Iran's prisoner release may signal first push to dismantle security state

The move comes just ahead of President Rouhani's first-ever address to the UN, and is being seen as a message to the West that he is ready to engage.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani delivers a speech during his campaign for the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, on May 2.

Iran today made a surprise release of nearly a dozen prominent political prisoners, including award-winning human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, on the eve of President Hassan Rouhani's first-ever address to the United Nations in New York. 

The release of prisoners held on security charges is the latest signal by Iran’s new centrist government that it aims to fulfill its promises to improve personal freedoms at home and engage the US and the West on nuclear and other issues abroad.

The release resonates particularly strongly inside Iran, where it appeared to mark a first clear act of dismantling what analysts have called the “securitization” of the country: a process that gave increasing power to internal security forces, beginning with the 2005 election of arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and deepening appreciably after his fraud-tainted 2009 reelection and its violent aftermath.

Mr. Rouhani has called his shocking mid-June victory over a slate of conservative candidates the “beginning of a new chapter,” with expectations that the “era of sorrow is coming to an end.” Thousands of Iranians thronged streets across the country to celebrate Rouhani’s win.

In his first interview with US media since his election, Rouhani today told NBC News' Ann Curry in Tehran that a letter he received from President Barack Obama was “positive and constructive.” 

"It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future,” Rouhani said. “I believe the leaders in all countries could think in their national interest and they should not be under the influence of pressure groups. I hope to witness such an atmosphere in the future."

The securitized state became “too counterproductive for the [Islamic regime] at home and abroad,” says an Iranian analyst in Tehran who asked not to be further identified.

“The Islamic Republic needs legitimacy and is and was a regime that has relied on [the support of] people’s votes,” says the analyst. “There are many people who may not like the regime but in the election they vote because many things connect them to the state. Losing people after the 2009 election has damaged the regime strongly and hugely.”

Ms. Sotoudeh was serving a six-year sentence for “acting against national security." Last October she won the European parliament’s top human rights award, the Sakharov prize, which has also been awarded to globally renowned leaders Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sotoudeh defended some of the hundreds arrested for involvement in the 2009 events, and she last year staged a 49-day hunger strike. Inside Iran, her release prompted speculation that Iran’s most recognized opposition politicians would also soon be freed after years of house arrest, an act that would transform the political space inside the country.

“My goals and mentality are the same as before, I haven’t changed,” Sotoudeh told The Guardian of London today in a phone interview after her release. She vowed to continue her work “to restore justice and defend the rights of prisoners.”

Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, 2009 presidential candidates, were accused by Iranian hardliners of seeking to overthrow the regime when they claimed election fraud and led the opposition “Green Movement” to protest. Pro-regime security forces cracked down, with scores killed during months of street clashes.

The freedom of these two men will be a strong indicator of how much reform is possible under the new president. Rouhani said in June that he was “confident” of their eventual release, but at “the right time.”

Some of those prisoners freed today were active in Mr. Mousavi’s election campaign, as well as former officials under reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

Iran has frequently been targeted by the US and Europe for its poor human rights record. In March 2011, months after Sotoudeh’s imprisonment, US President Barack Obama said in his annual message to Iranians that “for nearly two years, there has been a campaign of intimidation and abuse.” Mr. Obama said “hundreds of prisoners of conscience” were in Iranian jails, and listed prisoners including Sotoudeh.

"These choices do not demonstrate strength, they show fear” by Iran’s ruling elite, Obama said. 

Analysts see today's releases as only the latest sign of change coming from Iran. The first was the election of Rouhani himself, despite all predictions; then the fact that jubilation was allowed to spill unhindered onto the streets, after years in which all gatherings were banned or strictly policed. That was followed by approval of many Rouhani cabinet picks who favor Iran’s reengagement with the West and have the experience and apparent top-level support to act.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly ordered all centers of power in Iran to support the new president’s team, and on Tuesday appeared to give further support for changing Iran’s approach to nuclear negotiations and foreign policy.

“I agree with what I years ago called heroic flexibility, because this is sometimes a very good and necessary move," Khamenei said in a speech to the Revolutionary Guard, emphasizing that didn't mean conceding on Iran's basic rights. “Sometimes a wrestler shows flexibility for technical reasons but he doesn’t forget who his opponent is and what his real goal is.”

“Hardliners these days are silent and if [prisoners, and Mousavi and Karroubi] will be freed, they can’t say anything because it is the Leader’s will,” says the Tehran analyst. “There is a huge gap between the state and society, such as you have never seen in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. So the state [Khamenei] wants to restore the connection with society; it is an urgent need for the Islamic Republic.”

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