Iranians prove effective lobbyists in UN human rights debate

These days, when the Iranians talk, people listen. And, to the West's chagrin, Iran's powers of persuasion at the United Nations are expected to pay off. Although a draft resolution expressing concern about human rights in Iran is expected to win in a key committee vote today, it's margin of victory will be relatively low. This, despite widespread reports of gross human rights violations in Iran.

The vote is only one of hundreds that will take place at the UN this session, but it illustrates two phenomena: how the Iranians operate here and the political difficulties the UN runs into in its human rights work.

``The Iranians are exceptionally effective lobbyists,'' one Western diplomat says. ``They have everyone over a barrel.'' Says another Western diplomat, ``They use charm, threats, and carpet-merchant techniques. They will now even lobby women diplomats.''

The other Islamic nations fear Iran, diplomats say, because of its size, strategic location, large oil reserves, and calls for greater Islamic fundamentalism. Though the Islamic nations are expected to vote against the resolution - partly also as a show of religious solidarity - many privately express embarrassment and dismay over their fellow Islamic nation's alleged abuses.

Regarding the Soviet bloc, the Iranians have cut a deal: You be ``absent'' from the Iran vote and we'll be ``absent'' from the Afghan human rights vote, diplomats here say.

Most African and Asian nations are not expected to support the resolution. The Latin Americans are divided. Generally, say diplomats, most third-world countries don't feel strongly enough about human rights to be willing to defy Iran. Respect for human rights is still in many ways a largely Western concept; some would call it a luxury, considering the more basic issues of survival many developing nations face. And some developing nations fear that perhaps next year it will be they who are under scrutiny - and in need of votes.

``In a fishbowl like the UN, the moral high ground loses,'' according to one Western diplomat.

According to this diplomat, the Iranians have contacted a lot of third world countries, offering the carrot of aid and the stick of an oil cut-off.

The Western nations, in planning to vote ``yes,'' have also made political considerations. The US has kept a low profile during deliberations and is not a co-sponsor of the resolution. Western nations agree that the Iranians could turn it to their advantage if ``the Great Satan'' (the US, in Iranian parlance) played a high-profile role. Western diplomats also say that the news of US-Iran arms dealings has hurt the West's own lobbying efforts on the Iran vote.

Politics has also affected France's role. Last year France was a cosponsor. This year, concerned about terrorism and French hostages in Lebanon, it is not. Spain is also not a cosponsor, because of trade ties with Iran and its large Iranian exile community.

On the Iranian side, the chief lobbyist against the resolution is Tehran's UN Ambassador Said Rajaie-Khorrassani. He argues that the UN report on Iranian human rights is incomplete (it cites no evidence of abuses) and provides no basis for an accurate assessment. Few would argue with this. The Iranian also contends that the resolution's special mention of the situation of Iran's Bahai religious minority constitutes meddling in Iran's religious affairs. This argument gets sympathy from both African and Islamic nations.

Iran also argues that it is being unduly picked on, given that the General Assembly is considering the human rights situations in only four other countries, given that reports indicate human rights violations are going on in many other nations. Though most people here would agree that the UN's human rights work is politicized to some degree, many diplomats argue that the confidential process of collecting data and voting on which countries to highlight at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva is fairer than it is given credit for.

Some diplomats argue that, in the end, the actual wording of the resolution has little bearing on how the voting goes. ``Human rights have got very little to do with what goes on in this [committee] room,'' says one longtime UN observer. ``It's an East-West issue and a North-South issue.''

As for the wording of the resolution, the Bahais, at least, would be extremely upset to be removed. It might win two or three votes, but the ``price to the Bahais would be very high,'' says one diplomat. ``It would send a signal to Tehran that the world has lost interest in them.''

Gerald Knight, the Bahai representative here, says he believes continued UN attention to the Bahai situation has saved countless lives. ``Summary executions are way down,'' Mr. Knight says. ``International opprobrium counts for something, even with Iran. If it didn't, why would the Iranians work so hard to defeat [the resolution]?''

Knight cautions against too much cynicism over the UN's human rights efforts. He cites ``dramatic progress'' during this decade alone, in terms of building up UN credibility in this area. It was only in this decade, for example, that the General Assembly took up resolutions on human rights in specific countries.

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