Washington, DC – As Congress prepares a new round of unilateral Iran sanctions, two top State Department officials discussed the Obama administration’s approach to Iran’s human rights situation last Wednesday before the Middle East subcommittee of Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The officials highlighted the recent successful establishment of a United Nations human rights monitor, which Middle East Subcommittee Chairman Bob Casey called a “significant achievement.”
Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, noted that the Iranian government devoted enormous diplomatic resources to defeat the monitor’s establishment, but that key states that Iran counted on to obstruct the measure had crossed over to support it.
“It’s really extraordinary for the [Iranian] government to put so much diplomatic capitol to defeating it,” Posner said. “That to me says there is a sensitivity or vulnerability to multilateral action, which is much greater than just the U.S. or EU criticizing them.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary Philo Dibble, who heads the State Department’s Iran desk, said the monitor provides “another mechanism that will force the Iranian government to talk to the international community” about human rights. He noted what he called an important “new phenomena” in which Brazil and other leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement are beginning to join efforts to press Iran on human rights. “We will be looking at how to work with them and with others to advance this issue even further,” he said.
Some in Congress, however, are frustrated that the Obama Administration has not taken more unilateral steps to press Iran on the nuclear issue and on human rights abuses. The Senate Banking Committee recently threatened to block the nomination of the Treasury’s top official in charge of economic sanctions on Iran if the U.S. does not impose new sanctions on foreign banks. And Casey noted that he and others in the Senate had called for further U.S. sanctions on Iranian human rights violators. A new package of Iran sanctions being proposed in the House and Senate would weaken the President’s authority to decide how to impose certain sanctions.
Casey asked the officials how Congress could productively intervene with new sanctions legislation, to which Dibble responded, “we think we have the authority we require.” He acknowledged, “we’ll be happy to continue our conversation with the Senate and the House to see what more can be accomplished.”
The new sanctions package will likely include a measure introduced last week by Senator Mark Kirk that would organize Iran human rights efforts under a new U.S. Special Representative on Human Rights and Democracy in Iran. The official would be charged with encouraging foreign governments to sever diplomatic relations and impose economic sanctions on Iran. Green Movement leaders have warned that isolation policies have only made human rights and democracy efforts more difficult.
Casey asked whether Iran human rights policy should be focused under a single office, saying, “unless there’s one person, or one office, that is charged with the overall responsibility, I think there will be some concerns that will continue.”
But Posner cautioned against consolidating the efforts into a new position. “The main messengers here are the President and the Secretary of State. There is no issue, in my portfolio on human rights, where the President and Secretary of State have been more outspoken more often. And I want to keep it that way,” he said. “If we send a signal that the most senior officials in our government are paying attention, as they are, I think that’s actually the most powerful message we can send.”
Also testifying at the hearing was a second panel that included Kambiz Hosseini, the co-host of the VOA Persian show Parazit, and Rudi Bakthiar of the International Campaign on Human Rights in Iran.
Bakhtiar urged for satellite Internet service to be provided in Iran to allow Iranians to circumvent government filtering. “As long as the Internet is carried through fiber optics, we have to find a way to counter that, because fiber optics will always allow a government to block it and always has the ability to be controlled by the government,” she said. “So the sooner we invest in wireless technology, the better.”
Hosseini said that one of his goals for Parazit is “trying to win the hearts and minds” of poorer Iranians, including basijis and plainclothes officers, who support Iran’s government out of economic necessity. “Morally, sometimes, they know that this is wrong, what they’re doing,” he said. “But they’re getting paid, they have to survive. And we’re trying to reach out to them.”