Last Sunday, the 21st of December, police in the Islamic Republic of Iran raided and closed the office of a human rights organization, the Center of Human Rights Defenders in the Iranian capital of Tehran. The raid occurred just as the Center was having a celebration for the United Nation’s Declaration on human rights and to honor activist Taqi Rahmani.  Nargues Mohammadi, the Deputy Director of the Center described the raid: “Intelligence Ministry ‎agents, the police and plain-clothes forces surrounded our offices that day… Eventually about 10 ‎to 15 of these agents entered the building without warning. We tried to stop them and asked for a warrant. ‎They not only ignored our demands but even verbally attacked and abused me and others. ”

The authorities claim that the Center was operating as a political part without the necessary legal permit and that they had illegal contacts with local and foreign organizations.  The Center counters that it submitted the necessary paper work six years ago and that the raid was conducted illegally since the officers did not have a warrant.  Mohammadi added, “A policeman said he was not obliged to show a warrant because he was wearing a police uniform”.

The Center for Human Rights Defenders is an organization founded by five well-known lawyers.  They report regularly on the human rights situation in Iran, provide free legal defense to ideological and political dissidents, and defense for family members of ideological and political prisoners.  The Centre is particularly well know because one of its founders, Dr Shirin Ebadi, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work for women’s and human rights in Iran.  The group has filed a formal complaint against the closure of the office.  More on Iran’s numerous human rights abuses and international responses after the fold.

Arrests of human rights activists are hardly an uncommon occurrence in Iran. The Feminist School, a website of the One Million Signatures Campaign for women’s rights is reporting that Shahnaz Gholami, a journalist and activist, was arrested on November 9th, 2008 and has not been able to contact a lawyer.  Nonetheless, the closure of the Center of Human Rights Defenders has garnered international attention because of its connect to Dr. Ebadi.

The French Presidency of the European Union has condemned the closure and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has stated that the EU “calls on Iranian authorities to respect their international human rights commitments and the right to peaceful assembly.”  Meanwhile, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said “[w]e believe that these individuals are incredibly courageous to stand up in a society like Iran for the rights of their fellow citizens.”

The closure of the Center of Human Rights Defenders highlights the difficulties that activists for various social movements face in Iran.  The website Iranian Human Rights Voice reports regularly on human rights violations in Iran, including the harassment of Kurdish citizens, the arrests of women rights activists and labor organizers, and disciplinary action against student activists.

These violations are poignant reminders that Iran is very much a police state.  While it claims to be democratic, the regime uses any means it can to limit the scope of political dialogue, often eliminating viewpoints and opinions that it sees as threatening to its constructed status quo.  The United States and Europe, as they consider when and how to engage Iran, should use diplomatic pressure to encourage Iran to not only limit its nuclear ambitions but also clear up its human rights record. If and when diplomatic talks happen with Iran, issues of domestic rights abuses should be on the table alongside questions of nuclear ambitions and support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah.  President-elect Obama would do well to remember that diplomatic relationships cannot be based on strategic self-interest alone.  In our haste to confront a perceived nuclear threat we should not forget that those who are menaced by the Iranian regime are within its own borders.