This article was first published by on October 15, 2012

Assertions and opinions in this publication are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.

The report sent last week to the United Nations General Assembly by the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, reads like a horror story appropriate for the Halloween season: mock executions, beatings, stonings, rape and threats to rape detainees’ families, among other tortures and abuses, are among the acts attributed to Iran’s government. The report will be followed in December with a Canada-led resolution condemning these abuses.

Canadians should be proud of the government’s long-standing leadership in keeping this critical issue on the global agenda. It’s a real contrast with the discussion of Iran in last Thursday’s U.S. vice presidential debate: it wasn’t mentioned.

Iran’s abuse of its own people amounts to a humanitarian catastrophe. It has only intensified in the three years since the suppression of the reformist Green Movement, and has set Iran on a path to becoming the most closed and repressive country in the Middle East — the North Korea of the region. The West’s treatment of the issue as an afterthought — even an annoyance, as all eyes focus on the nuclear issue — is nothing less than a failure of leadership.

The massive increase in human rights violations began in 2009, but hasn’t ended there. What started with the decapitation of the Green Movement through intimidation, beating, and imprisonment of activists and leadership alike has since extended to other vital elements of Iranian civil society, including professors, lawyers, artists and journalists. Indeed, the Committee to Protect Journalists has said Iran has the highest number of imprisoned reporters in the world — 42 — with even more on their way to jail as press restrictions mount.

Iran is also an enthusiastic executioner. According to Shaheed, 760 judicial executions were carried out in Iran in 2011 alone, well more than half those that took place worldwide. True numbers are impossible to know because executions are frequently carried out in secret, but many others were conducted in noisy public spectacles.

Virtually all capital cases lack internationally-recognized standards of due process, and death sentences are often imposed for relatively minor crimes such as drug possession. Ethnic minorities, frequent victims of discrimination and persecution despite rights guaranteed in Iran’s constitution, are often targeted for execution. In one well known case in June, four Ahvazi Arabs were hanged in prison, having been convicted of such crimes as “enmity against God” and “corruption on earth.”

Iran has also cracked down on freedom of expression, deploying ever more sophisticated tools to cut off and monitor access to the internet and hunt down those who somehow manage to blog and post despite the authorities’ best efforts. Tehran has even launched an effort to build its own “halal” version of the internet. Ostensibly designed to prevent access to “un-Islamic” material such as pornography, in fact it’s intended to close down electronic access to the outside world.

Throughout, Tehran has refused to allow Special Rapporteur Shaheed, to enter the country.

Tehran’s increasingly brutal approach stems not only from its fears of internal opposition, but also its mounting international isolation and the effects this might have on its domestic politics.

The uprisings of the Arab Spring, the war in Syria (which threatens to destroy Tehran’s closest Arab ally), the Gulf’s unified front against Iran’s regional ambitions, the growing bite of international sanctions, and above all the looming possibility of a military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program have all led Tehran to the conclusion that it cannot afford domestic challenges while facing international problems as well.

Many in the international community appear to have reached a similar conclusion but from a different angle: P5+1 talks over Iran’s nuclear program must not suffer complications or even a breakdown by confronting Iran on human rights.

But this is the wrong approach. Iran’s human rights violations will only get worse if the world fails to act. The international community must make clear that whatever the course of the nuclear issue, human rights concerns remain crucial in relations with Iran. This would send a strong signal that nuclear politics is not just a pretext to effect “regime change,” as Iran fears, and that the international community is not willing to bargain away the future of the Iranian people in the interest of diplomatic negotiations.

The U.N. resolution, as well as public statements, efforts to highlight the plight of detainees, and continued diplomatic pressure — such as Canada brought to bear when it closed its Tehran embassy last month — can show the Iranian people they are not alone and add to pressure on the regime. The United States and other world leaders would do well to follow Canada’s example.