As Human Rights Continue to Deteriorate in Iran, Regional Tensions Escalate

Antonio Graceffo


The human rights situation in Iran is worsening the plight of its citizens. Meanwhile, the unchecked power of the country's supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is causing instability across the Middle East. With Iran becoming more assertive, especially as it amasses nuclear materials, it poses a serious threat to global peace and security.

Last year, Iran witnessed its highest number of executions in eight years, with 843 individuals hanged by the regime. Shockingly, an Iranian woman received 74 lashes for a Facebook post depicting her without a hijab. The human rights landscape in Iran has continued to decline steadily.

In 2022, Mahsa Jina Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman, was arrested by the morality police for violating dress codes and died while in custody. Her death stands as a pivotal moment, marking an escalation in the government's oppressive tactics and pushing the populace to a tipping point. Despite facing severe reprisals from the authorities, the Iranian people have responded with public protests, underscoring their resilience against government brutality.



The news of Amini’s death ignited a surge of protests, swiftly quelled by the government through brutal measures. Security forces fired metal pellets and live ammunition, resulting in hundreds of fatalities and thousands of arrests. Investigators suspect that security forces deliberately aimed teargas canisters and pellets at protesters' faces, with the intention of causing blindness, leading to 120 individuals suffering complete or partial loss of vision.

Human rights groups have documented an alarming increase in cases of torture, ill treatment, and unfair trials targeting activists, journalists, and minorities. Numerous individuals are detained merely for expressing dissenting opinions. The government imposes severe restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, assembly, and religion. Women encounter discrimination both in legal statutes and everyday practices. Ethnic and religious minorities frequently face persecution, while the rights of the LGBTQ community have seen a sharp decline. Cases of forced disappearances are reported, with detainees subjected to torture and denied access to medical care. The state has resorted to extreme measures such as amputation and blinding as forms of punishment.

Iran's internal dynamics create a vicious cycle. The harsh crackdowns by hardliners to maintain control lead to domestic instability. Citizens, resenting the oppressive treatment, are more likely to protest, particularly amid economic hardship. This unrest, coupled with international sanctions, deters most foreign investment, except from countries like China and Russia, which prioritize economic interests over human rights concerns. Unlike the US and Europe, which might condition aid and investment on improvements in human rights or quality of democracy, China and Russia do not impose such requirements. Consequently, Iran faces little pressure to change its behavior.



This lack of international pressure enables Tehran to further mistreat its population, leading to increased marginalization by the global community. This, in turn, triggers more sanctions, reduced investment, and worsened economic conditions, fueling further protests that the government suppresses violently. Thus, the cycle continues.

Internal unrest or the absence of genuine democracy in Iran is having ripple effects on neighboring countries. One of the most significant threats posed by Iran to the international order is its nuclear program. Concerns regarding potential weapons development emerged in the 2000s. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is intended solely for civilian energy generation. As a result, a coalition of world powers, including the US, UK, France, China, Germany, the European Union, and Russia, engaged in negotiations with Tehran in 2015, culminating in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal. The primary objective of the JCPOA was to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. This aimed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons while permitting the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities. Essentially, the agreement placed limitations on Iran's uranium enrichment and stockpiles in exchange for relief from sanctions.

Presently, the JCPOA is not in force. The US withdrew from the agreement in 2018, during the Trump administration, prompting Iran to breach its limits. Iran opposes the US withdrawal and demands the lifting of sanctions, arguing that the US violated the deal first. The US seeks stricter controls on Iran's nuclear program before considering rejoining, citing concerns about Iran's ballistic missile development. The situation remains unresolved, with ongoing negotiations to determine the future of the JCPOA.

However, the conflict in Ukraine and unrest in the Middle East have led to a realignment of alliances, with Russia and China now backing Iran. In light of Iran's deteriorating human rights record and its support for foreign terrorist organizations, the US is less inclined to renegotiate the nuclear deal. Moreover, it is presumed that Tehran will face minimal opposition to advancing its weapons development, as two members of the UN Security Council possess veto power over any UN intervention efforts.



While Iran’s nuclear program remains a potential threat for the future, the current and tangible issue lies in the actions of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard and its support for foreign fighters. In Iraq and Syria, U.S. military personnel have faced attacks from terrorist organizations and militias backed by Iran. Additionally, the Houthis, based in Yemen, are actively targeting ships in the Red Sea, causing disruptions to international commerce. Amidst the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, Somali pirates have resurged, seizing ships in the Gulf of Aden and the waters surrounding the Horn of Africa.

The United States has designated Iran’s IRGC as a terrorist organization, highlighting its role not only in causing harm outside Iran, but also as the primary tool of repression utilized by the country’s supreme leader to intimidate and oppress the Iranian people.

Regrettably, aside from imposing sanctions and issuing stern admonitions, the international community finds itself with limited options to alter the situation in Iran. The US and its coalition partners continue to carry out targeted strikes on Iran-backed groups in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere, yet such actions are unlikely to dissuade Tehran or prompt the supreme leader to permit free, multiparty elections or grant additional rights and freedoms to the populace. Genuine change in Iran may only come about through a war involving the international community, a scenario fraught with complexities and potential civilian casualties, possibly resulting in Iran becoming another destabilized Iraq.

Alternatively, change could occur if the Iranian people collectively decide to no longer tolerate the abuse and isolation imposed by their government and rise up against it. While this represents the most promising avenue for change, it remains unlikely, given the formidable power wielded by the state.

Author Bio:

Antonio Graceffo, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a Ph.D. and also holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. He works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books include: The Wrestler’s Dissertation, Warrior Odyssey, Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion, and A Short Course on the Chinese Economy.


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