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Opinion: US Must Raise the Heat on Iran Human Rights


17 Mar 2011 01:12Comments
FarsHangingCrowd11.jpgA three-pronged proposal to reframe American policy.

[ opinion ] Barack Obama entered office promising to remake U.S. policy on Iran. He now needs to do so again by elevating America's focus on human rights to the same level as sanctions and engagement.

Previously, America's Iran policy focused almost entirely on the pressure track -- imposing harsh sanctions and threatening military action. From day one, President Obama rejected this approach in favor of a dual-track strategy that combined economic pressure with direct engagement. In the absence of notable progress, however, this approach too is being reevaluated.

Today, as the entire Middle Eastern landscape is being transformed, U.S. Iran policy must enter a new phase: one that seeks to find a solution to pressing human rights concerns.

This administration has spoken out about the human rights situation in Iran, but it has not elevated the issue to a top priority. Yet the United States has real interests at stake: evidence recently surfaced proving former FBI agent Robert Levinson is still alive after his disappearance four years ago. Two American hikers, Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer, remain stuck in Iranian prison after almost 20 months -- longer than the 1979 hostage crisis. At least one high-profile case of an American unjustly incarcerated in Iran has been in the news every year since 2007, from Haleh Esfandiari to Esha Momeni to Roxana Saberi.

American negotiators pressed the human rights issue on the sidelines of nuclear talks in 2009, but there is still no mechanism for official day-to-day communication about U.S. captives in Iran. Negotiating their release should be a primary motivation for both further talks and more pressure.

Last September and again this past month, the White House imposed sanctions on individual human rights violators, issuing stern denunciations of Iranian abuses. But these small measures are a drop in the ocean, serving more as a personal nuisance for the cited officials than an incentive for the regime to change its behavior. In order to have a real impact, the United States must make it clear that sanctions are tied to regime behavior -- and ending its deplorable treatment of civilians is one way the Islamic Republic can actually have sanctions lifted.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have also expressed support for establishing a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran. This mission would provide important information about the situation on the ground -- notably the rash of political executions in 2011. And it could serve as yet another lever in the effort to push Tehran to alter its repressive behavior.

Last month, 24 senators sent a letter urging the United States to support the establishment of a special monitor during the current U.N. Human Rights Council session, and the administration is pushing hard for it in the two weeks that remain. This would send a powerful signal to the Iranian people that the United States has not lost sight of the singular importance human rights have in the movement for reform in Iran.

Popular protests throughout the region are demonstrating just how powerful public opinion can be, and the vast majority of Iranians since June 2009 have been united in their demand for improving basic rights in their country. For the United States to champion this cause would help it regain lost legitimacy in the region and could create much needed space for Iran's opposition movement.

Finally, the reports that opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have been detained by security services should also spur greater action from the United States. Officials in Washington were quick to condemn President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hypocritical support for Arab uprisings while he cracks down on dissent at home; such criticism should be sustained and amplified in light of this recent and significant escalation. Mousavi and Karroubi represent more than just the defeated candidates in a questionable election; they represent a popular demand for a more just system rooted in the rule of law. They have their supporters and their detractors, but Mousavi and Karroubi are today an embodiment of precisely the types of values the United States seeks to foster in the Middle East, and the United States should press the issue.

These three acts -- negotiating the release of U.S. captives, establishing a U.N. rights monitor, and condemning the treatment of opposition leaders -- can serve as first steps in a reconceived approach toward Iran that builds on the legitimacy of people-centered movements sweeping the region today. A new U.S. approach centered around human rights would be a powerful tool for change in this year of already-dramatic Middle Eastern transformation.

Patrick Disney is pursuing a Master's in International Relations at Yale University. He previously served as the Assistant Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council and directed the Campaign for a New American Policy on Iran.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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