The Role of Human Rights in the U.S.’s Iran Policy

In engaging Iran, the U.S. has found difficulty in balancing the West’s interest in seeing Iran end its alleged nuclear weapons program with pressure on Iranian leadership to improve human rights, particularly in the wake of the 2009 Iranian presidential election.

Unfortunately, these interest are often mutually exclusive. Calls for supporting the Green Movement are frequently coupled with equally strong calls for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such combative rhetoric and calls for stricter sanctions to coerce Iran away from its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons has met with little support from Green Movement leaders. Last month, as reported by Ali, the exiled top legal aid to former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi observed the Green movement is against UN sanctions because “the sanctions will have a clear effect on the day-to-day live sof the people, therefore the Green Movement wants an end to the economic sanctions.”

But today’s Washington Post editorial by Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, makes a case for why the U.S. should focus its diplomacy on human rights in Iran.

Takeyh writes:

An insistence on human rights and the empowerment of the Green Movement can pave the way for Iran’s transition to a more tolerant society and provide the West an indispensable lever for tempering the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions.


The path to disarmament and democracy lies in making common cause with the Green Movement and making Iran’s behavior toward its citizens a precondition to its reintegration in the community of nations.

Takeyh almost certainly overstates the influence and power of the Green Movement by comparing them to democratic movements in Eastern Europe, but note needs to be made of his point that human rights should be prioritized in any negotiations with Iran.

While Takeyh comes up short of endorsing a strategy that prioritizes human rights over nuclear weapons, he emphasizes that a long term approach which places a high priority on human rights is the United State’s best chance of mitigating Iran’s nuclear program and encouraging improvements in human rights in Iran.

He concludes:

The successor generation of Iranian leaders would then be more sensitive to their obligations to citizens and the international community. By linking its diplomacy to human rights behavior, the United States could mitigate Iran’s nuclear ambitions and pave the way for a peaceful transition from clerical autocracy to a more responsible and humane government.

For another take on a long term approach, Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force member Barbara Slavin earlier this week made the case for a policy of “strategic patience” which would emphasize Iranian lead political reforms and avoid overreaction from Washington.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. Support to the Green Movement will worsen the Human Rights situation there.

    How many people outside the USA really think Washington has any moral authority to speak on lecture on Human Rights anywhere in the Middle East? Human Rights pressure on Iran while making history-defying military deals with the human-rights-upholding House of Saud?

    Are Iranians so forgetful that they do not remember the 25-year long, US-supported dictatorship of the Shah?

    And outside the Middle-East, 102 Kashmiri boys (armed only with stones) have been killed over the past 3 months (and ONE policeman). The victims are mostly aged between 15 and 23.

    But the Human Rights card might actually come in handy in ways that Mr. Takeyh has not anticipated.

    On hearing Washington talk of Human Rights, the Mullahs and the Ahmedinejads might -just might – die laughing.

  2. (sorry, left this part imcomplete)
    And outside the Middle-East, 102 Kashmiri boys (armed only with stones) have been killed over the past 3 months (and ONE policeman). The victims are mostly aged between 15 and 23.

    There hasn’t been a word from the US Government on this. Obama did not mention the K-word even once during his recent trip to India. So much for Human Rights..

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