New Coalition to Focus on Human Rights, Democracy in Iran

Since the threat of Iran's nuclear program has grown into a frightening reality, Washington has mostly contemplated Iran in nuclear terms. During the present moment of Middle East upheaval, a new coalition of foreign-policy advocates will try to change that.

The Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute, along with other think-tankers and foreign-policy minds, launched a coalition today aimed at shifting the focus of Iran policy toward human-rights and democracy--issues, they say, go hand in hand with nuclear weapons as the reason why Iranian nukes are threatening in the first place.

Here's the list of members, from the group's announcement:

Andrew Apostolou, co-chair, Freedom House
Joshua Block, co-chair, Progressive Policy Institute
Jim Arkedis, Progressive Policy Institute
Rafael Bardají, Atlantic Council/Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales
Jeffrey Herf, University of Maryland
Ken Pollack, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the Brookings Institution
Steve Beckerman, American Israel Public Affairs Committee
Renee Redman, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center
Ray Takeyh, Council on Foreign Relations
Michael Adler, Woodrow Wilson Center

The group will meet with foreign governments, academics, government and intelligence officials, and players in the Iranian democratic movement. It will release a policy paper aimed at changing how the Obama administration, and the rest of the world, talks about Iran and structures its policies. (The task force's name, Beyond Sanctions: The Next Iran Strategy, indicates they're looking for creative ways to pressure Iran through multilateral diplomacy and public comments, not just trade restrictions.)

Nuclear weapons and human rights 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 that has a direct impact," said Freedom House co-chair Andrew Apostolou on a conference call with reporters this morning.

In 2009, the Iranian government's approach to human rights came into full view, as dissidents and journalists were threatened, beaten, and jailed. The world came to recognize Iran's presidential election, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secured reelection over opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, as egregiously rigged. It was that moment--not the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor--that began the present wave of pro-democratic unrest in the region, according to Josh Block, the former AIPAC spokesman who helped launch this effort.

The point of the group is not to criticize the Obama administration, but to supply it with strategic options.

"I think they've taken some actions that have been important," Block said, referencing President Obama's initial openness to engage Iran and his messages to the Iranian people on the Nowruz holiday.

The administration's initial policy was an attempt "to test Iran and give Iran a chance to say we are serious about talking about our nuclear regime, and I think the Iranian response was loud and clear that [Iran was] not serous," Apostolou said. "What are you supposed to do, after 30 years ... the same thing?

"They gave it a try, and it didn't work. It didn't work, and now they're casting around for ideas."

Seizing a pro-democratic zeitgeist, the group will cast its net and try to bring those ideas to the fore.