Why the double standard on human rights with Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Why the double standard on human rights with Saudi Arabia and Iran?
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Why does President Biden consider Saudi Arabia a “pariah” nation but does not have the same level of animosity for the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose human rights history is at least as troubling as Saudi Arabia’s? 

Unlike Iran, which will remain an American adversary for the foreseeable future, Saudi Arabia is an important, if flawed, strategic ally. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia has begun a process to reform its human rights behavior. Yes, the Saudis have a long way to go. Still, they have undertaken significant reforms that are expected to continue as long as the de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, remains in control and intends to implement his Vision 2030 initiative to move Saudi Arabia into the modern era.

As Ben Hubbard of the New York Times reported, Biden, a Saudi critic, “vowed to stand up for human rights and called for a broad reassessment of the American-Saudi relationship.” At the same time, Hubbard notes that executions, a central point of contention with Western critics, have declined 85 percent in the past year. In addition, “Saudi Arabia has made significant progress addressing an issue that has long undermined relations with the United States: content deemed hateful to non-Muslims in Saudi school books.”  


The hoped-for improvement of Iran’s human rights by the Obama administration never materialized after the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Critics at the time, such as Suzanne Nossel, writing in Foreign Policy, said: “The world shouldn’t let Tehran off the hook for its egregious human rights violations just because Rouhani came to the nuclear table.” Yet Iran’s abysmal human rights record in the years following the nuclear accord barely registered a public condemnation with the JCPOA team that is now in the White House.  

According to Tzvi Kahn and Alireza Nader, fellows at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “The State Department has consistently documented in its annual human rights reports since 2015 that the regime in Tehran regularly perpetrates arbitrary or unlawful killings and arrests; torture, forced confessions, and other cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment; unfair trials … repression of civil liberties, including press freedom, internet freedom, academic freedom, and freedom of peaceful assembly. There is rampant corruption and lack of transparency in government; and discrimination against women, the LGBTI community, and ethnic minorities. … The Islamic Republic’s repression has only increased since 2015, demonstrating that one-sided nuclear concessions cannot produce reform in a regime defined by its radical Islamist ideology.”  

As required by Congress, Director of National Intelligence Avril HainesAvril HainesVirtual realities may solve Fermi's paradox about extraterrestrials Federal judge dismisses lawsuit against former top Saudi intel official Overnight Defense & National Security — Russian military moves cause for concern MORE will be releasing a report about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi security forces at the Saudi embassy in Turkey. The Biden administration blames MbS for ordering the assassination. But is public shaming and distancing the U.S. from Saudi Arabia in America’s national security interest? Wouldn’t nuance and behind-the-scenes lobbying encouraging their positive moves for human rights be a more effective strategy, especially since significant, if imperfect, reform is already taking place?

More egregious than the odious Khashoggi affair, simply on scale, is the myriad of Iran’s human rights violations that seem not to exercise Biden administration officials as much. One of the numerous examples was the 2019 anti-government protests where hundreds of peaceful Iranian demonstrators were killed, and thousands were jailed under the government’s direction. A 2019 State Department Human Rights report said Iran “effectively took no steps to investigate, prosecute, punish, or otherwise hold accountable officials who committed these abuses, many of which were perpetrated as a matter of government policy.” 

Gissou Nia, a senior fellow with Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, said the anticipated return to the JCPOA “comes an obligation to ensure that human rights concerns are not swept to the side in a desire to placate the Islamic Republic in negotiations on the nuclear file.” This is something the Biden administration seems unwilling to do, preferring to resurrect an agreement that only postpones Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. Is so flawed an agreement worth the price America pays in abandoning its principles on human rights? 

Human rights in Saudi Arabia likely will continue to improve incrementally, but in Iran they will remain in the same dismal state. When Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei passes on, the two leading candidates to replace him are known human rights abusers. The top candidates are the current head of the judiciary — Ebrahim Raisi, whose resume includes mass executions of political prisoners, and the ayatollah’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei. He was in charge of the regime’s crackdown to break the 2009 Green Revolution, when millions of Iranians took to the streets against the regime. The Obama administration chose not to support the democracy protestors, hoping that appeasement of the theocratic regime would be reciprocated with a rapprochement and liberalization. Human rights and the Iranian people both lost.  

There is an echo to today’s double standard on Saudi human rights violations and the desire of the new administration to ignore Iran’s human rights record, solely because it is focused on a return to the nuclear agreement. At the time of the JCPOA, the Obama-now-Biden team promised that non-nuclear issues with Iran would be addressed separately. This never happened.

Why do those who created the JCPOA still not acknowledge that a fundamental flaw of the agreement was expecting reciprocity on other issues with sanctions relief and ending their isolation? In fact, the opposite happened and human rights paid the price. For example, within weeks of the deal, the late Iranian General Qassem Soleimani met with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinSenators huddle on Russia sanctions as tensions escalate Schumer requests Senate briefing on Ukraine amid Russia tensions Biden rushes to pressure Russia as Ukraine fears intensify MORE to coordinate support for the genocidal Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which accelerated one of the great human rights disasters of the early 21st century. 

With humility, the best course for the Biden administration is to be patient. As Washington Post veteran reporter David Ignatius said, “Sometimes in life, the best thing to do about a problem is nothing, at least initially. ... Don’t hurry to restart nuclear negotiations with Iran.” 

We should also quietly encourage the Saudis to continue to reform their human rights behavior. America has both time and economic leverage on its side, and it should not succumb to Iranian pressures and artificial timelines. A truly improved Iran nuclear agreement would not only end its nuclear weapons project but also address Iran’s human rights record.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is the  senior editor for “Security” at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post.