We must focus on Iran's human rights violations now

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Despite its natural resources, educated population, rich history and geographic size, Iran has existed as a pariah state since its 1979 revolution. Some believe enactment of the deal to regulate Iran's nuclear activities, lift sanctions and allow an eventual inflow of foreign direct investment will unchain this large untapped emerging market and enable Iran to prosper. But Iran's global status does not rest on its economic credentials, or even its military power alone; rather, it coexists with a civil and political context that demands greater attention. Specifically, until the Islamic Republic regime abandons its systematic and ongoing violations of human and political rights, Iran will fail to realize its full potential.

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President Hassan Rouhani's unexpected election victory in 2013 resulted not only from his promise to revive Iran's economy, but also restore Iran’s global credibility. Much of the Iranian population had become disenfranchised by the rhetoric of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a menacing foreign policy that offered little hope of a normalized Iran free of sanctions. Rouhani was the sole presidential candidate to reference civil rights during the campaign and his speeches at least suggested a leadership style that might enable domestic reforms.

More than two years into his first term, Iranians celebrate the nuclear deal and sanctions relief. But they would be hard-pressed to identify progress on Iran's human and political rights record. Many believed Rouhani would have by now gained the release of Green Movement leaders in their fifth year of detention, including former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard and former Parliamentary Speaker Mehdi Karroubi. Instead, Rouhani has not commented on even one occasion of these prisoners or their potential for release, while the Iranian press remains prohibited from mentioning their names. The regime's sham trial and conviction of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, finally released this past weekend after more than a year of detention, symbolizes the regime's paranoia of a free press and need to censor perspectives that challenge the social narrative it promotes. Under Rouhani, the sophistication of Iran's censorship and monitoring of the Internet has increased, while the country continues to hold thousands of political prisoners driving dissent even further underground.

The RouhaniMeter, a website hosted by a Canadian university, provides an analytic snapshot of Rouhani's priorities to date. Among 73 campaign promises, 13 have been achieved and 29 are "in progress," with the largest number, 24, relating directly to improving Iran's economy. Rouhani's agenda has focused almost exclusively on economic improvements, while promises to increase equality between men and women, assure equal rights for Iranian ethnicities, allow minorities to practice religious rituals, revive the Association of Iranian Journalists and enable uncensored access to information have not materialized.

Rouhani's lack of attention to civil and political reforms is clearly documented in reports released by the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Iran and the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Reporting by these institutions bring to life the lack of commitment by Iran's leaders to change laws that violate internationally recognized rights and standards. These include restrictions on the media, criminalizing expression, limiting access to information, the arrest of civic and political dissidents, and persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.

The Rouhani government's inattention to these issues has emboldened Iran's hardliners to become more aggressive toward dissidents. Last year, the Islamic Republic Guard Corps (IRGC) initiated Project Ankabout (Persian for "spider") to identify and arrest Iranians for their use of Facebook for "activist" purposes. The IRGC has also made clear that it intends to go after users of other social media including Instagram, Viber and Whatsapp. Meanwhile, hardliners continue to shutter opposition newspapers and systematically harass and detain Iranians.

Next month, the country will elect 290 members of parliament using a managed process that fails to meet minimum international standards for free and fair elections. In the continued absence of civil and political reforms, there is little reason to think the elections will yield an outcome any more legitimate than those held previously. Reform will require not only improved leadership by Rouhani, but also a greater focus by the international community on Iran's human and political rights violations.

As global attention has shifted from nuclear negotiations to enforcement of the agreement on Iran's nuclear program, the United States should not downgrade its focus on supporting the majority of Iranian people who aspire for a more democratic country. An Iran capable of reclaiming its international legitimacy depends on the adoption of internationally recognized human and political rights that the people of Iran covet. This should be the focus, especially now that Iran stands to benefit economically and despite the complications it may present for commercial interests wanting to do business in Iran. An Iran capable of reaching its full potential over the long term demands a greater focus on Iran's human rights violations now.

Green is president of the International Republican Institute, former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and former member of congress representing Wisconsin's 8th District.