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Faces of Death

Joseph Akrami's documentary on human-rights abuses in Iran is an object lesson in foreign policy.

11:00 PM, Feb 2, 2006 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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DISCUSSION about rogue regimes is usually bifurcated. On the one hand are weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand are human-rights abuses. But make no mistake: These issues are inseparable. We care whether or not a country has WMD capabilities only because of its record on human rights. This is why we did not worry when India tested its first nuclear device in 1998. It is why we would not be panicked if we learned that Jordan or Oman was on the verge of entering the nuclear club.

And it is why we should be terrified at the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

Joseph Akrami, an exiled Iranian filmmaker, has recently produced a documentary about human-rights abuse in Iran called A Few Simple Shots, which makes plain this point.

Many scenes in A Few Simple Shots are worrisome, but familiar: photos of dozens of street executions; testimony from former political prisoners who endured terrible torture. One woman, Roya, recalls seeing the scarred back of her cell mate, a young girl. Her skin was pink and shriveled from the base of her skull to her lower back, as if she had been set on fire. The girl had been flogged for 12 continuous hours.

In Iranian prisons, floggings are a matter of course. Another former prisoner, Hojat, recalls how his torturers sometimes beat him with cables; other times they used the fan belt from a car engine, so as to better split the skin.

A teenage girl named Solmaz recounts another horrific story: When she was 15 months old, she was arrested with her mother, Zari. The two were imprisoned in the same cell, but Solmaz was often left alone while her mother was dragged to the torture chamber. Eventually, Solmaz was released to her father, but only after her mother had been executed for being an enemy of the Islamic Republic.

We have seen this before. Regardless of size or ideology, every rogue state from Hitler's Germany to Pol Pot's Cambodia has brutalized its people. In that sense, Iran is no different.

There is one way, however, in which Iran is different. In most repressive states, such atrocities are cloaked in secrecy. Word of Russia's Gulag Archipelago, for instance, was smuggled out over decades and denied by Soviet apologists for generations.

In Iran, however, torture and abasement are not just a province of the secret police. They are also a matter of public policy.

Consider the November 2005 hanging of two Iranian men for the crime of homosexuality. As Human Rights Watch explains, "Iranian law punishes all penetrative sexual acts between adult men with the death penalty. Nonpenetrative sexual acts between men are punished with lashes until the fourth offense, when they are punished with death." If you can imagine, these poor souls got off easy. In July 2005, two teenage sexual offenders were also put to death, but before their execution, they were given 228 lashes--just for good measure.

Reading about these atrocities is terrible. Seeing them is worse. Akrami's film shows video of how Iran deals with its common criminals: thieves, gays, women who have been victims of rape. A Few Simple Shots shows Iranian authorities setting out a big circular saw in the town square and cutting away at fingers and limbs.

The most disturbing sequence develops slowly. First, shovels work at the dusty ground in a public square. They dig two holes, about four feet deep. Then two bodies are carried out, and although they are wrapped in white sheets, they are animated. Hands lower them into the holes. They jerk and wobble while dirt is packed around them. Then the stones start flying.

Dozens of men--ordinary Iranians, some young, some old--begin pelting the white bags with hundreds of rocks the size of a fist.

As the ghoulish spectacle unfolds, the most alarming aspect--more sickening than the way the white bags wriggle and dance--is the demeanor of the men doing the killing. For them, this is not grim work; they are euphoric.

This is the face of the Iranian regime that so hungers for a nuclear bomb. We would do well not to forget it.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard and a weekly op-ed contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer. This essay originally appeared in the January 29, 2006 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.