limit of how many you can follow. And I rely on them, people that I trust that I know, and obviously, I follow the news, I get my information. What are some things that you think that people at home could do if they could do anything?
Well they can, as you are doing, follow the news cycles, follow certain individuals that they respect, and retweet. Make your own creative tweets. I know there’s people in the arts world and they’re doing what they can. There are dance troupes that have embodied this revolution and are creating really creative dances. There are artists who have done huge murals, have created sculptures out of the snow, out of bronze. There was this huge art installation called Eyes on Iran at the Four Freedoms Park overlooking the UN at the time when we were trying to kick Iran off the CSW. Iranian artists made this beautiful exposition, a huge eye, which you could see from the sky from an airplane, saying, we’re keeping our eyes on Iran. Everybody’s doing their part. There was a couple of Iranian actresses that mobilized celebrities to put up a sign that says no executions in Iran. Because as you know right now Hillel, there’s over 100 people who are at risk of execution. Four people have already been executed. And there’s two Muhammads who are at risk in the coming days of imminent execution.
Kaveh Shahrooz is part of a group that I’m also part of called Iran Justice Collective. What we’re doing right now is collecting the names of political prisoners and creating a global database so that we can assign sponsors to politicians in the West. They can take on these political sponsorships and share the names of these individuals, so that it puts pressure on the Iranian officials not to go ahead with these executions, to allow them a proper trial. Because right now they’re not even able to get their own lawyers to properly defend them. They’re all sham trials, kangaroo courts, where these people are being given trumped up charges and are at risk of execution. So that’s just one example.
Iranian doctors have come together. There are over 100 doctors who are under the title of Mahsa Medical and they’re providing free medical information to those that have been injured in these protests. Because, as you probably also know, protesters can’t go to the hospitals to get treatment because regime officials are waiting to nab them and take them directly to prison.
Everybody in their own way, is trying to give to this cause. So as an individual watching this, you have to just say to yourself, what are my talents, where can I best give to this cause? Whether it’s showing up at a rally, signing a petition, telling your colleagues in your workspace. As Iranians, we’re experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions from hope to fear. We’re scared about these individuals that are being killed and maimed in this revolution. So just by sharing the information, writing to your own members of parliament and telling your media that this is something that’s important to you that you want kept in the news cycle, and your own members of parliament know is also very important to you. Because I think every one letter that a MP receives, it acts like a hundred voices. So that’s how I view it. I just encourage everybody to be creative. There’s so many ways people can help out.