The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a resolution condemning the Government of Iran for its gross human rights violations. This attention to the sorry state of human rights in Iran is welcome. However, seeking ways to achieve tangible human rights improvements inside Iran is also closely related to the outcome of the nuclear negotiations.
Supporters of President Obama’s policy of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program argue that opponents of that policy in the United States want to include settlement of separate issues -- such as Iran’s rights record, or its support for terrorism – to make it more difficult to reach a nuclear deal.
Importantly, even individuals who are themselves survivors of human rights abuses in Iran and former political prisoners there strongly support the talks and hope for a successful agreement, contradicting the notion held by some opponents of the negotiations that human rights concerns in Iran should preclude support for the negotiations.
A recent study, Voices from Iran: Strong Support for the Nuclear Negotiations, found that leading Iranian civil society figures were unanimous in their support for the ongoing negotiations. Many of those surveyed noted that a nuclear deal would provide economic benefits to Iranians, thus changing the domestic political calculus to enable more focus on human rights and civil liberties issues. They argued that an end to the confrontation over the nuclear issue would also allow human rights issues in Iran to be raised more constructively on the global stage.
As Nasrin Sotoudeh, the prominent human rights lawyer and former political prisoner put it: “It is obvious that we welcome peaceful relations with all countries and as such support the negotiations.” Issa Saharkhiz, another former political prisoner and journalist also reflected a prevalent view amongst dissidents: “If there is a successful nuclear negotiation, then the Iranian state will find itself in a position where it will be forced to be accountable to criticisms of its human rights and civil liberties policies.”
However, the perpetuation of tensions over the nuclear file is likely to result in continued and even increased gross human rights violations. For example, throughout the past decade, Iranian hardliners, opposed to a deal, have thrived by capitalizing on the nuclear confrontation and using it to justify their repressive measures. Failure of the negotiations would embolden them. They would seek to weaken the government of relative moderate President Hassan Rouhani – who has promised reforms on rights issues -- by markedly increasing repression, targeting dissidents, and muffling the press and independent voices.
Here is how a nuclear deal going sour would worsen the human rights situation in Iran: If Rouhani fails to get a deal, that means he has failed to accomplish his primary goal of lifting sanctions and providing economic benefits to the ordinary Iranian. In such a scenario, he will be politically weak, in a domestic context, allowing the hardliners to exploit that weakness and crack down on any hope of greater freedom in Iran.
However, if Rouhani gets a deal and achieves greater economic benefits for the Iranian people, he will be stronger domestically and the hardliners won't have space to attack him or his agenda for greater openness inside Iran
In the absence of a deal, the hard-liners’ goal would be to take away Rouhani’s popular legitimacy by demonstrating that actual power resides with them and that Rouhani is incapable of either improving the economy or fulfilling his campaign promises on ending the harsh repression gripping the country since 2009. So far, most Iranians have been willing to give Rouhani the benefit of the doubt in easing the repression, believing a nuclear deal and removal of sanctions is a prerequisite for him to move forward on these fronts.
But the focus on the nuclear negotiations in no way precludes simultaneous attention to the state of human rights in Iran.
The imperative for this is clear: human rights in Iran remain in a state of crisis. This situation has not improved since Rouhani’s election last year, despite his promises to address the issue. Indeed, in some areas it has worsened, as hardliners outside the executive branch wield their power in the intelligence, security, and judicial arms of government. Executions have increased, hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars or under house arrest, the prosecution of Internet professionals and online activists has intensified, and freedom of speech, assembly and association remain significantly restricted in Iran.
We agree with the U.S. House of Representatives. The international community, particularly Europe and the United States, needs to fully incorporate human rights into its foreign policy towards Iran—not as a tool to undermine the negotiations, but rather as parallel focus, equal in importance to but independent of, the nuclear negotiations.
This is a particularly opportune time to address the state of human rights in Iran. Rouhani’s government has focused on rehabilitating the country’s foreign relations and ending its international isolation, goals that are central to his overriding objective of Iran’s economic revitalization. But the international community must make it clear that Iran’s full international rehabilitation is contingent upon an improvement in the country’s human rights record.
Both efforts—negotiating a peaceful resolution to the nuclear conflict, and fully incorporating rights concerns into foreign relations with Iran—are critical to the advance of human rights in Iran.
Ghaemi is the executive director of International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.