After nine years of talks, this month saw a deal finally reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the group of P5 +1 countries - China, France, Russia, the US, the UK and Germany - on nuclear and economic sanctions. 

As part of the deal finalised in Vienna on 14th July, Iran agreed to halt its nuclear enrichment program in return for the lifting of sanctions by the US, UN and EU that have been in place for the past nine years and that have isolated the country and negatively impacted its economy.

"The recent nuclear deal may be a victory for the Iranian Government, but for many in the country, their future remains uncertain. It is therefore, imperative that as the international community returns Iran fully into its fold, it also presses them to fulfil its human rights obligations and ensures that Iran guarantees freedom, justice and equality before the law to all its citizens."

"The recent nuclear deal may be a victory for the Iranian Government, but for many in the country, their future remains uncertain. It is therefore imperative that as the international community returns Iran fully into its fold, it also presses them to fulfil its human rights obligations and ensures that Iran guarantees freedom, justice and equality before the law to all its citizens."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the deal “historic”, while US President Barack Obama said that it would ensure that “every pathway to a nuclear weapon had been cut off” for Iran. While most of the international community was quick to welcome the deal, there seemed to be a worrying omission from the coverage - namely the issue of human rights in Iran. Perhaps this was convenient, given the fact that Iran’s poor human rights record has seen little or no improvement under Iran’s supposedly reformist president, Rouhani. 

Following the announcement of the nuclear agreement, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, who continues to be denied access to the country, quickly turned his attention to Iran’s deteriorating human rights, urging Rouhani to “focus on his other campaign pledges, specifically those to promote the enjoyment of all human rights by the Iranian people”. And he has good reason; under Rouhani there has been a surge in the use of the death penalty, while repression against political activists, human rights defenders, journalists and ethnic and religious minorities remains.  

Of particular concern is the acceleration in the use of the death penalty under Rouhani.  As stated in CSW’s report on the death penalty , Iran now executes more people per capita than any other country in the world. Since 2014, more than 1,000 people have been executed - with 753 executed in 2014 alone - amounting to the highest number of executions for 15 years. Of further concern is the fact that Iran continues to execute the majority of its citizens for offences not deemed to be capital offences, such as drug-related offences. It also continues to hang minors - including 14 in 2014 alone – and women, as well as carrying out public hangings.  

President Rouhani gained strong support after running on a more moderate platform than his opponents. He promised to free political prisoners and has previously spoken on behalf of women and religious minorities, citing the need for ‘reconciliation’ and ‘moderation’. The early releases of Christian-converts Maryam Jalili and Mitra Rahmati in September 2013 led to early optimism. 

However, despite these signs of progress, evidence of a definitive change in policy is yet to be seen and a large number of Christians face criminal or security-related charges simply for practising their faith. Many Christian prisoners like Benham Irani and Saeed Abedini remain imprisoned. In 2014, St Peter Anglican Church in Tehran was forced to announce that Farsi-speaking Christians could no longer attend services; a convert to Christianity was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment on charges of ‘Christian evangelism’ and a group of Christians were arrested during a picnic and subsequently charged under the ruse of “action against national security”. Eskandar Rezaie, who was a member of this group, was summoned in July 2015 to serve his sentence and is currently imprisoned at Adelabad Prison. Bijan Farokhpour Haghighi, another member of the group, is likely to be imprisoned soon.
 
In his October, 2014, report to the UN General Assembly, UN special rapporteur Shaheed stated that as of August 2014, at least 300 people were detained in the country because of their religion or belief, despite government attempts to justify their imprisonment by charging these people with security-related crimes. Among those detained are 126 Baha’is, 150 Sunni Muslims and 49 Christians. 

Members of the Baha’i faith - Iran’s largest religious minority - have also been actively targeted. They are denied legal status and since 1979, over 200 Baha’i leaders have been killed or executed, with thousands more imprisoned. Bahai’s are also denied access to further education and employment in public services. 2013 saw the first religiously motivated murder of a Baha’i in 15 years, following a speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei a week earlier that denigrated the community. In February 2014, three members of a well-known Baha’i family sustained knife injuries when a masked assailant attacked them in their Tehran home. This year marked the 7-year anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha'i leaders, each of whom is serving 20-year sentences on charges of “forming an illegal cult”. 

Article 23 of the Iranian constitution states that "The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief". Iran is also a signatory to various international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which stipulate the right to freedom of religion or belief. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be something Iran seems committed to ensuring or abiding with. The recent nuclear deal may be a victory for the Iranian Government, but for many in the country, their future remains uncertain. It is therefore, imperative that as the international community returns Iran fully into its fold, it also presses them to fulfil its human rights obligations and ensures that Iran guarantees freedom, justice and equality before the law to all its citizens. 

Kiri Kankhwende is a press officer for UK-based Christian religious freedom advocacy Christian Solidarity Worldwide.