Don’t Let Iran Off the Hook for Human Rights

The world shouldn’t let Tehran off the hook for its egregious human rights violations just because Rouhani came to the nuclear table.

By Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America.

As both raucous public debate and closed-door negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program near their climax, experts around the world are feverishly arguing over the implications of a deal. Gone is Barack Obama’s lofty September 2013 vision of “a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic … that would help the Iranian people fulfill their extraordinary potential.” Now, all sides are focused on brass-tacks horse trading to enforce 12 months of “breakout” time: separating Iran from an atomic bomb in return for waiving and lifting Western sanctions targeting its proliferation capabilities. The bitter divisions in both Washington and Tehran over the possible deal suggest that the once-dreamed-of wider reconciliation will be at least as fraught and elusive as the nuclear compact.

During the initial back-and-forth between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani 18 months ago, Iranians and Americans voiced hopes that ending the nuclear impasse could help improve Iran’s dismal human rights record. Activists had long felt that the global focus on Iran’s nuclear program had eclipsed attention to Tehran’s abuses. But with a potential compact nigh, advocates now worry about whether progress on the nuclear file will, in fact, yield the hoped-for strides on human rights. As the Obama administration prepares for the endgame on nuclear talks, it should be thinking ahead to ensure that human rights are not left in the lurch.

Over time, human rights in Iran have become a higher priority for the Obama White House. During the 2009 Green revolution, Washington was criticized for holding back support for the dissenters — a reticence that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ascribed to fears that direct U.S. involvement could taint an indigenous political movement. In 2010, the administration successfully championed the establishment of a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran who provides in-depth, high-profile reports to the U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council twice a year. In 2012, the president signed an executive order sanctioning individuals complicit in enabling human rights abuses in Iran and Syria through the use of Internet surveillance and network disruptions. The administration has also promulgated exceptions to Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations in order to allow the provision of Internet and communications technologies and to foster free expression in Iran, and it has sanctioned those responsible for the crackdown on the Green Revolution.

When Rouhani won the presidency in 2013, Washington’s human rights caucus looked on expectantly. During his campaign, Rouhani pledged to uphold the rights outlined in the Iranian Constitution. But according to the U.N. special rapporteur on Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, who reported to the United Nations this month, Rouhani’s rights record has been limited to mere “baby steps.” In 2014, the country executed at least 753 people, according to Shaheed’s latest report. Many were drug offenders and received only a cursory trial. A separate report in February by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon documented the abominable state of women’s rights in Iran: Two-thirds of women are subject to domestic violence, while more than 50,000 a year are married off before age 15.

The report also discusses Evin prison, Tehran’s dungeon for political prisoners, as a fearful deathtrap where rape, floggings, and torture are routine. Human rights lawyers are banned en masse, and suspects are subject to the death penalty for crimes including “corruption on earth” and “enmity against God.” Many interpret the high-profile July 2014 arrest and detention of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Iran-American Tehran correspondent, on vague charges of engaging in activities “outside the scope of journalism” as an ominous sign that the hard-liners are in control.

With Congress likely to subject the proposed nuclear deal to close scrutiny, human rights seem almost certain to be used as a weapon. Congressional Republicans, including Chris Smith (N.J.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), cite Iran’s poor human rights record as reason not to trust the Rouhani government’s promises. Other leading opponents of the nuclear deal, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), have already used human rights concerns to try to torpedo the nuclear pact, proposing legislation that would target large groups of Iranian officials as presumptive human rights abusers subject to sanctions. Their measure, introduced in 2014 as the Iran Human Rights Accountability Act, was dismissed by U.S.-based Iran groups as a cynical attempt to use human rights to derail the nuclear deliberations and undercut a signature initiative of the Obama administration.

Politics aside, human rights will play a major part in the long-term legacy of Obama’s Iran policy.

If the centrifuges slow down but the executions continue, Iran could forge a path to international acceptance that legitimizes and further entrenches its repressiveness. The case of China offers ample proof that heightened global stature, an improving economy, and rising living standards do not automatically guarantee human rights gains. There’s also a danger that if the nuclear issue is solved, international pressure on human rights will ease. Iran’s status as a pariah has made it easy for Western governments to call out its domestic behavior: There has been little diplomatic or political downside to piling on Iran. If the nuclear stigma disappears and partnership on regional issues — including fighting the Islamic State — deepens, that calculus could change and the clamor could quiet.

There are three types of measures the United States should take to ensure that a nuclear deal doesn’t betray human rights: ensuring international corporate accountability for rights abuses, engaging U.N. mechanisms, and tying the diplomatic reintegration of Iran to rights improvements. The key lies in deftly and often indirectly nurturing the reformist impulses of Rouhani and other moderate leaders, and helping to empower them against hard-liners.

The first opportunity concerns the corporations poised to dive into Iran once nuclear sanctions thaw. Oil, steel, energy, auto, and financial firms are lining up to enter one of the world’s few major off-limits markets. With the economic boost of sanctions relief at the heart of the nuclear bargain, Tehran will do all it can to lure new entrants. If companies can be harnessed as a force for reform, their influence is potentially greater than that of any foreign government.

Recent experience with the opening of Myanmar’s long-shuttered markets is instructive: When the United States lifted long-standing economic sanctions in 2012, it defied the objections of business groups to require companies to publicly detail steps taken to uphold human and labor rights, respect the environment, and avoid corruption. Iran offers an opportunity for the administration to learn from and strengthen that approach, adding resources to track and report on companies’ behavior in order to directly engage with managers to reinforce the rules. Particularly because some U.S. firms will continue to be constrained by Iran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism — a scarlet letter unlikely to be removed anytime soon — the White House should press the Europeans and other like-minded countries to join forces in imposing human rights obligations on businesses entering the market. The administration should also take the extra step of imposing penalties for noncompliance, adding teeth currently missing in the Myanmar requirements.

The U.N. offers a second lever. Despite being the target of tough Security Council sanctions, Tehran puts stock in the world body; it is a leader within the U.N.’s political blocs of developing countries and often seeks out U.N. offices and appointments. In recent years, the body’s human rights mechanisms have validated countries in transition that are seeking international approval. Colombia, Guatemala, Tunisia, Myanmar, and other nations have worked with the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish in-country U.N. offices that signify these countries’ willingness to improve their human rights performance.

As Iran seeks to leverage the nuclear deal to work its way back into international good graces, the United States should encourage Secretary-General Ban, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and influential governments to press for the creation of such an office, which can effectively and quietly monitor infringements and provide training and technical assistance. The U.N. should also push Tehran to invite the U.N. human rights rapporteur for Iran to visit the country for the first time; Myanmar has taken a similar step to try to prove the bona fides of its transition.

Diplomacy offers a third pressure point. Announcing a nuclear deal will set off a sequence of headline-grabbing star turns for Iranian officials: international meetings, handshakes with presidents, and high-level international visitors in Tehran. While those photo ops will no doubt have detractors in Tehran, they will be vital for Rouhani to demonstrate at home that he has brought Iran in from the diplomatic cold. Such meetings represent a powerful yet fleeting form of leverage and should be used strategically to demand prisoner releases and other measures under Rouhani’s direct control. The United States and Europe should also press to initiate regular, structured bilateral human rights dialogues with Iran. These set-piece meetings, convened regularly with China, Vietnam, and other countries, are often more show than substance. But they do offer an occasion for media scrutiny of abuses and a potential incentive for status-hungry Tehran to show off its best self.

The conclusion of a nuclear deal may begin the slow process of restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran after a 35-year lapse, a prospect that Obama has said he won’t rule out. Following a nuclear accord that will feel precarious for some time, the temptation may be to adopt a battle-hardened realpolitik that places nuclear compliance and regional security alignment ahead of all else in the U.S.-Iran relationship. But as the United States looks toward possible rapprochement, it should adopt a balanced approach that includes direct engagement with Iranian society, compassion for its dissenters, and an emphasis on the softer sides of American power — exchanges, cultural influence, and dialogue. This will help ensure that warming relations do not make Washington part of the problem, rather than the solution, on human rights.

Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD / AFP

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel