The lament that human rights was not on the agenda when the United States and Iran recently met in Geneva for historic talks was right and proper. It must be understood, however, that for Iran, the issue of religious liberty (as defined by the West) is simply not negotiable.
The regime in Tehran imprisons witnessing Christians, particularly Farsi-speaking former-Muslims, because it is desperately determined to eliminate fitna – literally "chaos" caused by temptation/anything that could shake the faith of a Muslim. Because nothing shakes the faith of an oppressed, miserable Muslim as much as a thriving, joyous apostate, converts from Islam must be made miserable/unattractive. The apostaphobic mullahs fear that if Iranians think they can leave Islam with impunity, then they will – in droves, resulting in chaos, at least for the mullahs.
Iran's mullahs, like all Islamic dictators everywhere and throughout history, regard the threat posed by apostasy as so great that religious liberty is summarily dismissed. If the regime chooses to use a prisoner as a bargaining chip, it will do so because Tehran wants to extract something from the United States. But it won't change the reality on the ground.
Iran is following in the footsteps of its close ally, North Korea, for whom nuclear weapons have proven to be the ultimate deterrence, shielding Pyongyang from external threats and from human rights scrutiny. Following the example of the belligerent dictators in Pyongyang, the belligerent mullahs in Tehran provoke the outside world with one hand, while feeding their citizens a constant diet of fear and paranoia with the other: "Listen, the whole evil world is against us". . . "See, we are existentially threatened on all sides!"
Like Pyongyang, Tehran creates enemies for the purpose of legitimizing repression, sustaining isolation and rallying the masses around an unpopular regime. The regime has worked this way from the beginning. At the cost of many thousands of Iranian lives, the mullahs and Revolutionary Guards even prolonged the Iran-Iraq war just to consolidate their power.
Ali Alfoneh, writing for Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2013), notes, "Threats to annihilate Israel, rivalry with Sunni Arab states, systematic provocations against the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with its clandestine nuclear program, have left Tehran largely isolated and friendless in a dangerous world. The regime hopes to rally a fragmented nation around the flag by maintaining Iran in a permanent state of crisis, just as it did during the Iran-Iraq war. Yet in the midst of the crisis, political factions, in particular the Revolutionary Guards, sacrifice the welfare of the Iranian nation on the altar of their own narrow interests, following the exact path as in the 1980s … Absent external enemies, how else can Iranian leaders legitimize their repression of internal opposition?"
The United States and its 1998 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act, which gave dictators a reason to rein in hostile elements, have lost ground due to economic and political reasons, while Iran has gained heft in the region. To be sure, the "Arab Spring" morphed into an Arab Sunni ascendancy that has threatened to take a massive bite out of Iran's most important geo-strategic alliance: the Shi'ite Crescent of Russia-backed Iran/Iraq/Syria (Assad)/Hezbollah, a Persian Shi'ite axis also known as the "arch of resistance"/Resistance Front. It stands opposed to the Israel/U.S./NATO-backed Saudi Arabia/Qatar Sunni Arab axis.
But Iran regained ground again this year after Sunni setbacks. First there was the July 3 military coup in Egypt and subsequent Aug. 14 crackdown/massacre that reversed the Muslim Brotherhood's fortunes and trajectory. Then, in September, when U.S. President Barak Obama failed to follow through on his threat to bomb Syria (thank you, God), thereby rendering the United States a toothless tiger in the region's eyes, the balance of power shifted decisively.
The conflict in Syria has always been an asymmetric conflict. As the weaker force, the rebels have relied on foreign backing. After months of stalemate, the tide turned on June 5, when the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), supported by Hezbollah, liberated the strategic city of Qusair in Homs, close to the Lebanese border. The rebel situation deteriorated further through July as the SAA advanced its Operation Shield of the Capital. In retreat, the rebels' only hope was a U.S.-NATO intervention: i.e., airstrikes that would change realities on the ground. Their hopes were lifted, only to be dashed.
The United States has been seeking rapprochement with Iran since the "election" of President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate in appearance if not in reality. When the White House realized the degree to which U.S. airstrikes would not only scuttle rapprochement with Iran, but ignite the whole region, it began back-peddling and has been back-peddling ever since.
In November 2007, at the height of the Iraq civil war, the US needed Iran, for Iran was the only power able to rein in Iraq's Shi'ite militias, ending the cycle of sectarian violence. Now, with the Syrian crisis at a critical stage, the United States again needs Iran, for the Iran-led "Resistance Force" is the only one capable of preventing Syria from descending into total al-Qaeda hell. U.S. meddling in Iraq and Syria has achieved exactly the opposite of what was intended. It has empowered Iran.
The U.S. government has lost its leverage, the United Nations is powerless and Iran is ruled by a ruthless, desperate regime that must eliminate fitna, and indeed all domestic and international challenges, if it is to survive.
In the deepening darkness it might appear as if the gates of hell are closing over Iran, but actually it is the shadow of the Cross. The Spirit of God is moving among the Iranian people, both in the diaspora – where Iranian churches are growing and Farsi worship rings out – and inside the repressive Islamic state, where faith is costly.
Political leaders, diplomats and indeed all people of influence are called to "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute" (Proverbs 31:8, NIV), regardless of whether they have leverage or not. Never underestimate the power of truth.
Christians, meantime, must realize that this is a spiritual battle. As such, the solution was never going to be found in the worldly means of military might, political power, economic leverage or strategic alliances. Rather, the solution will be found in the church as Spirit-filled men, women and children of faith rise up, spiritually armed, and turn back the battle in the strength of the Lord (2 Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:10-18; Zech. 4:6; Isaiah 30:15). As hope in politics dims, may hope in the Lord burn brighter.
By Elizabeth Kendal
Elizabeth Kendal is a religious liberty analyst (Religious Liberty Monitoring), an adjunct Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at the Melbourne School of Theology, and the Director of Advocacy at Christian Faith and Freedom (Canberra). Her book, "Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today," was published by Deror Books in December 2012.