Iranian human rights activists, hungry for political openings and economic relief at home, strongly backed the Iran nuclear deal and provided critical support in the contentious Congressional debate.  Now they are under attack by hardliners in the Iranian regime and they need international support more than ever. 

But rather than simply vilify the Iranian regime for its actions, the United States and other governments should rally support for the United Nations’ and other international efforts to address human rights concerns and to open space for civil society to flourish.  


The climate inside Iran is “dire,” according to Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran. In his most recent report, Shaheed wrote that the Iranian government has persecuted and marginalized women and minorities, and is silencing, journalists, artists, political reformers, and anyone openly critical of the regime.  

Last month, the Iranian government detained Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American businessman promoting ties between Iran and the U.S. He likely will face espionage or subversion charges.

The Iranian government has held Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, since mid-2014. A prominent cartoonist,Hadi Heidari, was arrested for drawing the Eiffel tower with tears in the wake of the Paris terrorist attack. Other journalists, poets, and advocates for children and labor rights languish in detention without access to legal counsel.  

An uptick in death penalty sentences in Iran, already the world’s leader in per capita executions, is even more alarming. More than 700 prisoners have been executed this year, the vast majority for petty drug offenses.  Iran is on track to set a new annual record. 

While the Iran nuclear deal buoyed some hopes for progress on domestic issues, recent developments underscore the durability of conservative hardliners in Iran’s government. Backed by the intelligence and judiciary branches and defended by the powerful International Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s security bodies and senior religious leaders remain opposed to any political openings to the United States.  They have emphatically signaled that collaboration on the nuclear nonproliferation accord will not herald cooperation in other areas. Ironically, their crackdown on Western journalists and businessmen may drive away the very foreign investment needed to reboot the economy. 

Supporting human rights and its defenders in Iran is both the right thing to do and a smart, long-term policy. After all, civil society activists and reformers in Iran remain an important, if modest, check on the conservative regime. The international community’s failure to engage Iran on human rights issues would only reinforce the conservative crackdown and cut off pathways to strengthening civil society and improving human rights in the future. The U.S. and international community have an interest in shoring up civil society organizations and citizens working toward political reform and increased global engagement.  

A strategy to mobilize global civil society to denounce Iran’s human rights record and to support Dr. Shaheed’s mandate – up for renewal in 2016 –can best raise the reputational cost to Iran of continued repression. The U.S. should also press American and international companies looking to do business in Iran to maintain standards and practices that respect human rights. By joining with other governments to pressure Iran on human rights, the United States could lessen the distrust often associated with such American activism.  

For Iranian human rights and civil society activists, the nuclear agreement’s aftermath could still enable critical first steps towards building a more open society. But, until the international community can effectively pressure Iran’s political establishment to safeguard human rights and civil liberties, the nuclear deal’s full promise will remain elusive for both Iran and the West.

Baccaglini is a program assistant at the Open Society Foundations in Washington, D.C.