Iran Human Rights Violations, US Policy Criticized at NIAC Conference
Washington DC - "I am incensed by what has happened to Haleh Esfandiari," said Congressmen James Moran (D-VA) addressing a packed room on Capitol Hill last Thursday. Moran, an outspoken critic of human rights violators, was just one of the many distinguished panelists who spoke at NIAC's second major Capitol Hill policy conference of the year. The arrest of Dr. Esfandiari and other Iranian Americans, the Virginia lawmaker continued, was an indication of the "utter lack of courage and conscience on the part of the current Iranian leadership. It's inexcusable and it shows how isolated Tehran has become."
But while Moran argued for an end to US calls for regime change and sanctions policies, and instead argued for engagement to address the human rights violations, Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO) called for tougher actions. "I do believe that perhaps a more aggressive posture on the part of the United States is warranted considering Iran's actions," Tancredo said while casting doubt on the State Department's ability to negotiate.
Sponsored by the Kenbe Foundation, the Pluralism Fund, the Ploughshares Fund and Amnesty International, the panel on "Human Rights in Iran and US Policy Options" attracted a diverse crowd consisting of republican and democratic lawmakers, congressional staffers, journalists, and scholars of international affairs. In addition to lawmakers Moran and Tancredo, panelists included former New York Times Op-Ed page staff editor, Laura Secor; Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, Joe Stork; and executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies, John Tirman, Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA) and Alexandra Arriaga, Director of Government Relations at Amnesty International.
David Denehy, Senior Advisor at the State Department could not participate in the panel, citing a scheduling conflict. He had been invited to present the Administration's perspective.
The intent of the conference was to bring to light Iran's deteriorating human rights situation and to discuss the potential role of US policy in reversing that decline.
In its 28 year history, Iran has gained worldwide notoriety for its human rights violations. Recent events, however, including the arrests of several Iranian American scholars under charges of espionage as well as the harassment and detention of women's rights activists constitute what Arriaga refers to as a "crackdown." "The right to peaceful protest, the right to freedom of expression, the freedom of association; these are basic, fundamental human rights," said Arriaga.
Arriaga's analysis of the situation focused on four major areas: 1) abuses against political prisoners and human rights defenders, 2) the crackdown on women's human rights activists, 3) violations against ethnic and religious minorities, and 4) the use of the death penalty, especially in the areas mentioned above. Though these kinds of abuses are not unique in Iran's recent history, Arriaga identified in them "a pattern that seems to be intensifying."
One impetus for the trend seems to be a fear of foreign intervention in Iranian civil society. In 2006, Iran's Ministry of the Interior was reported to be preparing measures to restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations that allegedly received finance from what he termed ‘problematic internal and external sources aimed at overthrowing the system.' According to Arriaga, this determination by the Iranian government became "a blanket cover in order to be able to arrest anyone who was dissenting or who was challenging the regime."
The ‘problematic external force' to which the Interior Minister refers is believed to be the US State Department and its $75 million budget for democracy promotion programs in Iran. Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch broke down the $75 million figure (which was part of a 2006 supplemental budget request by the Bush administration) into three parts: $55 million for electronic media and US government broadcasting efforts, $5 million for student and other international exchanges, and $15 million to "empower local activists and... support alternative political centers of gravity," in the words of Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns.
According to Stork, this $15 million appropriation specifically targeting Iranian civil society "amounts to nothing less than reckless endangerment of the very people the administration purports to support." The problem, says Stork, is not with the funding itself necessarily but with the context in which it is presented. Because these funds for democratic development come along side threats of regime change, they are seen as highly suspect. "Is it any wonder that Iranian activists, the presumed beneficiaries of this largesse, have described this program as painting a target on their backs?"
John Tirman of MIT shared similar concerns. "I worry much less about the famous, or infamous, $75 million for civil society ....than I do about the threats of regime change by force that is often muttered under the breath of several US officials and indeed many Democratic Party politicians too. Bashing Iran is a free card in American politics, and everyone feels entitled to play. But words have consequences," said Tirman.
According to Tirman, a new approach is needed. "We need to recognize that the 28-year policies of strangulation and intimidation have not worked. The withholding of good will and normal relations, for many who are in power in Iran, is not a penalty but a blessing: rapprochement itself is suspect because the accommodationism of the Khatami years...brought nothing but sanctions and 'axis of evil' rhetoric."
Tirman made the case that the insularity this isolation has bred makes the "hardest of a hardliners" impervious to the sticks and carrots used by the international community. To remedy this, he proposes working to bring Iran into the international community by talking to them directly on nuclear and security issues, ending the threat of war, and taking tangible steps toward ending sanctions.
Like Tirman and Stork, panelist Laura Secor identified the threat of US-imposed regime change as one of the most counterproductive policies in the US diplomatic tool kit. "As one exasperated Iranian recently said to me, the best way to bring about regime change in Iran is to stop talking about regime change. An Iranian activist I met with in Tehran implored me to bring the following message home to my government: Please stop declaring your solidarity with us."
Secor emphasized that Iran's own secular, democratic opposition movement is in the best position to bring about real change in political landscape because of its "deep, indigenous roots and widespread popular support." These factors give it legitimacy among the Iranian people that foreign or ex-patriot groups could never achieve. For this reason, she suggested, the best course of action might well be no action at all.
Though the discussion did not provide any easy solutions to the human rights crisis in Iran, it did help to identify some of the problems. The panelists agreed that current US policies are hurting the Iranian human rights movement more than they are helping it. "For the moment," said Stork of Human Rights Watch, "let's go back to first principles: do no harm."
Full transcripts and video of the conference will be made available shortly.