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Task Force to Push Iran Agenda by Focusing on Human Rights

by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.

02 Apr 2011 01:16Comments
iran_hanging2_1.jpg[ dispatch ] A new task force, led by Andrew Apostolou of Freedom House and Josh Block of the Progressive Policy Institute, has been set up to push a human rights agenda in Iran. Called "Beyond Sanctions: The Next Iran Strategy," the task force plans to consult with Iranian dissidents, U.S. government and military officials, and regional experts over the next several months and release its first report in mid-summer.

Its primary goal, says Jim Arkedis, the director of PPI's National Security Project and a member of the task force, will be to press the Obama administration to weigh in more aggressively on issues related to human rights in Iran. "The Obama administration came in, launched its Iran initiative, extended its hand and was rebuffed, and now it has fallen back on sanctions," says Arkedis. "We've focused on human rights because we believe that that is an essential part of the basket of issues that has to be presented. If we are going to negotiate with them, it's going to be very important to put human rights on the table."

But the task force includes no Iranians and only a handful of people with any track record of expertise on Iran, and it's weighed down by the fact that several of its members and board of advisers have close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Block, its co-chair, was for many years AIPAC's spokesman, and other participants include Steve Beckerman of AIPAC and Rob Satloff, an adviser, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which was founded as an offshoot of AIPAC. Other members of the task force include Ken Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution; Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations; Jeffrey Herf, an expert on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust at the University of Maryland; Rafael Bardají, a Spanish expert on NATO and defense at the Atlantic Council; Renee Redman, a former ACLU official who serves as the executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center; and Michael Adler, a former reporter for Agence France Presse who is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"I understand that we have people associated with AIPAC, and people may think that they'll have other axes to grind," says Arkedis. "I would only say that we'll let the results speak for themselves. Certainly, Josh [Block] and the others are not just looking at this from an Israeli perspective."

Yet, with so many groups concerned about Iran and about human rights in that country -- among them, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) -- it's not clear what the new group can accomplish. Many Iranians, fearful of appearing too close to the United States or Israel, would likely be leery of associating themselves or their families with a group identified with current and former AIPAC officials, because of the fierce animosity between Iran and Israel.

Arkedis says that the task force plans to take up the cases of prominent Iranians who've been arrested or harassed inside Iran, but he adds that before making any public statements about an individual case they will get permission of the families to highlight it.

The lone Iranian on the task force, Golnaz Esfandiari, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, left the task force because her employers at RFE/RL considered that her participation was a conflict of interest, according to Arkedis.

In a piece announcing the creation of the task force for The Progressive Fix, a PPI outlet, Arkedis minces no words about Iran's nuclear program, saying that Iran "defiantly continues efforts to construct a nuclear device," though two recent U.S. intelligence community NIE's (National Intelligence Estimates) have expressed uncertainty about Iran's intentions and about whether it is engaged in efforts to manufacture a nuclear weapons capability. But speaking on a conference call with reporters to announce the task force, Apostolou, the senior program manager for Iran at Freedom House, said that the nuclear issue and human rights in Iran "are separate issues, but they're separate issues with regard to the same regime, so one of the things the task force is going to listen and come up with is ... how do you raise those separate issues and when do you raise them [in a way] that has a direct impact?"

Neither Block nor Apostolou returned calls before the deadline for writing this piece. And another member of the task force, Michael Adler, of the Woodrow Wilson Center, seemed out of the loop about the launching of the group. When a reporter mentioned that he'd listened to part of the phone briefing by Block and Apostolou, Adler replied, "There was a phone briefing? I didn't even know there was a press release." When asked why he'd joined the task force and what he hoped it might do, he said, "I don't want to talk about it." Another person close to the task force, who asked not to be identified, said, "You should ask them why they don't have any Iranians serving on it."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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