Ahmadinejad speaking at the UN general assembly
For decades it was the standard rallying cry of the Soviet Union and its sympathizers: that behind the West's rhetorical wall of concern for human rights lay a closet rattling with the skeletons of double standards and hypocrisy.
Now the time-honored Cold War tactic has become the new weapon
of choice for Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, in a counteroffensive aimed
at restoring the Islamic republic's battered image and throwing the West's
criticisms back in its face.
But where the Soviets countered critiques about labor camps and political prisoners by focusing on issues like civil rights, mass unemployment, and the conflict in Northern Ireland, Ahmadinejad has gone instead for the personal touch.
Visiting New York this week for the annual opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, he has contrasted the extensive Western media coverage of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, to that given to a Virginia woman, Teresa Lewis, who faces imminent execution for ordering the murder of her husband and stepson.
"A woman is being executed in the United States for murder but nobody protests against it," the Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted Ahmadinejad as telling a meeting of Islamic figures on September 20.
The 41-year-old Lewis -- whose case has been taken up by the Iranian parliament's human rights committee -- is scheduled to die by lethal injection on September 23, after the U.S. Supreme Court on September 21 upheld her execution. She will become the first woman to undergo the death penalty in Virginia for 98 years.
She was sentenced to death after being convicted of providing sex and money to two men to kill her husband and stepson so she could collect a large insurance payout. Campaigners have pled for her to be spared on the grounds that she has severe learning difficulties.
Invoking the "Western media storm" over Ashtiani, who has also been convicted of colluding in her husband's murder, Ahmadinejad said: "There are 3.7 million Internet pages about this woman. Her case is not yet final, yet Iran is being heavily attacked."
In an earlier interview with the U.S. television network ABC, he denied she had ever faced a stoning sentence. Ashtiani's execution has been suspended following an international outcry but her family fears she could still be put to death by hanging.
The alleged parallel between Lewis and Ashtiani is not the only attempt at drawing a moral equivalence between U.S. and Iranian actions.
On September 19, Ahmadinejad called on the United States to make a humanitarian gesture by releasing eight Iranians he said were "illegally detained." The comments followed Iran's release on bail of Sarah Shourd, a hiker who had been held for 13 months and accused of spying after straying into Iranian territory from neighboring Iraq. Two other Americans, Shane Bauer -- Shourd's fiance -- and Josh Fattal remain in Iranian custody and face a possible trial.
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based group International Human Rights in Iran, says Ahmadinejad's effort to compare the U.S. detainees with convicted Iranian inmates in the United States may have backfired.
"I'm very surprised that he is explicitly coming to New York basically as a hostage-taker," Ghaemi says. "When he brings the issue of American hikers and puts them on par with exchanging them for Iranian prisoners here, he shows that the remaining hikers are really hostages because they have never been convicted of any crime there [in Iran]. And he is giving the signal that they will not be released until the Iranians who have been convicted in court are freed."
According to Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, Ahmadinejad's accusation of double standards is drawn from a blend of Islamic tradition and straightforward, leftist, anti-Western polemic.
"In Islamic tradition there is an art of polemic that even the Koran uses against its enemies and they call it 'jadad.' It means that you use your enemies' arguments against your enemy and you don't need to actually believe in those principles," explains Khalaji, a former Iranian seminary student.
"So when the West is talking about human rights, the Iranian government criticized the West for double standards, they criticize the West for violating human rights. What they want to say is that human rights is basically not a genuine concern for the West but [instead] it's a political means to pressure countries that challenge the power of the West."
Even Ahmadinejad's supporters acknowledge that his expressions of concern for Lewis are motivated by political rather than humanitarian concerns. Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American-Iranian Council and an advocate of rapprochement between Iran and the United States, says Ahmadinejad may have erred in trying to associate Lewis with Ashtiani's plight.
"I personally don't think he genuinely cares about this lady, but this is politics and he is trying to say that the West is using double standards, using the case of a woman being stoned in Iran so big, but being ignorant of this [case] in Virginia," Amirahmadi says. "But for Mr. Ahmadinejad, it is important to note that these are not always comparable. Stoning a woman for adultery against a woman here that may have murdered someone is not comparable. So, yes, sometimes the West uses double standards but I think it is not always fair to extend that argument to every case."
Not Seeing The Forest
Whatever the motivations, Ahmadinejad's embrace of Western human rights discourse could have a positive spinoff, Khalaji believes, in serving to make the regime less brutal. By not daring to publicly justify stoning or admit that it does not respect human rights, the argument runs, the Iranian authorities are tacitly accepting restraints on their behavior.
Yet Western media and politicians may still be playing into the government's hands by focusing on individual cases rather than what Khalaji believes is the key issue -- the subjugation of Iran's judiciary to the whim of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"What we see is the political dependence of the judiciary on the leader. That's the main difference between the judiciary in Iran and the judiciary in Western countries. We should not just highlight some court sentences," Khalaji says.
"That can be misleading because it can be counterargued by this sentence in Virginia. The difference between a court in Virginia and a court in Tehran is that no political official is able to influence the decision of a judge in Virginia. But in Iran, it would be surprising if none of the political officials were interested in crucial decisions made by judges."
But with Ahmadinejad lapping up media attention on his New York jaunt, Ghaemi -- who says the president has blatantly lied about human rights in U.S. television interviews -- has another prescription: better advance preparation by the journalists interviewing him. Prominent interviewers have allowed Ahmadinejad to get away with verifiably false declarations and implausible denials, he says.
"Unfortunately, the journalists are not preparing properly and are not following up. They should really have the evidence backed up," Ghaemi says. "For example, with the stoning case, the evidence from the lawyers and the sentencing [should have been presented]. Hard evidence existed and it should have been waved in his face."
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