Abbas Milani is a research fellow and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, and the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) at Stanford University. Michael A. McFaul is also senior fellow at the Hoover Institution as well as director and senior fellow at FSI. Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow and the Mosbacher Director of FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
In recent weeks, moral outrage has been stirred by the barbaric war that Saudi Arabia has waged in Yemen, by the Saudi government’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and by President Trump’s failure to condemn and sanction these offenses, out of concern for damaging economic interests, real or exaggerated. At the same time, however, another human tragedy has been gathering in Iran, and it is one we might still avert, before it is too late.
One of Iran’s most important dissidents, Farhad Meysami, a physician by training, is slowly, silently but defiantly dying in an Iranian prison. Meysami is a modern-day Mahatma Gandhi, dedicated to nonviolence, courageous in his defense of transcendent moral values — human rights in Iran and particularly equality for Iranian women — and ascetic in his aversion to worldly profits.
As Amnesty International reported in October, Meysami has been on a hunger strike since Aug. 1; he started immediately after his arrest for having campaign buttons in his house opposing the mandatory veil for women. On more than one occasion, he had praised Iranian women’s peaceful protest against the hijab as a brilliant contemporary example of a nonviolent movement of civil disobedience.
A graduate of Tehran University’s medical school, Meysami gave up the medical profession to teach biology to high school students and help them realize their full potential. Some of Iran’s best and brightest — many of whom are now shining stars in Western academic institutions — were his students. He also launched a highly successful publishing house, focused on books to help students better prepare for school. In his introductions to these books, his message was that leading a moral life was far more important than mere academic excellence. When he decided to become a full-time human rights activist, he shut down his publishing company instead of selling it at a handsome profit to a successor who might distort its purpose.
The moral clarity of Meysami’s call for nonviolent human rights activism, his unwavering willingness to pay even with his life for his nonviolent goals and his unimaginable suffering through a hunger strike now in its fifth month — which has left him in a virtual coma, force-fed by the regime -- should have by now made him an icon of the human rights cause around the world.
Unfortunately, however, gripped by the region’s other terrible tragedies, and perhaps numbed by the institutionalized depravity of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world has taken little note of Meysami’s brave and tragic ordeal. Iran’s rulers, emboldened by the impotent Western reaction toward the barbarism in Yemen and Khashoggi’s brutal murder in Istanbul, have simply had their repressive way. National strikes by teachers, workers and truck drivers in Iran, and a long litany of arrests and executions of activists by the regime, as well as the increasingly dire economic situation, have combined to domestically overshadow Meysami’s case. And the world has been distracted by the mounting list of other urgent foreign policy and human rights concerns.
However, the Saudi regime is not the only one responsible for grave crimes against human rights in the region. Beyond its own destructive involvements in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen (and in other regional conflicts), Iran remains one of the most extravagant violators of the rights of its own people. Meysami is now the face of resistance to this oppression. And silence in the face of oppression is a form of complicity.
Iran’s theocratic and military leaders understand the language of power, and righteous moral outrage, globally expressed, is one way of asserting power. A modern-day Gandhi is on the verge of death in Iran unless there is an urgent and powerful expression of moral condemnation — by concerned citizens, human rights activists and organizations, and most of all, governments around the world that claim to care about human rights.
All of these actors — and especially democratic governments — should demand the immediate release of Meysami to independent medical care, before he becomes one more martyr in the long and painful struggle for freedom by the Iranian people.