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Human Rights and Religious Freedom in Iran

  • WHAT: Washington Foreign Press Center On-The-Record Briefing

  • WHEN: Thursday, December 19, 2019 at 3:30 p.m.

  • BACKGROUND: A briefing discussing human rights and religious freedom in Iran with Robert A. Destro, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran; and Samuel D. Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.

    On Thursday morning, December 19, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo will deliver remarks on human rights in Iran at the State Department. Immediately following Secretary Pompeo’s remarks, the Department will host a panel discussion with survivors of the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses, along with Assistant Secretary Destro, Special Representative Hook, and Ambassador Brownback. This FPC program will provide an opportunity for Q&A with the above briefers.




MODERATOR:  Welcome, everyone, to the Washington Press Center.  My name is Cheryl Neely.  We’re pleased to have all of you, as well as our special guests here to discuss human rights in Iran. 

The ground rules are that this is on-camera and on-the-record.  And first, I’ll introduce our briefers.  We have Robert Destro, Assistant Secretary of State with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to my far right.  Then we have Brian Hook, Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State in the middle.  And here we have Samuel D. Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Office of International Religious Freedom.  And of course, they’re all from the U.S. Department of State.  Their full biographies were linked in your invitations, so please see those links if you need more information.

So we will start with brief opening statements, and then open it up for question and answer.  Thank you.


AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thank you all for being here.  Appreciate you being here.  The Secretary of State hosted this seminar, the meeting this morning, to highlight the horrific track record of Iran on human rights. 

In the particular space I work in, on religious freedom, the Secretary announced today that Iran is again being designated a Country of Particular Concern this year, that designation just issued today of Iran.  It is one of the worst actors in the world on religious persecution.  It persecutes virtually all of its religious minorities, and they – in many different ways and aspects, and increasingly so.  And so they’ve garnered this title yet again, of a Country of Particular Concern.  That is sanctionable.  That’ll be something that’ll be determined later on, although right now the maximum sanction policy is in place, and that’s being pushed forward.


Two things I’d like to quickly point out that came out of the seminar today.  Maybe some of you caught it that were watching it.  Number one, we’re going into a time of year, of Christmas, where it’s pretty frequent that the Iranian regime will round up and arrest leading Christian figures going into Christmas as a way to upset, I guess, the activities that they have – have, or have planned.  And we call on the Iranian regime not to do that.  This is something they claim in their own constitution to have, religious freedom, and yet it’s not practiced, and this is something that takes place on a regular basis.  Did last year, did the year before.  And we really believe this is a wrong thing to have happen.  We would ask that it, again, be considered not to do that this year, that you just round up people on the Christmas season.

The second thing is on the internet.  They’ve shut down the internet.  And obviously, a lot of people, including religious people, use the internet.  For it not to be shut down, for it to be allowed to be open, for people to be able to use the internet as they would see fit.

The – we had a number of other things that came forward.  One final thing I would say that we – in the reaction group that I met with in the morning, we – each of us met with different Iranian groups.  They were pointing out that the sanctions are really working.  It’s impacting the regime substantially.  And the pressure that this administration’s putting on them, I think we can all say will continue until this regime returns to the normal fold of nations and participates as a normal nation would in the global community.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Well, again, let me also thank you for coming.  We look forward to hearing your questions.  As you know, as the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, I’ve got the Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor portfolios. 

And so this morning we spent some time talking with a number of labor leaders, international labor organizations, about the plight of workers in Iran and some very, very serious problems.  The rate of unemployment is pretty staggering.  The rate of part-time work is pretty staggering.  The economy is collapsing in large part because the Iranian Government is suppressing the creativity of its own people.  I mean, all you have to do is look at the success rates of the Iranian diaspora communities here in the United States, in the UK, in Canada – they’re incredibly dynamic, successful people.  And the Iranian Government could have that, too, if they would just let up on its own people.

The Secretary’s speech was, I thought, particularly notable in several respects, one of which was the level of specificity with which he spoke about individual cases.  And it’s not simply individual cases of people who were oppressed or killed by the regime; he mentioned those, too.  But the really – the new innovative thing that happened today was the first designation of specific Iranian judges for human rights violations.  That’s new, and something that has been debated within the State Department for quite some time.  And of course, my own view, being somebody who in my past career teaches legal ethics and teaches about judicial ethics, is that a judge who really is not a judge – the issue is are the judges independent or are they not independent.  And the Iranian judges were on what they call revolutionary courts.  They’re not independent.  They’re much more like party hacks than they are like real judges.  And as a friend who is a high-ranking religious leader in Iran has pointed out to me, he says, “Look at the Quran.  It says the judge who does not do justice is himself an evildoer.”  

And so what we were doing, what the Secretary was doing this morning, and what we were trying to echo is to call on Iran to live up to the promises it’s made to its own people – in its constitution, in its ratification of the International Labor Organization charter, and in the laws that it has on its own books. 


And the other thing I think that was particularly significant with the Secretary’s comments is how positive they were.  It’s like – it’s almost like a – look, we can open the door to this embassy.  You just have to stop mistreating your own people and live up to your bargains. 

And we have the – as much – there’s been much said and written about the JCPOA, which I’ll leave to Brian Hook, because he’s the acknowledged expert in all of that stuff.  But from the perspective of human rights, I can tell you that if I make a contract with you and I intend to live by it it’s because we see each other as equal human beings.  And so if you don’t live by your contracts, that means you think less of the other person that you’ve been in a relationship with.  So my big thing has been let’s put the human part back in human rights and look at the kinds of relationships we should be developing with not only the people but also with the Government of the Islamic Republic. 

So I’ll turn it over to Brian now.


MR HOOK:  I just want to mention one thing, that one of the judges that was sentenced today – I mean that was sanctioned today, I should say – is Judge Salavati.  And this is a judge who had put both Xiyue Wang and Jason Rezaian in prison.  And after winning the release of Xiyue Wang, I was able to spend some time with him, and he talked about Judge Salavati and his – he is notorious in Iran for sentencing people to jail and to death.  This includes political prisoners, journalists, and human rights activists. 

I think it’s very important for the journalistic community, for journalists to be exposing people like Judge Salavati.  It is important that people – that I think the press cover just how many lives he has either ended or ruined by sending them to jail, especially the journalists.

And what we’ve done today is to expose it.  And so today we sanctioned two judges, because they are a tool of the regime, and they enable the regime to crack down and to oppress and kill peaceful protesters, journalists, and the like.

So we had – in the protests, we had as many as 1,000 killed.  We’ve had 2,000 injured.  Over 7,000 are in jail, and we’ve called for their immediate release for – this regime has a history of harvesting the bravest of protesters and then putting them in prison, where very often they’re killed, and then the regime will claim that they commit suicide.  This is another regular sort of tactic that the regime uses, and including to environmental activists, who have also died in prison with the regime claiming they committed suicide.

So we’ve also put visa restrictions for current and former senior Iranian officials, because we don’t want them or the children of the regime elite coming into the United States and enjoying the benefits and the freedoms that they can enjoy here but the Iranian people are denied by their government. 

We’re happy to take some questions.


MODERATOR:  Okay.  So we’ll open it up for question and answers.  We will be using the ceiling mikes.  We will not pass microphones.  You will not hear each other through the speakers, so please state your question somewhat loudly so your colleagues can hear you.  We may have questions from the New York FPC from Skype.  And I ask all of you to please identify yourself with your name, outlet, and country before you ask your question.

We’ll go here.


QUESTION:  Yes.  Thank you very much for hosting this important briefing.  I’m Kawa Khdr from Kurdistan 24.  Actually, I have two questions.  The first one is to Mr. Hook, and the other one to His Excellency Ambassador Brownback.   Sir, Brian, there are still hundreds of humanitarian organization reports that saying that up to today that the Iranian Government regime is still arresting and kidnapping activists, especially the ones like you mentioned.  They are powerful and they have publicity. 

So regarding this, I do know that United States is very concerned about this, but the question is: To what extent United States were able to persuade the international community to do something regarding this, especially Kurdish activities that every single night they kidnap them and arrest them?


My second question to Mr. Brownback.  One of Iranians influence in Iraq, which is very concerned by the Iraqi people with still also ongoing in Iraq’s field, is passing drugs to Iraq, fighting or cutting the Iraqi community by this terrified weapon.  So what extent also the United States is concerned about this to having talks about the Iraqi Government to help them to find a way for cutting these ways, which is across the borders between the Iranian proxies happening every day and led Iraq to a very, very critical situation?  Thank you.


AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  I think that’s really one for you more, Bob, than – isn’t it, if it’s a drug issue?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Well – you mean its a drug issue?




ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Yeah.  I mean, I think that anytime there is government complicity in the drug trade, we’re really not dealing with governments anymore; we’re dealing with organized criminals.  And so I don’t have access to the data that you’re talking about, so I can’t talk about it in general.  I’ve heard about it, but all I can say here is what I’ve heard, not what I know.  So I think I’ll stay pretty carefully.  And if they’re in the drug trade, that’s not normal government business.  That’s criminal behavior. 


MR HOOK:  On the first question, we think that it’s very important after the brutal crackdown, the deadliest crackdown in this regime’s history, far exceeding anything that happened under the Shah, that we think now is the time for all nations to be diplomatically isolating the regime and its key figures and sending a message that it’s not going to be business as usual with the regime. 

We think that governments should be identifying individuals as we have and sanctioning them.  Now is the time to be identifying the regime officials who are responsible for the crackdown.  For example, just within a few days of the protests, we imposed sanctions on the minister of Communications and Technology, who is responsible for taking down the internet.  We have now sanctioned two judges who have been sentencing human rights activists to prison or to death.  Other nations need to be standing with the Iranian people and doing what they can to isolate the regime and sanction its members.


QUESTION:  Thank you.


MODERATOR:  Okay.  We’ll take the next question from New York.  I see someone at the podium.  I believe that’s Mr. Mehta.


QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  My name is Manik Mehta.  I am a syndicated journalist.  There is an Islamic summit being held currently in Kuala Lumpur with the presence of Iranian leader Rouhani.  How do you see this Islamic summit?  Would you see this as a rupture in the OIC, as many U.S. commentators are saying?  I would like to have your take on this, please.  Thank you.


MR HOOK:  I myself don’t have a take on it because I’m not in charge of the OIC, and I don’t want to wander outside of my lane.  I don’t know if Secretary Destro or Ambassador Brownback have any views.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Well, I don’t have any knowledge about the internal politics of the OIC.  What I can tell you is that when I was in Geneva two weeks ago, I had lunch with the OIC ambassadors there and asked the question: How do we get the United States and the OIC working together to advance the cause of human rights coming from within the Islamic tradition?  I don’t see a meeting like this as helpful in that regard, but your – as I understood your question, it was what’s our take on – has the OIC split?  I can’t address that.  But what I can tell you is that entertaining a human rights violator is not a very good sign. 


MODERATOR:  Okay.  Next question here in D.C.  Hardi.


QUESTION:  Yes, hello.  My name is Hardi.  I’m from NRT, Kurdish news TV.  I have a question.  My question is since the U.S. withdrawal from nuclear weapon, there is no any, like, formal or any official relationship between Iranian Government, including the Kurdish opposition parties.  Is there any attempt or any plan that U.S. might be contact with those Kurdish political parties in the area?  Just like how you have contact with the Kurdish political parties in Kurdistan Region and in northern Syria, is there any plan to make a relationship with those Kurdish political parties in the area?


MR HOOK:  That really – that is probably a question for the assistant secretary for the regional bureau that handles that for NEA, and so I would defer to David Schenker on that.


MODERATOR:  If you’d like to send that question to Doris, we can follow up afterward.  If you want to ask a question, please raise your hand high because I’m having trouble seeing you. 



QUESTION:  Yes, thank you very much for your presentation.  Alex Raufoglu of Turan News Agency.  I have three questions, actually.  Is the administration trying to take the case Iran, let’s say, dossier, to the UN Security Council at some point?

My second question:  Do you have anything about Azerbaijanis living in Iran?  Have you heard of them – any human rights violations targeting Azeris in Iran?

And number three question:  When setting all these sanctions back to back against Iran, do you – I know this administration doesn’t like setting redlines, but is there any redline for Iran’s – let’s say friends in the region like Azerbaijan, like Russia, or others in terms of how to avoid U.S. sanctions when setting up their relationship with Iran?  So is there any redline for them as well?


MR HOOK:  Why don’t I do the first and third question, maybe.  On the first one, Iran did attack Saudi Arabia on September 14th.  It was a direct attack.  And today in the UN Security Council, Ambassador Craft presented recent evidence demonstrating that Iran is responsible for the attack on Saudi Arabia.  That is a violation of the UN charter.  It violates the sovereignty of another country.  We do think there is a role for the Security Council to play today.  It is being discussed.  But I think, as the countries that are involved with the site exploitation conclude their investigations, that that will be presented to the UN Security Council, and then it will be up to the Council on what action that they think is appropriate to take when one country violates the sovereignty of another country with military force.

On the third question on redlines and sanctions, we sanction any sanctionable activity, and that’s just a policy, and it’s applied universally.  There aren’t any exceptions to it.  And this administration has now sanctioned, I think, either – we’re either near 1,000 or over 1,000 individuals and organizations.  And in some case, it’s sort of directly sanctioning Iranian individuals and entities, but then it’s also secondary sanctions.  The Department of Justice recently announced prosecution against some individuals who were facilitating parts to Mahan Air.  Mahan Air is the airline of choice for all – for Iranian terrorists and arms dealers.  And any person or organization that is supporting the operations of Mahan Air, we sanction.

And so this is a policy we’ve had in place now for a while of primary and secondary sanctions, and so we don’t – we don’t really make exceptions to that.


AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  On the – I’ll take the Azeri piece of it.  The Azeris are – I hear different figures – somewhere in the low 20 percent, so a third of the population of Iran, are of Azeri descent.

The problem with what a lot of times that Iranians do in my space is any – any group that’s a minority, even if it’s a substantial minority, they deny them their entire rights unless you will – you will fly within the regime’s picture of what an Islamic state has to look like, practicing Shia religion the way they define Shi’ism has to be practiced.

So in that sense, the Azeris receive the same sort of persecution that almost any other population group does.  If they decide they want to be in a different branch of Islam, they’re persecuted.  If they’re – if they decide they want to convert to another faith, to be Zoroastrian or Christian, they’re persecuted.  If they’re Baha’i Azeris, they’re persecuted.  It’s just – it’s this complete lack of tolerance.  And one of the things that – this is such a dead-end road for the Iranian country and the Iranian people.  This declines your economy, this creates more terrorism, this creates more dissent within a country when you operate this way, and yet they’ve chosen not only to do it, but to up their game; now, on this latest crackdown that Brian spoke about, the most that they’ve ever done.

But that’s also the trajectory that you have to stay on if you’re the Iranian regime, because as more and more people get more and more dissatisfied and willing to act out more and more, the stakes get higher and more people get killed, and that’s why it needs to end.


MODERATOR:  Okay.  Did I see one on this side of the room?





MODERATOR:  No – okay. 


QUESTION:  Hi, my name is Kanwal Abidi.  I’m from Pakistan.  I report for online news publication AZB.  So before I ask the question, I would like to state one of the rituals of Iran – Iranian men that they indulge into a temporary marriage, which is called mut’ah.  So that is being misused, and the local media in Baluchistan reports that women are being exploited and smuggled – Pakistan and Iranian mother through this mut’ah.  And the domino effect that all the illegitimate child, they are then thrown into the child labor.  So what is U.S. stance on it, and is it in your notice?  My first question:  Is this thing in your notice that women are being smuggled into Iran because of this temporary marriage?


AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yeah, the – that wouldn’t be in my portfolio, I mean, for – as far as the human trafficking aspect of it.  But it’s not unusual.  It’s pretty typical if these sorts of factors are lining up that you’re going to see more and more human trafficking taking place. 


MODERATOR:  Okay, next question in the back here.


QUESTION:  Thank you so.  My name is Watanabe from Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.  My question is for Ambassador –


AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Could you speak up just a little bit?





AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  We can’t hear you.


MR HOOK:  There.  We can’t hear you.


QUESTION:  My question is for the Ambassador Hook.  So Iranian President Rouhani will visit Japan tomorrow, or at the U.S. Eastern time, and then he would meet our Japanese Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo.  So could you give us your comment or expectation on that summit meeting?


MR HOOK:  President Rouhani’s government murdered as many as a thousand peaceful protestors, injured 2,000, and jailed over 7,000, and so what message is being sent to the families of the dead, the injured, and the jailed when Rouhani is received by another country?


QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  I am Rahim Rashidi, or Mr. Kurd, from Kurdistan TV.  As you know, in last demonstration in Iran, the majority – strong majority of demonstrator we heard saying no Islamic – no Islamic Republic of Iran.  That’s mean that strong majority of Iranian people looking for regime change in Iran.  And same time, you don’t have any plan for regime change.  Any comments about that and how you can help Iranian people?


MR HOOK:  Well, we have helped the Iranian people by giving voice to their demands for a more representative government, and that is a reversal of the prior administration’s policy, which gave voice to the regime’s policies and views.  We’ve stood with the Iranian people.  We’ve sanctioned their oppressors.  We support their demands for a more representative government.  And many of the things that we’re asking the regime to stop doing are the same things that the Iranian people are asking them to stop doing.  They are tired of their national wealth squandered in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and terrorism across five continents over the last 40 years.  They would like to have a government that is more responsive to the people instead of the proxies.  And these are all legitimate demands.

I think the Iranian people have been, over many, many decades – even over the last century – working toward a government that truly represents them.  And these last 40 years will not be remembered as a government that represents the people.  And so – but – and all of that said, the future of Iran will be decided by Iranians.  It will be decided by the people.  It will not be decided by the United States Government. 

We have put in place the strongest economic pressure in this government’s history, and we have also stood with the people in ways that are very innovative, very creative, and very consistent.  And we will continue to do that.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  I think when you look at what the Secretary had to say today, he was responding basically to your question.  And the Iranian Government themselves will say do you want to change the regime, or do you want to change our behavior?  The Secretary was very clear this morning:  He wants them to change their behavior, because it’s not the role of the American Government to change the Iranian Government.  I mean, it’s – if we really believe in democracy, the Iranians have to shoulder that burden themselves, but it’s going to be very, very hard to do that the more repressive the regime becomes.


MODERATOR:  We have time for one or two final questions.  I want to see if there is another one from New York.  Okay, anyone who has not asked a question yet.

Yes, go ahead.


QUESTION:  Okay.  Ahmed Al Hazeem from Al Jazeera.  My question is regarding that maximum pressure campaign that the U.S. has mounted on Iran is not just targeting the change of behavior of Iran in – toward its people, but also its influence in the region and especially Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries.  But recently, the U.S. State Department announced that it’s going to downsize the diplomatic mission in Iraq by almost 28 percent.  Do you feel that this downsizing will leave a vacuum that only Iran maybe can benefit from in Iraq?


MR HOOK:  I don’t have any comment on our staffing change.  Our levels go up and down, but the mission doesn’t change.  The Secretary has been very clear that he has been standing in support of the Iraqi protesters.  Many of these protesters have been killed by elements of the Iranian regime.

And so – and you also see many of the things that people are protesting in Iran against the government, the people in Iraq and Lebanon are also protesting against the corruption, the lack of transparency, the squandering of national wealth, the declining standard of living, always being dragged into these sectarian wars.  The Iranian regime would like to dominate Baghdad and all of Iraq.  And so we’re as committed as ever, and I wouldn’t overread any decisions made about the staffing levels that are at our embassies.


MODERATOR:  Okay.  We’d like to thank all of our briefers for coming today, as well as the journalists.  And with that, the event has concluded.  Thank you very much. 

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U.S. Department of State

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