“A prospective comprehensive nuclear agreement need not be explicitly linked to Iran’s human rights record, but by highlighting this issue, Washington can convey to Tehran the importance it attaches to how Iran treats its citizens,” writes Ray Takeyh in a new Policy Innovation Memorandum for the Council on Foreign Relations.
In “How to Promote Human Rights in Iran,” Takeyh details the country’s human rights violations, which include curbs on freedom of assembly, appalling prison conditions, unfair legal provisions, religious discrimination, and violations women’s rights.
“Diplomatic multitasking” will be required to negotiate a nuclear agreement while promoting human rights, writes Takeyh, who offers the following recommendations to facilitate the process:
- The United States should highlight the work of Iran’s civil society groups and support freedom of expression in Iran.
- High-ranking U.S. officials should speak more openly and persistently about human rights conditions in Iran.
- The United States should pressure Iran into meeting international standards.
“Iran will change; its citizens’ quest for a more participatory and tolerant political system cannot be denied forever,” Takeyh concludes.
As the United States and other countries focus on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is easy to ignore the fact that Iran is also one of the world’s worst human rights violators. In his latest report on Iran, the UN special rapporteur insisted that “the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to warrant serious concern, with no sign of improvement.”
Iran’s recent presidential election, which brought to power the longtime regime insider Hassan Rouhani, offers an opportunity to address these violations. A prospective comprehensive nuclear agreement need not be explicitly linked to Iran’s human rights record, but by highlighting this issue, Washington can convey to Tehran the importance it attaches to how Iran treats its citizens. This step requires diplomatic multitasking to negotiate a nuclear agreement while promoting human rights.
Since his election, Rouhani has released a number of political prisoners and has continued to speak out about the need for more freedom. It is hard to determine whether these are merely public relations gestures or indicate a real commitment to improving Iran’s human rights record. Rouhani’s motivations need to be tested.
Today, Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East where the population is widely considered to be pro-American. The media coverage and the election itself demonstrated that voters are tired not just of economic sanctions but also of the suffocating political environment. A United States that champions its values and calls for transparency, equality before the law, and respect for international human rights standards is likely to empower and not discredit such forces.
The Helsinki Accords of 1975 offers an important model for negotiating with Iran. Neither the Ford administration nor the Soviet Union anticipated the accords’ eventual effects. The United States introduced the human rights issue to placate allied and domestic opinion and the Soviet Union conceded to its inclusion given the more pressing arms control issues at stake. In due course, the Helsinki monitoring groups that emerged throughout Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union itself did much to invigorate activists pushing for human rights. As with the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic will resist and denounce discussions as interference in its internal affairs; but Rouhani, who likes to portray himself as an enlightened figure, may be more sensitive to this criticism than his predecessor.
Iran will change; its citizens’ quest for a more participatory and tolerant political system cannot be denied forever. ….. To facilitate that process, the United States should undertake the following steps.
The United States should highlight the work of various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Iran is still endowed with many NGOs, as byproducts of the political renaissance of the 1990s, which are dealing with issues such as judicial reform and improvement of prison conditions for dissidents. The lawyer guilds, writers associations, and various women’s rights groups are examples of NGOs that are still struggling with their tasks. …
The United States should support freedom of expression in Iran. One manner of helping these organizations lies in the realm of Internet freedom and public diplomacy. ….Washington should look into providing readily accessible means of communication to Iranian organizations, including software to help overcome Internet blockage and technologies to penetrate the Iranian government’s obstructions of satellite transmissions. …………
“The best U.S. efforts to highlight Iran’s human rights violations may have a limited effect. Still, appealing to Iran’s new president and the Iranian public opinion may nudge the Islamic Republic in the right direction,” Takeyh concludes. “Even without such strategic benefits, Washington should advocate on behalf of Iranian citizens on account of the values and principles the United States professes to uphold.”
Read the full report here.