For the first time since 2005, Iran has allowed a United Nations special rapporteur to visit the repressive country.
But the mandate of the UN rapporteur and the reasons for her visit have prompted controversy and concern among Iranian activists and foreign rights groups.
Alena Douhan, the UN special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on human rights, arrived in Iran on May 7. The aim of her trip, due to end on May 18, is to assess the impact of U.S. sanctions on the human rights situation in Iran.
The mandate of Douhan, a native of Belarus, is controversial. It was created following a 2014 resolution at the UN Human Rights Council introduced by Iran on behalf of the anti-Western Non-Aligned Movement. She is the second person to assume the role.
Douhan, who has visited repressive states like Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Qatar, has been accused by human rights activists of playing into the hands of authoritarian governments and promoting their propaganda.
Iranian activists outside the country have expressed concern that Douhan will only be allowed to meet with state-approved organizations and individuals. They have also warned that Douhan's findings will likely allow Tehran to blame U.S. sanctions for the country's economic woes while deflecting attention away from government mismanagement and corruption.
'Attempt To Blunt Scrutiny'
"The Islamic republic and its representatives who are talking to you are not representatives of the majority of the Iranian people because they have not attained their current positions in a democratic process," five Iranian activists said in an open letter addressed to Douhan on May 11.
Iranian journalist Kayvan Samimi, lawyer Guiti Purfazel, rights activists Ahmadreza Haeri, filmmaker Sadra Abdollahi, and union activist Jafar Azimzadeh said that the clerical establishment was mostly to blame for the economic hardships that Iranians face, including soaring inflation and rising poverty.
"More than 'unilateral coercive sanctions,' it is the Islamic republic and its institutions that are responsible for economic difficulties and blatant human rights violations," the letter said.
On May 6, a group of 11 human rights groups warned that the Iranian government will try to "instrumentalize" the visit "in a cynical attempt to deflect attention from its well-documented record of human rights violations."
The visit "comes after 17 years of denial of access to any of the 14 UN human rights monitors that have requested to visit the country," the statement said.
"By inviting the only expert whose mandate is to look at external actors' liability for rights violations in the country, Iranian authorities exploit this visit in an inconspicuous attempt to blunt scrutiny of its record of noncooperation with the UN human rights system," said the statement signed by groups including United for Iran, Article 19, and the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
Last month, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi said Tehran's decision to allow Douhan to visit was a "ploy" to deflect attention away from the "systematic corruption, large-scale embezzlement, as well as the wrong policies of the establishment."
Ebadi had called on the UN to postpone Douhan's trip until Tehran allowed the UN special rapporteur on human rights, Javed Rahman, to travel to the country. In his reports, Rehman has highlighted "grave" human rights violations, including the use of lethal force by security forces, torture and executions, and the negative impact of U.S. sanctions on the human rights of Iranians, including their rights to food and health.
Douhan has not publicly responded to the criticism over her trip. Ahead of her visit, she expressed hope to "gather firsthand information on the impact of unilateral coercive measures on the full realization of all human rights" in Iran.
She also called on "all stakeholders" to submit their response to questions she posted online about the impact of sanctions on human rights in the country, promising that the information will be reviewed for a report she will submit to the UN Human Rights Council in September.
Earlier this week, judicial official Kazem Gharibabadi was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Douhan's visit had been approved at the highest levels of government. "Countries targeted by sanctions must use all available capacities to hold accountable the perpetrators behind unilateral sanctions," he was quoted as saying.
'Many Are Struggling'
Douhan's visit comes amid a standoff in indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. The agreement limited Iran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
But former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the landmark accord in 2018 and reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran. Tehran reacted by gradually reducing its commitments under the deal.
Iranian officials have repeatedly condemned the "unjust" U.S. sanctions and called for their removal. They have also said that the aim of the sanctions is to cause economic hardship and incite riots.
Some inside the country have blamed the sanctions for empowering the most repressive elements of the clerical establishment, including the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which has been behind the arrests of scores of activists and dual nationals in recent years.
Prominent Iranian human rights defender
told The Washington Post last month that U.S. sanctions had "weakened Iranians economically more than they weakened the Iranian regime."
"In fact, they strengthened the Iranian regime, and hard-line individuals and groups in the country, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps," said Mohammadi, before being sent back to prison to serve an eight-year sentence. "This did not benefit democracy in Iran."
"There's no doubt that sanctions have made our lives more difficult, and many are struggling," a former political prisoner who did not want to be named for fear of retribution told RFE/RL. "Nevertheless, we all know the establishment is repressive with or without sanctions."