The US Can’t Abandon Iranian Human Rights Activists Now

The US Can’t Abandon Iranian Human Rights Activists Now

The US Can’t Abandon Iranian Human Rights Activists Now

The nuclear deal with Iran could fall apart if moderates lose political footing.


The debate in Washington over the Iranian nuclear deal was among the toughest fights of Obama’s second term. The failure of anti-deal hardliners to muster enough congressional support for a disapproval resolution helped advance a broader progressive policy of improving our security through diplomacy, rather than war. It also sent an important signal to the world, and particularly Iran, that the United States can be counted on to follow through on its commitments.

In Tehran, too, the deal was controversial. While Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supported the negotiations (they wouldn’t have happened otherwise), he issued regular warnings to Iranian negotiators signaling continued hostility to the United States. The deal was approved in mid-October after an extremely heated debate in the Iranian Parliament in which Iranian opponents argued the deal served American interests at Iran’s expense; one member even reportedly threatened the life of the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency.

As polls consistently showed, the Iranian people overwhelmingly supported the nuclear deal, since it offered relief from the sanctions strangling Iran’s economy and dangled the prospect of greater openness to the world.

Iran’s human rights–activist community was quite vocal during this process, and was particularly helpful in building support for the deal in Washington. In return, it’s hugely important that those of us who have backed the negotiations not forget them, and maintain a strong focus on their plight.

While the years since President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election have seen a slight easing of tensions between Iran and the United States, they have been extremely bad for human rights inside Iran. While Rouhani promised reform in the country, enabling him to gain support from many who backed Iran’s Green movement in 2009, his hardline political opponents have, with the backing of Khamenei, increased abuses as part of a broader campaign to contain any potential expansion of influence that the moderate camp might hope to gain in the wake of their recent diplomatic success.

Iran has the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world. Journalists, bloggers, and activists critical of the government continue to be persecuted and imprisoned. Prominent opposition figures, such as 2009 presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, remain under house arrest.

“Those who oppose dealing with the West on just about any score will use any means at their disposal to try to hit the brakes on engagement,” noted Nation contributor Ali Gharib in an analysis of the conviction of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian on obviously trumped-up charges. Rezaian is one of a number of Americans imprisoned by Iran, which also includes pastor Saeed Abedini, ex-Marine Amir Hekmati, and, most recently, businessman Siamak Namazi.

“The Iranian human-rights community supported the nuclear deal because it sees its implementation can result in opening the space to focus the domestic discourse on the dire rights crisis gripping the country for the past six years and compel Rouhani to fulfill his promises,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “But this will not happen automatically, and the proponents of the deal outside Iran must also call for improvements inside the country.” 

The nuclear deal demonstrated the effectiveness of achieving common interests through a multilateral framework. Part of the reason pressure against Iran’s nuclear program was so effective was because it wasn’t just “the US versus Iran” (which is the framing that Iran’s hardliners very much prefer) but rather “the international community versus Iran.”

This should also be the approach on human rights, and why it’s important for the United States to continue to support the work of United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran Ahmed Shaheed as he continues to shine a light on the Iranian government’s abuses. The creation of his office in 2011 was an important achievement of President Obama’s first term, one for which then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can rightly claim credit. (It was also a vindication of the Obama administration’s decision to join the UN’s Human Rights Council, reversing the policy of the Bush administration, which had shunned the council.)

In his most recent report to the United Nations last week, Special Rapporteur Shaheed welcomed the nuclear deal, noting that the resulting lifting of sanctions “can potentially have a beneficial multiplier effect on the human rights situation in the country, especially on the enjoyment of economic and social rights.” But that aside, Shaheed said, “the human rights situation in Iran remains dire.”

There are strong practical reasons for the United States to maintain a focus on human rights in Iran. Iranian hardliners have always claimed that criticisms of Iran on these human-rights grounds were made in bad faith, just a tool to apply pressure on the nuclear issue. Giving Iran a pass on human rights now would affirm their argument, and further empower the hardliners against their moderate political opponents. This could have serious negative implications for the survival of the deal in Iran.

“This is not just a moral imperative but essential to a successful implementation of the deal,” said Ghaemi. “If we keep quiet on the human-rights situation, then the repressive environment in Iran will intensify, Rouhani will lose legitimacy, and opponents of the deal can at any time of their choosing stop implementing it without any domestic challenge.”

When it comes to national security and the Middle East, there are a great many competing demands on the attention of progressives—the Syrian refugee crisis, the prospect of more American boots on the ground in the fight against Daesh, and the continuing war in Afghanistan, the upsurge in violence in Israel-Palestine, to name only a few. It’s tempting to see the Iran nuclear agreement as a done deal and move on. This would be a tragic mistake. Even as Iranian and American hardliners effectively work toward a common purpose–blocking any moves toward a broader US-Iran détente–progressives must show solidarity toward our Iranian colleagues in their efforts to advance human rights and political reform.

Part of a practical progressivism is recognizing that our government sometimes has to work with imperfect partners to advance toward common security goals. But it’s up to those of us in civil society to push our governments to keep human rights and political freedom on the agenda. It’s up to us to speak directly to and with our colleagues in these countries about our shared interest in human rights, to listen to them as they tell us how we can best help. And Iran’s human-rights activists are telling us that we need to keep the spotlight focused on them. We owe it to them to do so.

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