Don’t give Iran pass on human rights

The November nuclear deal signed in Geneva with the Iranian regime has eclipsed a range of human rights violations, bolstered by Western silence. This, while Tehran’s temporary retreat in Geneva was caused by overwhelming popular and organized movements, which Iran’s rulers now seek to completely crush.

As part of a wide-ranging debate, critics of the Geneva deal regard it as an extravagant concession to Tehran. Billions of dollars in cash were released in exchange for a tenuous break in Tehran’s nuclear efforts.

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Two major concerns stand out. First, the sanctions regime, the West’s most prominent leverage, is now in danger of being undone. And second, Tehran still holds the key to producing a nuclear weapon.

We have no guarantees that Tehran will play by the rules, especially given its long pedigree of duplicity, deception and clandestine activities.

Still, the mullahs did sign the accord and effectively retreated, albeit a single step. Had Western negotiators adopted a firmer policy, the mullahs would have retreated even more. But the West was too timid and complicit.

Tehran’s move back resulted from intense pressure both from the domestic population and also their organized opposition in Iraq. Since the massive 2009 uprisings, the mullahs are absolutely terrified of popular protests. The Geneva deal revealed a regime that is isolated, afraid, fractured and surrounded by a whirlwind of crises. It could no longer tolerate the economic, social, political, domestic and international pressures piling up on its decaying pillars.

This should indicate that pressure works. It should be increased, not decreased, rendering compromise fundamentally counterproductive. So, the fundamental question is this: How can pressure on Tehran be increased to ensure it will comply with the provisions of the interim deal and to compel it to retreat further in the future?

At the core of all politics in Iran is a disenchanted population ready to rise up against systematic and gross human rights violations. According to Amnesty International, the mullahs have executed more than 600 people in the last year, mostly under President Hassan Rouhani. This prompted the U.N. General Assembly to adopt the 60th censure resolution on rights abuses in Iran last month.

During Rouhani’s presidency, public executions and draconian punishments such as lashing, torture, arbitrary imprisonment and limb amputations have seen a drastic rise. The suppression of minorities has also been much more pronounced, including mass executions of Kurds and Baluchis.

By doing this, the regime wants to restrain the main cause for its retreat in Geneva: popular pressure. It believes that the West will not protest in the shadow of ongoing nuclear talks.

It would be disastrous for Western powers to make this mistake, because if Tehran succeeds in restraining popular pressure, it will have little incentive to retreat further from its nuclear efforts. Sanctions will also be effective only in the context of popular pressure.

The regime should be forced to stop its rights abuses, including the unjustified imprisoning of pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent. Tehran’s abuses should at least be referred to the U.N. Security Council.

Second, outside Iran in neighboring Iraq, the lives of thousands of members of the organized democratic opposition, the MEK, are in serious danger. The residents were forced to relocate from their home of 27 years at Ashraf, a modern city they had built themselves, to a camp called Liberty. As we celebrated Christmas this year, the prison-like Camp “Liberty,” came under heavy missile attacks from Iranian regime agents for the fourth time. The “Christmas Massacre” at Liberty left four defenseless residents dead and 71 wounded.

Back in September, Iranian-backed Iraqi security forces had once again attacked the unarmed civilians, killing 52 innocent refugees, including my own brother Amir.

Forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also took seven residents hostage, including my cousin, refusing to release them. The U.S. and the U.N. must work to not only compel al-Maliki to free these hostages, but to ensure that the residents of Camp Liberty are protected from further attacks. President Obama can order the transfer of these refugees, many of them Western-educated, to U.S. soil to save their lives.

In a bipartisan fashion, Congress has already made great progress on all these issues. Many members, including my representative, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), deserve accolades from the Iranian-American community for their diligent and untiring efforts in support of democracy and human rights in Iran. It is now up to the White House to act.

The mullahs should not get a free pass to commit horrendous rights abuses. If they do, they will be emboldened to advance, not retreat, in other policy arenas, including the nuclear dossier. 

Afzalnia is a businessman and lives in Placentia, Calif. His younger brother Amir Hossein was killed by Iraqi security forces on Sept. 1 at Camp Ashraf, Iraq.