Does Iran Want to Punish the West or Itself on Human Rights?

Despite calls for the release of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, Iran went out of its way to keep him in jail, signaling to the West that the highly praised nuclear deal would not influence its internal policies.

In fact, the hardliners that control the judiciary and other institutions have been working hard to undercut the image of moderation that President Hassan Rouhani has tried to project since his election in 2013.

Iran's foreign ministry campaigned hard against a Canadian-sponsored UN resolution on human rights. Last Friday, a General Assembly committee voted 76 in favor and 35 against with 68 countries abstaining. (In contrast Saudi Arabia's resolution on Syrian human rights violations was adopted by 115 votes in favor, 5 against and 51 abstentions.).

The full Assembly will vote on the resolutions with the results nearly the same as in the committee, which includes all UN members. Although the resolution is non-binding, it highlights Tehran's human rights excesses to the world.

The measure calls upon the Iranian government to stop its plethora of executions, stoning, flogging and other forms of torture. It says Iran should stop discrimination against women and minorities and stop arresting journalists and human rights defenders, among others.

In response, Iran's deputy UN ambassador told the committee that the draft resolution was a "selective and politicized distortion of facts." He said the nuclear deal opened "a new horizon for cooperation, based on dialogue, understanding, mutual respect and promotion of shared values of human rights, peace and security."

"Dire" human rights situation The resolution was based on a report by UN investigator Ahmed Shaheed, a human rights specialist and a former Maldives foreign minister, who briefed the General Assembly as well as journalists at a news conference.

Shaheed said that although Iran had showed more engagement with him, he was not allowed to visit the country. He called the human rights situation in Iran "dire" and in some cases quite alarming.

Mainly he concentrated on executions, particularly against non-violent drug offenders. He said death sentences had been increasing "at an exponential rate" since 2005. Since September he said at least 694 people had been hanged, including 10 women and one juvenile.

Despite widespread advances in education and health, women were restricted in civil, political, social and economic fields.

At least 46 journalists and social media activists had been arrested or sentenced for peaceful activities. Jason Rezaian, the Tehran correspondent for the Washington Post, on November 22 was sentenced to an unspecified prison term. State media provided no additional details on the journalist who faced espionage and other charges.

With 30 journalists behind bars, Iran was the second worst jailer of media correspondents in the world in 2014, after China, said the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Polarized politics According to Shaheed the country became more polarizing under Rouhani's rule than his hard line predecessor. Now defendants can only choose lawyers from a list selected by the judiciary. While Rouhani had worked to strengthen fundamental rights, Shaheed said reforms could not place unless all branches of the government and the state complied.

Shaheed said he based his report on 40 interviews with Iranians, now in Germany, Norway and Spain. In addition he conducted some 30 interviews via secure Skype connections in Iran and elsewhere.

Asked about funds that would be released once Iran complied fully with the nuclear agreement, Shaheed said it depended what the budget would look like as the current sanctions harmed the middle class most of all.

Many hard liners have opposed the nuclear agreement, which rolls back Iran's atomic programs in exchange for lifting many of the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, Europeans and the United States. They fell in line, experts say, after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, endorsed the agreement.

Still Khamenei has repeatedly said that the slogan "Death to America" was eternal and that the United States could not be trusted.

In contrast, Rouhani, in a recent cautious interview with the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera, said Iran's problems with Americans "are longstanding" but suggested the nuclear agreement would create "conditions for a new era" with the United States.

"I have sensed a desire by find the right approach," Shaheed told reporters. But he said there was a "strong disconnect between engagement and behavior on the ground."