Keep the Focus on Iran's Human Rights

Dec 19, 2013 | Updated Feb 18, 2014

The recent interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers is a welcome development for most Iranians. It is a major step in the right direction, addressing many of their pressing concerns: it reduces international tensions, provides a diplomatic path to avoid a military confrontation, promises to make the country's nuclear activities transparent and subject to effective international monitoring, and begins the process of easing the great economic burden they have endured due to sanctions.

Yet there is also much concern inside Iran about the ongoing and widespread human rights violations in the country. For nearly a decade, the nuclear issue has eclipsed the struggle for human rights inside Iran on the international stage. As Iran's foreign policy makers move towards rapprochement with the West after 34 years of estrangement, Iranians are worried that their basic rights, instead of being elevated to the importance it deserves, will be sacrificed in these negotiations. They fear that repression in Iran could even intensify if the regime concludes that once a nuclear deal with the international community is reached, there will be little international pressure to improve the country's human rights record.

Progress towards a nuclear deal should by no means lessen international attention to the human rights violations that have reached crisis levels in Iran since the disputed 2009 election and which continue to this day despite the election of Hassan Rouhani. The Obama administration deserves credit for its diligent pursuit of the diplomatic track. But its policy makers must understand that they can pursue dialogue with the Iranian government on both the nuclear issue and the human rights front. Ignoring the latter, even if in the hopes of facilitating the former, would be a major mistake. Indeed, encouraging domestic political and social reform in Iran is essential for a successful and lasting nuclear deal and is unquestionably in the long-term strategic interests of Iran's negotiating partners.

Without pressure from the negotiating powers to improve the human rights situation, the Iranian government is likely to continue its current record, which has not resulted in tangible reforms. The hardliners in Iran may have lost the presidential election, but they continue to hold many major levers of power and so far they have ensured that the country's human rights record worsens rather than improves under Rouhani's presidency.

Rouhani came to power with an overwhelming mandate by the Iranian electorate not just to change the country's foreign policy track, but also to significantly reduce the social and political repression gripping the country. So far he has achieved little on this front. If Rouhani does not demonstrate leadership on the domestic front, his hardline opponents will capitalize on this weakness and may well challenge him on his foreign policy initiatives too, significantly endangering a final agreement on the nuclear file. Rouhani's failure to end the current repression will disappoint the millions who voted for him and reduce his popular support, further empowering the hardliners to stymie his foreign policies. This is exactly what happened to the reformist president Khatami, who achieved neither lasting domestic reforms nor foreign policy success.

Now is the time, with both sides fully and substantively engaged, for the West to press Iran to respect its international human rights obligations. No foreign power, including the US, can directly bring about lasting democratic changes to Iran. Such a development must be homegrown and there is a large constituency inside the country struggling peacefully for it, as the election of Rouhani has demonstrated. But the international community, in particular the US and the EU, can play an important role by publicly and privately communicating to the Iranian government that progress on the human rights is as much of an imperative for normalized relations with the West as the nuclear issue.

For the United States, the promotion of human rights in Iran, and, with it, the moderate, reform-minded, and pro-democracy constituency in Iran, is a win-win. Those who say, "Let Rouhani bring home a (nuclear) win; then he will have the domestic strength to promote human rights," have got it wrong. Only now, while both sides want a deal, is there leverage. If the West shows that it is uninterested in anything but the nuclear file, when Rouhani returns home, regardless of his success, the message will be clear: the West cares little about human rights in Iran. The West's leverage will be reduced, the hardliners emboldened on the domestic front, and the long-term stability of the country, so central to region-wide stability, will be seriously called into question.

There can be no long-term stability in Iran if the millions of young, educated, Internet-savvy citizens who came out in huge numbers to vote for reform and human rights are abandoned. An Iranian government that respects basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, observes basic standards of justice and the rule of law, and opens up the social and political space to tolerate peaceful dissent, is essential to the stability of the region.

For too long the Iranian people have paid a heavy price for their government's disregard for human rights. They should not now pay further for the international community's single-minded focus on the nuclear crisis and abandonment of human rights.