As the 68th UN General Assembly opens today, Washington and New York are abuzz with talk about whether pen pals Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani will shake hands and begin a process of bilateral détente that could lead to a nuclear accord between Iran and the major powers. Also at issue is whether America's commitment to human rights will be on the table.
The back story about the handshake is that Obama has moved from supporting individuals against unpopular rogue regimes to seeking accords with them at the expense of people. When he ordered U.S. airpower to join French and British warplanes, Obama sided with the Libyan people against the unpopular military regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. When he backed progressive revolutionaries against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Obama found common ground with civilians against an autocratic regime. Allying with the people against unjust regimes fits in with that American exceptionalism to which Russian President Vladimir Putin takes exception.
The accord between Obama and Putin over chemical weapons in Syria gives a shot in the arm to Bashar Assad's regime at the expense of the rebels. Obama had partly justified ordering potential military strikes to degrade Syria's armed forces on humanitarian grounds, i.e., the responsibility to protect defenseless civilians from future use of weapons of mass destruction by Assad's forces. But with the agreement with Putin, Obama trades off civilian concerns for the sake of being able to monitor, remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
Human rights are also at issue for Iranian dissidents in Iraq. They are members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), the largest unit in the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). They live under prison-like conditions in Iraq and have been murdered, kidnapped and held hostage by Baghdad, most likely at the behest of Tehran. Protecting them is called for on humanitarian and strategic grounds.
Washington pledged to protect them if they agreed to voluntarily give up their arms following Saddam Hussein's takedown in 2003. The U.S. government provided each individual Iranian with an ID card stating that Washington would protect them in accord with Article 27 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention for the protection of civilians caught up in a war zone.
Upon withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in late 2011, Washington turned the responsibility to protect the Iranian civilians over to Baghdad. Since Iraq won't do it, the United States continues to share responsibility to protect them, using diplomatic and economic means to convince the government of Iraq to meet its obligations.
The United Nations Assistance Mission, Iraq (UNAMI) shares responsibility with the United States and Iraq for the humane treatment of the Iranians in Iraq. The State Department urged the dissidents that survived an assault by Iraqi forces on September 1 to accept a UNAMI relocation plan. That plan calls for their safe relocation from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty; it is another site for holding residents for processing as asylum seekers to become international refugees en route to being resettled in third countries.
But Baghdad has blocked implementation of the UN plan, and the U.S. government has done little to overcome Iraq’s recalcitrance. The Iranian regime plays a huge role in the Iraqi maltreatment of Iranians in Iraq. Indeed, surviving residents assaulted in September report that they were attacked by Farsi-speaking members of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
On the strategic side, the PMOI are the core of those Iranians who reject clerical rule; hence, the Iranian regime pays them the most attention and persecutes them more than others in the opposition. Washington should take advantage of the regime’s preoccupation with the PMOI in potential bilateral talks with Tehran.
At issue is the price Rouhani is willing to pay for such engagement. Is Tehran willing to cease pressuring Baghdad to persecute the PMOI? The regime even considers the delisting of the PMOI from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations list as a sign Washington keeps open the option of stimulating soft regime change from within. If all options are truly on the table, Washington should keep the “soft revolution” alternative quietly on the table as well.
Finally, Hassan Rouhani calls for constructive engagement with Obama. The Iranian president defines this as diplomacy that takes into account issues of concern to the other party rather than simply pursuing one’s own goals. If there were a handshake at the UN, perhaps the two presidents would briefly discuss common interests to prevent the Assad regime from further use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people. They might also discuss the United States' responsibility to protect Iranian dissidents in Iraq who are under threat from Baghdad acting on behalf of Tehran. Placing such human rights on the table would be a welcome balance to Obama’s regime-focused approach to Iran, which seems singularly about Iran’s nuclear file.
Raymond Tanter is president of the Iran Policy Committee and was a member of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.