Pursue Human Rights in Iran with the Same Vigor as the Nuclear Accord

by Hadi Ghaemi

The nuclear accord reached this week between Iran and the P5+1 countries represents a resounding victory for diplomacy and peace. It was achieved only through unrelenting determination borne from a realization that the benefits of an accord far outweighed those of any alternative.

The leadership in Iran recognized the threat posed by the country’s economic deterioration, and signed on to a process that, however anathema to hardliners, held out the promise of economic relief for the isolated country.The West, with no stomach for another war in the Middle East, recognized that a deal which limited and afforded greater international scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program was better than wishing for a complete nuclear rollback that was no longer possible.

National interest fuelled a forceful and sustained effort that led to a success that seemed at times remote and unlikely to even the most optimistic observers.So too this calculation must be made for the pursuit of human rights in Iran. A steadfast commitment to the defense of human rights, based on national interests, carries the promise of success as well.

Human rights is not a peripheral issue. It is central to core interests. Apart from any moral imperative of supporting the basic rights and freedoms of all peoples, the best way to ensure the successful implementation of a nuclear accord, which all sides view is in their national interest, is to empower the voices of reason and moderation. In the West, proponents of peace and diplomacy do not lack for outlets for such expression. In Iran, however, their silencing is often swift and harsh.

As we move into a post-deal context in Iran, it is possible that the silencing of such voices will increase, and that basic freedoms in the country, already at a dismal state, may deteriorate further. Political, security, and judicial institutions that have colluded to install and maintain an unprecedented repression over the past decade will be on the defensive, eager to re-assert their primacy in the domestic sphere in the wake of the Rouhani administration’s “win” in the foreign sphere.

These hardliners, anxious to frame the debate and control the narrative in Iran, have not been supporters of the nuclear negotiations; indeed, opposition to the West and any interaction with it has long been their raison d’etre. A renewed wave of repression inside Iran will only facilitate hardliners’ attempts to balk at implementing the accord’s provisions while silencing the voices of its supporters. It is essential that supporters of the nuclear agreement in Iran be able to voice their views.

And supporters there are: Iranian society has strongly backed the negotiations and the pursuit of a peaceful settlement to the long-running conflict. In a recent study by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, prominent political and cultural figures in Iran were interviewed on their views of the nuclear talks, and their support for a negotiated settlement was unanimous, even among political prisoners and dissidents whose rights had been severely violated by the Iranian government.

Yet the Iranian citizenry elected Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in June 2013 not only on the basis of his commitment to pursue a nuclear settlement, but also on his pledges for greater political rights and social freedoms. While most accepted that reforms had to wait for a settlement of the nuclear conflict, there has been a growing sense that domestic issues have been on hold too long. Indeed, Iran’s domestic politics has been akin to an airplane in a holding pattern, awaiting the resolution of the negotiations, before being allowed to proceed.

During this time, not only has Rouhani shied away from implementing policies aimed at opening up the closed political and social environment, but hardliners have cracked down on press freedoms and Internet activities, imposed long prison sentences on peaceful activists, and passed legislation highly discriminatory toward women.

While the nuclear negotiations and the aversion of war were rightly seen as the immediate priorities by all sides, the time has come to pursue human rights in Iran with the same vigor. Hardliners in Iran who control Parliament, the Judiciary, and the intelligence and security branches of the state, and are backed by the country’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, will push back. But their ability to do so will be curtailed if there is a substantial national consensus against their repression that can be publicly voiced and demonstrated, and backed up with firm and steadfast international support.

The international community has significant leverage with Iran at this juncture: the Iranian government seeks international reintegration, seeing it as integral to the economic revitalization of the country. The world must be clear that the full international reintegration Iran seeks is contingent upon the Islamic Republic’s acceptance of the right to peaceful dissent. The international community must be prepared to strongly condemn any attempt at wholesale repression inside the country. Without this they will be undermining the very accord all sides have worked long and hard to achieve.

Moreover, by upholding international human rights law and covenants to which Iran has freely joined, the international community will be sending the clear message that adherence to international laws and treaties is not selective, but binding.

Additionally, supporting the forces of moderation in Iran—by vigorously defending their right to speak freely and to engage in peaceful dissent—can only strengthen more moderate and constructive Iranian foreign policies, to the benefit of all those in the international community.

The long-term success of the nuclear accord—and with it the maintenance of peace in a region already soaked in blood—will be inextricably intertwined with the outcome of the struggle to end Iran’s domestic repression. The international community cannot afford to ignore this vital struggle.

Hadi Ghaemi is the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

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  1. Oh yes, Iran’s adversaries should peruse human rights against Iran with the same vigor they used to liberate Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan… The same vigor they used in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay to teach Muslims about human rights. The same vigor which Israel drops on Palestinians, the same vigor which Saudis drop on Yemen… What a novel idea. Maybe Americans could find a bunch of disgruntled Iranian refugees, like MKO terrorists, monarchists and other nut jobs, then get them to go on a rant about human rights. Why didn’t anybody think of this sooner?

  2. The problem with attempting to force the Iranian government to better their human rights record through diplomatic pressures and sanctions has four major issues associated with it.
    1. Unlike the nuclear issue, this is purely internal to the Iranians and most Iranians in that country who do wish to see their human rights improved, do not wish to see the human rights issue( or any other issue e.g. terrorism etc.) to become the new stick with which they are going to be hit with. They have had enough of sanctions and threats and they see the human rights issue as one which they can handle themselves.
    2. Most Iranians see west’s talk of human rights and secular democracy as empty rhetoric. They would point to the fact that most of the west’s allies in the region abuse human rights and are rewarded for it by the west and they would also point to western forces’ own dismal record vis-a-vi human rights in the region (Guantanamo bay, Polish camps, Abu-Gharib etc. not to mention the late Shah). They also remember that most western actions in support of democracy and human rights abroad have made things worse (Libya, Syria, Bahrain etc.)
    3. Any new issue or attempt to impose sanctions on Iran will axiomatically prove the hardliners in Iran (who are the only people who benefit from these) right. They would sweep away the moderates and that can only mean bad news for human rights in Iran.
    4. In the long run trade and prosperity for the Iranians and ease of travel for the Iranian population as well as greater cultural, political, social and scientific links with Iran would be far more effective in nurturing the middle class in Iran as well as the issue of human rights. Any western backing for human right activists in Iran should be extremely discrete and almost untraceable as doing otherwise would mark these people as agents of the western interest. That is not to say that torture and suppression should not be condemned. But the west should not use sanctions, threats and/or isolation as tools in this regards. After all the Saudi and Bahraini government are not under pressure for these, are they? Nor should the Iranians be. Iranian history has shown that tyrants are dealt with harshly, if the Iranians are left alone to get on with it. Action such as awarding the Noble price to Ms. Abadi are positive and useful in this regards. Inflammatory speeches by Bibi and sanctions are not!

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