Iran Frees Prisoners Ahead Of UN General Assembly


Nasrin Soutoudeh

Nasrin Soutoudeh

CREDIT: United Nations

In the latest in a series of positive signals from the Iranian government, a number of Iranian political prisoners were released, including human rights attorney Nasrin Soutoudeh. The move comes less than a week before Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Sotoudeh was arrested in 2010 and jailed for six years on charges of acting against Iran’s national security. She was also among those imprisoned activists that President Obama named in his 2011 Nowruz message to Iran.

In a statement, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran welcomed the release, and called upon President Rouhani to “continue to take concrete steps towards improving the urgent human rights situation in his country as he prepares to address the United Nations.” Specifically, ICHR encouraged Rouhani to allow the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, to visit the country. Shaheed has not been permitted to enter Iran since the post was created, with significant lobbying by the United States, in 2011.

These kinds of prisoner releases are not totally unprecedented. In 2011, two American hikers were released by Iran days ahead of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressing the UN. But they are significant as the of a steady stream of positive messages coming out of the new Rouhani administration.

As a candidate, Rouhani ran on a platform promising more “constructive interaction” with the international community, and strongly criticized the government’s management of nuclear negotiations over the past six years, which he said had resulted in increased isolation and economic difficulty.

Both Rouhani and his newly installed Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, have taken to social media to promote their new approach. “My gov[ernment] has prioritized achieving stability & security in [the] region. If invited to conference on Syria in Geneva, we’re ready to cooperate,” Rouhani tweeted on August 22. “Iran is committed to international regulations including NPT & all nuclear activities take place under IAEA supervision,” he tweeted on September 10.

Two weeks ago, Rouhani and Zarif communicated greetings to the world’s Jewish community for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. “As the sun is about to set here in Tehran, I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah,” tweeted Rouhani on September 4. “Happy Rosh Hashanah,” tweeted Zarif later that day. These remarks are in stark contrast with the anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying rants of the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as the threatening anti-Israel rhetoric of other members of the Iranian elite.

Earlier this week, the Iranian government confirmed that President Obama and President Rouhani had exchanged letters, as revealed by President Obama in an interview over the weekend. Previous letters from Obama to the Iranian leadership in 2009 and 2012 had been addressed to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the key decision-maker in Iran’s government.

Importantly, Khamenei indicated yesterday that Rouhani has his backing for his diplomatic efforts, which is essential if negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are to have any chance of success.

In a recent interview with Telemundo, President Obama acknowledged the shift in Iranian posture. “There are indications that Rouhani, the new president, is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States, in a way that we haven’t seen in the past,” he said. “And so we should test it.”