Latest Case Studies/ Field Note

Providing Analysis of a Closed, Secretive Country in Crisis

A single word offered Hadi Ghaemi his first hint that change might be imminent in his native Iran.

Forupashi, Persian for collapse.

He spotted the word in a series of essays from a well-known Iranian economist a couple years ago. Then he began hearing it from the mouths of other Iranian commentators. This was well before a 22-year-old Kurdish woman died in police custody in Tehran, triggering women-led nationwide protests often met by brutal violence from security forces.

Executions of Protesters Continuing. (Photo courtesy of Unsplash)

This was well before a 22-year-old Kurdish woman died in police custody in Tehran, triggering women-led nationwide demonstrations often met by brutal violence from security forces.

“The references to the concept of forupashi—that everything is falling apart—revealed a mood,” said Ghaemi, an internationally recognized expert on Iran and human rights who cofounded the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) in 2008.

That Ghaemi could read these tea leaves so easily is a credit to the years he has spent absorbing the voices and attitudes of his countrymen to provide accurate information and policy guidance globally while helping defend civil society, and why The Rockefeller Foundation wanted to give a general donation to CHRI, along with a second donation to Amnesty International, at this moment of crisis on Iran’s streets.

The use of the word indicated Iranians were feeling fully unsupported by their system – not only politically, but also economically, legally, and socially, Ghaemi said. “This helps explain why the death of a young, unknown woman triggered this major moment for women’s rights, human rights and political change.” It was, essentially, the last straw.

This Time is Different

Anti-regime protests in Iran are not new; in 2009, the Green Movement, sparked by massive fraud in the 2009 presidential election, brought millions of people to the street until authorities cracked down. This time, the protesters’ main slogan is “Women, Life, Freedom,” indicating a more generalized and profound opposition to the Islamic Republic’s totalitarian system.

Any semblance of choice in elections has evaporated and political corruption has grown while Iran also has faced economic stress, including double digit inflation—about 90 percent for food, according to the Statistics Center of Iran—and a high unemployment rate, Ghaemi noted.

The court, ruled by judicial interpretations of Islamic law, have become a political tool, unable to provide Iranian families with recourse or accountability, he said.

CHRI poster. (Photo courtesy of CHRI)

To top it off, “all women feel the subjection imposed on them by oxygenarian men. When Mahsa Amini died, literally every family could relate.”

  • We are at a critical turning point. The future is not certain. But what is becoming clear is there is no turning back.
    Hadi Ghaemi
    Executive Director at the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran

Amini and her family, from northwest Iran, were visiting the capital city when morality police arrested her on Sept. 13, 2022, for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab and showing part of her hair. Two hours after she was taken into police custody, she was hospitalized in a coma. She died three days later.

Since her death, more than 500 people had been killed by security forces as of January 1, 2023, more than 19,000 arrested in at least 134 cities and towns, and two executed. Under Iranian law, protesters can be charged with “waging war against God.”

Meanwhile, the nine-person CHRI team has focused ceaselessly on its three-pronged mission.

Providing Research and Analysis

“We want to bring out news from Iran in real time in a credible way, and in a way that the media can digest and use,” Ghaemi noted.

Journalists and others have turned to CHRI during the current crisis. Ghaemi and the organization had been cited some 7,000 times in international media by the end of 2022, providing not only news but analysis about what is happening in this closed country.

“Because there is literally no international access on the ground, and because Iran is often misunderstood, we have defined this as one of our most important tasks,” Ghaemi said.

Hadi Ghaemi Interviewed on CNN. (Photo courtesy of CHRI)

Developing Policy Recommendations

CHRI makes recommendations to both governments and multilateral institutes. For instance, CHRI has been engaged in dialogue with the Biden administration for the last two years, and many of their suggestions have been incorporated in U.S. government policies on Iran.

They are focused not only on the United States and Europe, but also on Africa, Asia, Latin and South America.

Hadi Ghaemi at Human Rights Council special session on Iran, when a Fact Finding Mission was established, Nov. 24, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Hadi Ghaemi)

They also actively advocated for the landmark U.N. resolution that established the first-ever independent fact-finding mission on Iran that will investigate the deadly crackdown on protests, working through March 2024.

“We work with U.N. mechanisms on human rights regularly, providing them with reports sometimes daily,” he said. The advocacy role is especially important when there are so many competing global priorities.

Empowering Civil Society

The third part of their mission is to support activists and human rights organizations in Iran by amplifying their voices internationally. For instance, they recently amplified on social media the words of Iranian film director Mani Haghighi, responding to news that the Islamic Republic’s annual Fajr Film Festival would resume in a few months as scheduled.

“We are in mourning. We are obliged to visit our friends in prison…in the four corners of this country, we are burying our loved ones,” Haghighi is quoted as saying. “We do not have time to dance for you.”

At the same time, CHRI seeks to empower activists who have had to flee and resettle elsewhere. “We want to make sure they do not lose their ability to impact the situation on the ground,” Ghaemi said. “We are a bridge between Iranian civil society and the outside world.”

CHRI Poster. (Credit CHRI)

Philanthropy has a Role to Play

“When Mahsa Amini was murdered, the Iranian regime cracked down on internet access, imprisoned journalists and worked tirelessly to ensure little communication left Iran’s borders,” said Eileen O’Connor, Senior Vice President of Communication, Policy and Advocacy at The Rockefeller Foundation. “For Iranian civilians who had taken to the streets for basic human rights, accurate information sharing was a lifeline. CHRI offered that to a global audience.”

Ghaemi agrees and believes this is a crucial rallying moment for Iran. Philanthropy, he said, has an urgent and decisive role to play.

“We can have impact now, so it’s the time to invest,” he said. “In general, philanthropy should always support civil society so that centers of power have checks and balances. But right now, if they are given support, civil society will define the future of the country. And this is critically important not only for Iran, but for the entire region.”

A Life in Two Worlds

Ghaemi, born in Shiraz in southcentral Iran, lived through the 1979 Iranian Revolution and moved to the United States to complete his education in 1983. He last visited the land of his birth in February 2004 and cannot safely return now. “I do truly feel schizophrenic at times,” he said. “Much of my tangible life is in Brooklyn, but virtually I am living in Iran.”

That double life has brought its share of stress in recent months. “Despairing days—there have been quite a few,” he said.

Street Scene in Tehran. (Photo courtesy of Nahal Mottaghian)

He singled out Nov. 16, 2022, when 9-year-old Kian Pirfalak was killed after his family’s car got stuck in traffic and security forces opened fire on the vehicle. His father was also wounded; authorities claimed the vehicle was attacked by “terrorists.”

Kian loved building robots. His family shot a video of him showing a science project, which he opens it with the words “in the name of the God of the Rainbow.” After his death, the video went viral; protesters globally began carrying placards showing pictures of rainbows.

Ghaemi also mentioned as emotionally hard the days he has learned of teenage girls being killed by security forces, and the executions of protesters. “Ninety percent of my friends in Iran are in jail,” he said.

But he says the large spontaneous protests have brought him hope. “Whatever political system follows this,” he said, “people have made clear. Claiming their fundamental rights is their ultimate aim.”

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