Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
The Iranian military advanced in the streets of Shiraz, about 600 miles south of Tehran, shooting protestors where they stood. It was 1979, and the Iranian people were rising up against the reigning monarchy in a widespread movement that immobilized the country. Though protests and strikes had shut down the country’s schools, 11-year-old Hadi Ghaemi found “enlightenment in the streets.” When the citizens overthrew the secret service building, he was among the first to enter, and what he saw there would inform his life’s work: “You could see the prison cells, torture instruments—the physical evidence of the way students and political prisoners were treated.”
In the uprising—known as the Iranian Revolution—protestors were fighting for their fundamental human rights: freedom of expression, thought, religion, and dissent. “The collective idea of a post-revolutionary Iran was a place where peaceful dissent and criticism would be tolerated, and journalists, writers, artists, intellectuals would not go to jail and be tortured just because they challenged the official narrative of the state,” says Ghaemi (GRS’96).
The revolution raged for more than a year until the monarchy was supplanted by the Islamic Republic, which proved even more repressive. The ideals the Iranian people had fought for “unfortunately did not come to bear fruit,” Ghaemi says, “and to this day, my generation and people born after the revolution are fighting to reach a semblance of achieving this ideal.” Now, Ghaemi fights this battle as the founder of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. The New York–based nonprofit documents rights abuses in Iran, working with governments and the press to raise awareness and push for policy changes.
Ghaemi didn’t plan on a career in activism. As a child, he loved science, and when it seemed the Iranian universities would never reopen, he left his home country in 1983 to pursue an education. At the age of 15, with the support of his family, he traveled alone to the United States, where his older brother, a graduate student, helped him enroll in high school. Ghaemi excelled, and eventually earned a doctorate in physics from BU, before becoming a tenure-track professor specializing in nanophysics at the City University of New York.
But Ghaemi began to rethink his promising career following the terrorist attacks of September 11. “The violence it unleashed on the United States and its impact on reorienting foreign policy toward the Middle East was very powerful in my mind,” he says. “The war with Iraq started, and there was a lot of chatter that Iran should be the next country to be invaded.” As an Iranian American, he was compelled “to bring my understanding of both societies to the foreign policy arena and contribute to the way policies throughout the region are decided.”
In 2002, Ghaemi joined a United Nations–commissioned fact-finding mission to Afghanistan; two years later, he became Human Rights Watch’s foremost analyst on Iran. While the efforts of those groups are invaluable, Ghaemi says, their interests span the globe; Iran, he believed, needed a dedicated organization. In 2008, he founded the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to fight for the same freedoms his people had championed in the 1970s.
“Yes, unfortunately they are exactly the same,” he says, noting the right to peaceful dissent without fear of imprisonment, torture, and execution as the foremost among them. Citizens who criticize the Iranian government’s policies in public or online can receive lengthy jail terms. In 2015, female artist and civil rights activist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for posting critical drawings on Facebook, and another female activist, Atena Daemi, was given 14 years for her social media posts and her participation in peaceful protests.
“They are making examples of key people, and I’m very concerned, especially for the women of Iran” who are leading the fight for an improved standing in society, Ghaemi says. Women make up more than 60 percent of the country’s college graduates, yet Amnesty International reports that their lives are valued at half that of a man. Ghaemi points to 2003 Nobel Peace Prize–winning lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi and Stanford professor Maryam Mirzakhani—the first woman to win the Fields Medal in mathematics—as paragons of the “accomplishment and determination of Iranian women against all odds.” These women “are the most vibrant, educated part of the society. We are trying to defend their rights so they are not just treated equally, but have the ability to progress.”
The campaign helps Iranian refugees flee persecution, coordinates financial assistance for urgent medical needs, and works to free activists from prison, among other on-the-ground crusades. Since 2009, it has helped expedite the asylum cases of nearly 300 activists. One of these is 32-year-old Frazaneh (not her real name), the mother of two young girls who was arrested for challenging the state’s policies on women’s rights. Frazaneh was interrogated and tortured for four months; when the beatings induced health complications, she was released on bail to seek medical treatment. She fled with her daughters to Turkey, where the campaign is providing the family with financial assistance and helping Frazaneh navigate her asylum case.
On the policy side, Ghaemi has found that his science education serves him well; he uses his analytical, detail-oriented approach to data “to document the human rights situation in Iran in a professional and objective way.” In 2010, for example, the campaign developed a report on the Iranian government’s practice of censoring television content by jamming international satellite broadcasts. Ghaemi collaborated with engineers and satellite technicians, researched internet technology and censorship, and investigated electronic eavesdropping and monitoring. The report, he says, was “neither emotionally nor politically motivated or tainted.” With support from the UN, the campaign succeeded in banning the Iranian government’s interference with international satellite signals, though Ghaemi says the struggle to keep the Iranian government from violating the ban is ongoing.
The campaign’s analyses have become some of the most reputable reporting on the domestic situation in Iran, sourced by international media like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian. And Ghaemi’s meticulous approach to his work gives the campaign the legitimacy to make policy recommendations and advocate with institutions like the UN to bring about change.
To spread the “message of hope and expression of solidarity” to the Iranian people, the campaign produces Five in the Afternoon, a satirical radio show in which the host, Kambiz Hosseini—known as the Iranian Jon Stewart—informs listeners of the daily news and gives voice to their struggles. The show began as a weekly half-hour human rights podcast and is now broadcast throughout Iran via the Prague-based Radio Farda, which operates beyond the grasp of Iranian censors. “When we say that we reach millions of people each week, that means there’s an audience exposed to this narrative that otherwise would not be because of censorship,” Ghaemi says. “And the people are going to take those values with them to impact their decision making within their families, their workplaces, and their larger society.”
Ghaemi intends for the campaign’s work to reach Americans, too, and to inform our understanding of Iran—particularly the distinction between the country’s policies and its people. While Iran’s government maintains a troubled relationship with the United States, he contends that its citizens do not harbor ill will toward America. “There is a very, very strong differentiation between Iran’s society and culture, and its system of government,” he says. “There are a lot of contradictions and even diametrically opposite views within the society, versus how the government gives the official narrative to the outside world.”
US-Iranian relations—particularly the negotiations over a nuclear deal—gave the Iranian government an excuse for avoiding Iran’s systemic issues, Ghaemi says. “Ever since this conflict over Iran’s nuclear activities broke out in 2003, the reform movement inside Iran took a huge hit. The conflict strengthened hardliners who argued that the foreign threat against the nuclear program was more important than domestic reform.” And, he adds, negotiations with the United States made the government even more oppressive, with hardliners using them as an excuse to further squash dissent. While the campaign supported the diplomatic agreement between the two countries, Ghaemi hopes the end of “the confrontation over the nuclear program” can turn the conversation in Iran away from foreign relations, so “people inside the country can bring the narrative back to reform.”
Perhaps then Ghaemi can return to Iran. He has not been back in 11 years, and avoids interacting with family members who remain there, to keep them safe from the authorities. “I want to take my children and show them my country,” he says; but if he were to return now, “I would probably be led from the airport to Tehran’s biggest prison.”