by Nassrine Azimi

HIROSHIMA— The Nobel Peace Prize this year was awarded to the Iranian journalist and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, currently serving a 10-year prison term, her 13th arrest and fifth conviction by the Khamenei regime. She has not been able to see her husband and children in years.

Narges joins countless other Iranian women steadfastly resisting tyranny: lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, conservation scientist Niloufar Bayani, children’s advocate Atena Daemi, journalist Masih Alinejad and thousands of ordinary citizens — teachers, nurses, physicians, academics and artists — in Iran and in exile. Her mentor and predecessor at the Defenders of Human Rights Center was Shirin Ebadi, who 20 years ago, in a historic first for muslim women, won the same Nobel Peace Prize.

Shirin Ebadi has come to Hiroshima many times, a tireless advocate for the causes that Hiroshima and Nagasaki uphold. During those visits and our conversations I learned first-hand what horrific pressures brave activists like her endure: Shirin and her family were harassed so intensely by the Khamenei regime that she finally had to flee Iran. Such human rights abuses continue and in fact have worsened since last September, when the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed by Iran’s notorious ‘morality police’. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians across the country poured into the streets at the time, to protest the killing, venting their rage at the regime’s impunity by putting their lives on the line. Since then the regime’s crackdown has been brutal — at least 550 protestors killed and tens of thousands, many of them women, youth and even children targeted, beaten, arrested and tortured by the security forces and other elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Families of protestors have been silenced and threatened, forced out of the public eye, some shamefully restrained from even grieving at the tombs of their lost loved ones.

Amnesty International, the UN secretary-general and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran have all increasingly expressed alarm at the level of abuses by the regime, yet with the exception of a few European countries and media outlets such as America’s National Public Radio, Iran International, Deutsche Welle, BBC Persian and the admirable France Culture Radio, most countries and global media have remained silent.

Japan has been mostly silent.

This August the Iranian minister of foreign affairs was welcomed in Tokyo, received by prime minister Kishida and entertained by the minister of foreign affairs. No public references, however diplomatic, were made to human rights, universal values, or transparency. In September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, prime minister Kishida was photographed shaking hands with Iran’s current president, Ebrahim Raisi, known as the Butcher of Tehran for his role in the mass executions of opposition members in the 1980s. Again, nary a word about human rights.

That Japan needs to maintain its diplomatic connections with all governments, even tyrannical ones, is understandable. It has maintained a subtle and constant connection to the Middle East, where it is rightly respected and admired by citizens and governments alike. But are there ways of maintaining and nurturing diplomatic and economic ties, while at the same time taking a stand more aligned with Japan’s own declared democratic values?

Precisely because it is trusted, there is in fact much that Japan can do. It can host more high level conferences on the interlinkages between universal human rights and international peace and security, raising public awareness and interest, and providing a platform to the many outstanding Japanese and other scholars with knowledge of Iran’s history, politics and culture. It can hold out a hand of friendship to Iranian and other activists, academics, environmentalists, artists and business people, who have taken a brave stand against tyrannical regimes. It can spur more applied research through its own public universities, and encourage private and public foundations to engage and raise the bar, to bear some influence on human rights conditions in countries like Iran.

Equally important, Japan can ensure that its territory or its good offices are not used and abused as stomping grounds or tools in the hands of the manipulative Khamenei regime, notorious for harassing and threatening opposition voices even in other countries.

My activist friends in Hiroshima understand that human rights and nuclear security are intertwined: after all the most dangerous and unpredictable nuclear-weapon countries today are Russia and North Korea, both notorious for their abusive domestic human rights records. My friends know that the current regime in Tehran may not be a trusted partner for a nuclear-weapon free world but what they lack is a reliable network of know-how and expertise about the region, that will allow for people-to-people connections, while not serving naively the Iranian regime’s malevolent policies.

It is now widely acknowledged that the real power in Iran is wielded by the incestuous troika formed by supreme leader Khamenei’s circle, his enablers at the IRCG and related security forces, and his executioners at the Ministry of Justice. Through this unholy pact Khamenei has accumulated massive wealth, easily marginalizing the Iranian government’s budget. Already in 2013, in an investigative report (https://www.reuters.com/investigates/iran/#article/part1) Reuters exposed the extent of this vast financial and economic empire, close to 100 billion US dollars at the time, feeding the machinery of what the United States has called the single most important state sponsor of terror. Free from any purview even by the Iranian parliament, this usurped money has led to increasing impunity, mind-numbing corruption, reckless foreign interventions and, increasingly, cruel internal policies that keep patriots like Narges Mohammadi in prison. As Karim Sadjadpour, the Iran specialist at the Carnegie Foundation in New York has written, Khamenei has managed to hold power without accountability, while making the actual government, which still has many competent technocrats in its ranks, accountable without power.

But Iran is a country more than four times the size of Japan, with a young, refined and educated population, rich in a vast array of natural resources, holder of an ancient culture spanning at least 3000 years, an intrinsic part of the Silk Roads. In the 1960s its development rate was on a par with Japan and South Korea (today the three countries could well be on different planets). Mr. Khamenei and his thuggish allies may have destroyed much of that prosperous Iran which, under their watch, has become a dark and sad place that young and old want to flee. Yet despite their uncanny ability to survive, their reign will end. When so many thousands of brave Iranians like Narges Mohammadi are willing to continue protesting, even from jail and at the risk of their lives, the momentum is unstoppable.

For more than a 100 years Iranians have been striving for democracy, rising again and again, despite crushing backlash from tyrannical rulers. The constitutional movement in Iran started at the same time as in Japan. And for many from the Middle East, myself included, the role model for development, not just as an economy but as a society, is Japan. Japan has the wherewithal to stand for what is right. In 1953, when Iran was struggling to nationalize its oil from the shackles of British Petroleum and was placed unilaterally under embargo by Britain, Japan stood by the Iranians. Breaking the embargo the Idemitsu oil company dispatched the tanker Nissho Maru to the Port of Abadan, where it received a hero’s welcome, and brought back Iranian oil to Kawasaki (where it also received a hero’s welcome). Doing the right thing then bore fruits for both nations, and so will doing the right thing now: Japan can stand in solidarity with Iran’s reformers and human rights protestors — and once again be on the right side of History.

Nassrine Azimi has spent most of her career with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), where she led a number of new initiatives, programs and offices on three continents. She currently coordinates the Green Legacy Hiroshima (GLH) Initiative (http://glh.unitar.org), a global campaign she co-founded in 2011 to disseminate and plant worldwide seeds and saplings of the hibakujumoku, trees that survived the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She is an adjunct professor at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts, a visiting professor at Hiroshima Shudo University and a Research Fellow at the San Diego Botanic Garden, where she has been part of efforts to bring botanic gardens to post-conflict and least developed countries. She chairs the EDEN Seminars — Emerging and Developing Economies Network - in Japan.