Keeping an Eye on Iran

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified one of the founders of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. The New Journal appreciates this correction to our online records.

– Julia Calagiovanni and Eric Boodman, Editors-in-Chief, March 2015


Just over six thousand miles separate New Haven from Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Late last year, a new organization—the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC)—was founded with the intention of bridging that gap. The Center may seem like just another entrant into New Haven’s bustling non-profit scene, but it is distinguished by its singular mission: to monitor human rights abuses in Iran from an office overlooking the New Haven Green.

It is odd enough that the organization, which has no formal Yale affiliation, is located in New Haven. That it chose to make its home at 129 Chapel Street only adds to the Center’s enigma. For years, the Chapel Street building’s offering of single- room offices with rent payable by the month has attracted an unlikely crew of tenants: solo attorneys, independent financial advisers, the odd parish office. The Center has the distinction of being the only international human rights organization in residence. It has clearly not come for the low-budget accommodation: Last year, the IHRDC received one million dollars in funding from the U.S. State Department, nearly a third of the $3.5 million earmarked for democracy promotion in Iran.

The Center, which is forthright in its aims (witness the frankness of its name), reveals on its website that it is interested in documenting human rights abuses in Iran solely since the Islamic revolution of 1979 ushered the current, staunchly anti-American regime into power. It’s no surprise, then, that some Yale students and faculty members reacted with suspicion to news of the Center’s opening in December 2004. They worried that the Center would merely concern itself with building a case for U.S. military intervention in Iran.

Opposition to the government in Tehran, after all, is a growth industry. In February, Condoleeza Rice announced the Bush Administration’s intention to expand funding for Iranian democratization from its paltry $3.5 million allotment in 2005 to $75 million this year. With so much money in the budget, strange things might happen: A new cadre of Iranian freedom fighters might emerge overnight; Dick Cheney might begin professing grave concern for Middle Easterners’ rights and safety; and an Iranian version of Ahmad Chalabi—the exiled Iraqi expatriate who famously fed politicians and journalists information to support the invasion of his homeland—might set up shop right across the Green, here in the heart of sunny New Haven.

As it happens, few if any of those events have come to pass. The IHRDC’s founders claim that their timing, like the Center’s location, was a fortunate coincidence: The three Iranian-American founders—Drs. Ramin Ahmadi and Payam Akhavan and Roya Hakakian—met in New Haven in 2003 and hatched the idea for the Center soon after. Their one million dollar grant came in 2004 from the State Department’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund, which distributed over $48 million last year and cites the entire “Muslim world” as a regional priority. According to co-founder Akhavan, the support they have received only demonstrates that not everyone in the U.S. government is in favor of overt regime change in Iran. It was the more “progressive elements” of a diverse State Department, he posits, that opted to back the Center’s peaceable project.

Like the IHRDC’s other supporters, Akhavan is adamant that those who scrutinize the present Iranian government’s human rights record are not all seeking to justify an invasive foreign policy, and that some may wish to document its abuses for entirely different reasons, which they claim, are divorced from politics. “When there are strong interests at play, human rights often become instrumentalized for questionable ends,” Akhavan acknowledged. The problem is not “that no one is speaking about human rights in Iran. The question is: ‘Is there really a genuine commitment?’ And: ‘Is there really an appreciation that a culture of human rights is not just about regime change?’”

To overcome the murmurs of skeptical Yale liberals, the Center will need to show that any similarity between its agenda and that of the Bush administration is purely coincidental. Once it does that, the real work can begin.

* * *

Two types of organizations are already at work documenting human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic. First, there are the behemoth, wellestablished monitors like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that research and publicize human rights abuses in countries around the world, including Iran. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the hundreds of websites, blogs, and smaller organizations devoted to denouncing the Iranian government. For the first sort, objectivity is the key to establishing credibility. Organizations of the latter type, however, make no claims of neutrality. The IHRDC appears destined to keep a foot in each camp. Though its board is staffed with well-known human rights experts, it also plans to rely on testimony from the four-million- strong Iranian-American diaspora to gather and disseminate information-including accounts from exiles who make no bones about their opposition to the Iranian government.

Yet what really makes the New Haven Center unique, according to Executive Director Mora Johnson, is its narrow focus and legal and historical expertise. The Center employs two Iranian historians, as well as a handful of lawyers who specialize in human rights. Their goal is to collect documents and testimony from existing sources and then to compile reports with a level of detail that broader organizations do not have time to include in theirs. The detailed reports— and the material on which they are based—will be published in both English and Farsi and eventually made available on a searchable archives to aid policymakers, journalists, scholars, and students, both in Iran and abroad.

The Center’s goal is abstract, and its success so far is difficult to gauge. The first reports, due to be published between May and July, range in topic from the treatment of Iran’s Baha’i population in the 1980s to the recent death of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi while in police custody in Tehran. These are not novel subjects. But to the Chair of the Center’s Board of Directors, Yale Law Professor Owen Fiss, that is exactly the point: The reports will take a fresh look at old debates on topics such as the state repression of Iran’s Baha’i population. Long available but never closely examined, the information in a forthcoming report on the Baha’i should give form and substance to longheld suspicions. From these documents, Fiss explained, “We could see this wasn’t just vengeance but a systematic policy to exterminate or repress the Baha’i… All the world has known it is uncomfortable for Baha’i in Iran, but this evidence is really chilling.”

Fiss added that the difference between those two levels of understanding is more than semantic. Many of the worst state-sponsored crimes of the last century only came to light after the fall of the governments that perpetrated them. By that time, observers and politicians around the world could safely throw up their hands and claim to have never suspected how egregious the offenders really were-and thus did not recognize how strongly they ought to have been condemned. Now, in Iran’s case, Professor Fiss hopes, “That excuse will no longer be available.”

* * *

On the surface, Iran seems the last country in need of this added degree of scrutiny. The government in Tehran has one of the most harshly criticized human rights records in the world. The country was put under one of the most far-reaching sanctions in U.S. history in 1996, and President Bush has singled it out for censure in every State of the Union address since 2002. In December, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Iran’s continued human rights violations, from the nation’s use of torture to public executions and lack of due legal process.

Yet the IHRDC is not the lone voice calling for a more thorough inspection of the country. History Professor and Iran specialist Abbas Amanat—who is not affiliated with the Center—agrees: “Although it has been done somewhat unprofessionally by others,” he said recently, “it has never been done by people who really know what they’re doing, and with proper funding.”

* * *

Professor Abbas and others agree that one of the Center’s greatest challenges lies in the fact that though Iran does attract a lot of attention (and censure) in the foreign policy arena, only a small portion is focused on the regime’s human rights abuses. Concerns about nuclear proliferation, the stability of Iran’s huge oil supply, and the country’s alleged support for terrorist groups all tend to dominate discussions of U.S. policy towards the country. The IHRDC’s attempt to insert human rights into the debate places the organization alongside Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in the uphill battle those established organizations have waged for decades.

The other overwhelming challenge for the Center will be to avoid supporting a particular political agenda. To maintain neutrality, Johnson and Fiss both understand they will need to diversify their funding base. Presently the majority of financial backing continues to come from the U.S. government— which is no coincidence. European governments, to which the Center is also appealing for support, have never been as strident in their opposition to Iran. Nor would the U.S. government likely have been so generous had the Center been investigating human rights abuses in a percieved backwater, like Cameroon, or ally, like Saudi Arabia. “If you demonstrate the human rights abuses of the present regime [in Iran] and those of the past, that might have the byproduct of supporting certain positions the government takes,” Professor Fiss acknowledged. “But you can’t help that.”

Still, the IHRDC’s founders would be hard-pressed to argue that, at its core, the organization does not possess a certain animus for the government in Tehran. Julia Huang, a Yale sophomore who has lived in Iran and still visits regularly, realized this at the Center’s opening last December. At the time, she was interested in working there as a translator or researcher, but decided against doing so when she sensed the group’s opinion on the current government in Iran. “I just didn’t want to associate myself with a group that was actively trying to find negative aspects of what the Iranian government was doing,” she stated. “It’s hard enough for me to get visas into Iran.”

Board members may claim that this antagonism is the natural byproduct of general support for human rights and international law, but the frequent comparisons they draw between the Tehran government and murderous regimes in South Africa, the Soviet Union, and even Rwanda do little to support their claims of political neutrality. Though they may not advocate forcible regime change, they are not averse to strongly condemning Iran’s government—as long as it is for the right reasons.

“The government has a terrible human rights record,” Johnson explained.

The concurrence of this view with the political agenda of the U.S. government may not go so far as to discredit the organization among scholars—but it will certainly restrict the Center’s reach and appeal to those inside of Iran. The IHRDC’s staff and board members, the majority of whom are Iranian-American, acknowledge this limitation. Though Johnson admits their present emphasis is, by necessity, on witnesses and source material available outside the country— information as readily accessible in New Haven as anywhere else—they are working with some activists inside Iran. In this way, Fiss envisions the office on the Green as a “bridge of information” carrying information into and out of Iran.

Akhavan recalls how his impulse to establish the Center near Yale was partially inspired by the University’s prolific tradition of genocide documentation. The Cambodian Genocide Documentation project is run through the Yale Center for International and Area Studies, and the University’s library is home to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. Like the IHRDC, these projects often collect documents to help create an accurate historical narrative. “You can’t use them if they don’t exist,” explained English Professor Geoffrey Hartman, advisor to the Holocaust Testimonies project.

Professor Fiss offered similar reasoning. “It’s tricky what you can do in international human rights from a law school,” he said. In the absence of hands-on clinics or courts, documentation and legal analysis is the service that scholars and lawyers can best provide.

As a former advisor to the special court in Sierra Leone Johnson has confidence in the project’s utility. “The tyrants of today are in the prisoner’s dock down the road,” she said, predicting possible future uses of the Center’s research. When power finally does change hands in Iran, a new government might call for an investigation of past abuses. And while lawyers like Fiss tend to doubt that an Iranian court or international commission there would accept an outside organization’s work, it might be useful to those gathering official evidence. “You never know where the work you do today is going to end up,” Johnson mused.

Paige Austin, a senior in Davenport College, is Senior Editor Emeritus of TNJ

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