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Opinion Before going back to Iranian prison, she has a message for Americans

Narges Mohammadi in April 2022. (Photo by Reihane Taravati/Courtesy of Narges Mohammadi)
5 min

Narges Mohammadi, one of Iran’s most influential civil rights activists, is on the verge of being taken to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. Before she is once again placed behind bars for her advocacy, she has a message for Western leaders as they contemplate next moves in negotiations with the Islamic republic.

“The West must respect Iran’s civil society, commit itself to the issue of democracy in my country and help us work toward achieving it,” Mohammadi told me in one of three telephone interviews we’ve had in recent days. “Make human rights a priority in negotiations.”

Mohammadi, 49, has spent most of her adult life engaged in the struggle for rights and liberties in Iran. For her outspoken advocacy in support of abolishing the death penalty and solitary confinement — two of the Islamic republic’s favored tools of repression — and her support for the advancement of women, she has been arrested a dozen times and sentenced in total to more than 30 years in prison and 154 lashes, another barbaric punishment used by Iran’s judiciary.

At any moment, she will be hauled off to begin an eight-year sentence for supposed crimes against Iran’s national security, charges she says are illegitimate and defy the Islamic republic’s own constitution.

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None of this has deterred her.

Despite setbacks to civil society, Mohammadi believes the democratic movement in Iran is as strong as ever, in large part because of the empowerment of women through education, access to better jobs and outreach to communities to modernize archaic practices. But progress has stalled. In fact, it is now facing its greatest threat in a generation, as all branches of the government are coalesced around a group of officials singularly committed to the regime’s most rigid ideals.

Mohammadi believes — as I’ve repeatedly argued in the past — that the approach employed by successive U.S. administrations and our European allies has actually emboldened the Islamic republic’s most repressive elements.

“Economic sanctions, because they weren’t targeted or based on adequate knowledge of the state, weakened Iranians economically more than they weakened the Iranian regime,” she says. “In fact, they strengthened the Iranian regime, and hard-line individuals and groups in the country, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This did not benefit democracy in Iran.”

When then-President Donald Trump decided to pull the United States out of the original international nuclear agreement, all oversight of Iran’s nuclear program was lost, allowing the Islamic republic to barrel forward with its uranium enrichment. Mounting sanctions decimated Iran’s middle class, which is the cradle of civil society in any country, while the blanket travel ban cut off the United States’ ability to engage directly with Iranian civil society, creating ever more gaps in our understanding of Iranians’ everyday struggles.

Now, after a transparently unfair election in which any semblance of competition was rooted out long before Iranians went to the polling stations, the country finds itself in a critical moment. The regime is struggling to meet the basic needs and demands of the Iranian public.

“Right now, we need serious support from the West, from human rights organizations and the international community,” Mohammadi said.

That support has been missing, she argues, including in negotiations over a nuclear deal.

Since the United States and other global powers began talks with Iranian officials in 2013, all parties have stuck to the public narrative that limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities was the only issue under debate. In reality, there have always been other pressure points, Tehran’s treatment of Iranian citizens among them.

In 2014, Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the European Union in the original nuclear talks, insisted she meet with Mohammadi and other women activists during a visit to Tehran. But Enrique Mora, who heads the E.U. delegation, making him the most influential Western leader currently in direct talks with Iranian counterparts, has not made it a similar priority during multiple trips to Tehran, according to Mohammadi.

Mohammadi believes this needs to change: Iranians “are fighting and wrestling with the government, we have paid a hefty price with imprisonment, with people being killed on the street, and with executions, and with freedom of speech being sacrificed … so the West shouldn’t have policies that strengthen the repressive policies of the regime and weaken civil society.”

The Biden administration and U.S. allies should condemn the Iranian regime’s ongoing human rights abuses and target the worst abusers, making it impossible for them and their family members to freely move and conduct business around the world. They should also finally make credible efforts to support a democratic movement in Iran, led by Iranians.

These are two very simple ways to signal to the Iranian people that, irrespective of a new nuclear deal, we recognize their struggle and intend to help, not hinder, it.

Look inside the life of a family whose husband and father is held hostage in Iran. Post Opinions’ new short film shows the ordeal to free him:

When American Emad Shargi is taken hostage by Iran as a pawn in nuclear negotiations with the U.S., his wife and daughters must fight to free him. (Video: The Washington Post)