For years now, Sakineh Ashtiani has been incarcerated in an Iranian prison, sentenced to death by stoning for the "crime" of adultery. Until earlier this month, the case of the 43-year-old mother of two was known only to the select few who have been following her sad fate at the hands of the Islamic Republic. Today, however, her name has become a rallying cry to end the mullahs' suppression of human—and particularly women's—rights.
A widow living in the northern Iranian city of Tabriz, Mrs. Ashtiani was jailed in 2005 for adultery. She was convicted the following year of having "illicit relationships" with two men following the death of her husband, and received 100 lashes, the punishment Islam stipulates for sexual relations outside of marriage. Mrs. Ashtiani's ordeal did not end there. Her case was reopened in 2007, and new, graver charges of adultery while in wedlock were added. She was convicted once again, and this time sentenced to death by public stoning.
Instituted in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution, the medieval practice entails the partial burial of offenders and their subsequent death at the hands of bystanders hurling rocks. Accurate statistics are nearly impossible to come by, but human rights activists estimate that between 1979 and 1997 an average of 10 people were killed annually in this way by the regime. In 2002, the Iranian judiciary proposed a formal moratorium on the punishment, but it continues to be meted out at the discretion of individual judges. Currently, eight men and three women—including Mrs. Ashtiani—are said to be awaiting the gruesome penalty.
Only a growing outcry from international human rights groups and foreign leaders prompted the Iranian government over the weekend to stay Mrs. Ashtiani's execution, which was scheduled for later this month. At least for the moment, her case has been placed "under review" on humanitarian grounds.
Iranian officials have struck a defiant tone throughout the incident. "Whenever the judiciary chief deems it expedient, the verdict will be carried out regardless of Western media propaganda," one regional judiciary head said Sunday. The danger is that Mrs. Ashtiani's reprieve may be only temporary. Her sentence could still be carried out at a later time or in a fashion deemed less offensive to the international community.
And just yesterday, Israeli website Ynet reported that an Iranian court had sentenced two more women to death by stoning for adultery. Maryam Ghorbanzadeh, who is pregnant and Azhar Bakri, 19, who was 15 at the time of her alleged "crime."
Still, Tehran's decision to stay Mrs. Ashtiani's stoning is significant. It suggests that Iran—beset by economic sanctions over its nuclear program and desperate for international validation of its place as a global power—is susceptible to external pressure over its human rights practices.
The echoes of the Cold War are unmistakable. Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. altered the way the Soviet Union treated its own population by leveraging the free market. That initiative—dubbed "Jackson-Vanik" after its two main cosponsors, Democratic Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Democratic Rep. Charles Vanik—linked most-favored-nation trading status for the Soviet Union to a liberalization of Moscow's emigration policies. Eager to engage in commerce with the West, the Kremlin loosened restrictions on travel, granting freedom to a generation of Soviet dissidents. In the process, it laid the groundwork for glasnost, perestroika, and the fall of the Soviet Union itself.
Can the same be accomplished with Iran? It's still too early to tell. But Mrs. Ashtiani's case suggests that the international community has more leverage over Iran's internal conduct than commonly assumed. It is up to the West to use that opening wisely, to craft a human rights policy that rolls back repression within the Islamic Republic. Sakineh Ashtiani, Maryam Ghorbanzadeh, Azhar Bakri and other victims of Iranian "justice" deserve no less.