A New Opportunity for the U.S. to Promote Human Rights in Iran

Three ideas for how Obama can leverage the Arab uprising

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Since the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, President Obama has stood up for peaceful protestors and criticized the Iranian government for its brutal tactics without (so far) playing politics with the issue at home. But his stance on human rights in Iran has brought little in the way of tangible actions. With nearly the entire Middle East embroiled in protests against the status quo, Obama may have an unprecedented opportunity to move his Iran agenda forward.

There are two major challenges facing any comprehensive, long-term U.S. strategy on Iran. First, because the U.S. has an unsuccessful track record of supporting opposition movements in Iran, any change in existing policy would require cautious implementation to avoid marring those movements as American puppets. Second, the U.S. has countless security interests that are affected by its hostile relations with Iran. Both countries lack the standard diplomatic channels that could enable the U.S. and Iranian governments to discuss issues directly and peacefully. Given these challenges, as Iran's government adopts increasingly brutal tactics against its population, how can the U.S. effectively promote human rights in the country? Here are three options that Obama has available to him.

First, his administration could help establish an independent human rights monitor under UN authority.
The Iranian government has executed over 100 people since January 1, 2011 -- only the latest chapter in its increasingly brutal human rights record. Despite this disturbing uptick, the international community has yet to take any additional, concrete steps to address Iran's systematic abuses. The United Nations could implement serious measures to help curb Iranian government repression by establishing an independent UN human rights monitor at the Human Rights Council. The U.S. and its allies could establish this monitor to investigate and report on Iran's human rights situation to the international community. In other words, to name and shame. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Suzanne Nossel pointed out at a conference by the National Iranian American Council this week, such country monitors are in place in many of the world's worst human rights violators, such as Burma and North Korea -- but not in Iran. Establishing a UN monitor -- and ensuring its yearly renewal until Iran's human rights situation no longer warrants monitoring -- will provide scrutiny, transparency, and public pressure that might help chasten the Iranian government into curbing its abuses.

Second, imposing wider targeted sanctions would punish human rights abusers but not the Iranian people.
Iran has long operated under the burden of broad-based sanctions. Rather than yielding under such pressure, these sanctions appear to have only strengthened the resolve of Iranian decision-makers -- many of whom are veterans of revolution and war, with a world view shaped in part by perceiving (rightly or wrongly) an international community that has repeatedly turned its back on post-revolutionary Iran. But with the Iranian economy in tatters, it's average Iranians who bear the brunt of broad sanctions. Standing with the Iranian people in their quest for universal rights would require Obama to avoid hurting the people he seeks to help. This is big part of why Obama has implemented targeted sanctions on Iranian leaders and human rights abusers -- including freezing bank accounts, imposing travel restrictions, and prohibiting business cooperation with certain government entities. Such sanctions can alter the strategic calculus of Iran's government without unduly harming the Iranian people. But these targeted sanctions are eclipsed by the far more severe broad-based sanctions. Obama's choice to implement targeted sanctions suggests he appreciated their effectiveness -- shifting emphasis to more such sanctions, and away from the broad-based sanctions, could be a way forward for U.S. policy. Expanding the list of targeted Iranian officials, phasing in additional rounds of targeted sanctions, and building international adherence will sharpen Iran's choices, shield average Iranians from the "unintended" consequences of broad sanctions, and provide flexibility to maintain credible offers of diplomacy.

Presented by

Reza Marashi and Trita Parsi

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council and a former Iran desk officer at the U.S. Department of State. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council.

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