Iran Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Act (S. 879/H.R. 1714) introduced in Senate by Kirk (R-IL), Gillibrand (D-NY), and Cornyn (R-TX); and in the House by Reps. Dold (R-IL) and Deutch (D-FL)
Last week, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), introduced S.879, the first of a coming “slew” of new Iran sanctions bills that will be assembled into a “massive” Iran sanctions package at the end of the month. While Kirk described his legislation as “the human rights component” of that broader package, the final legislation will likely focus primarily on the Iranian nuclear issue and include a host of new unilateral sanctions designed to isolate Iran economically.
The package of new sanctions is being prepared in time for the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington that begins on May 22 and will dispatch thousands of AIPAC members to lobby for new Iran sanctions on the Hill. Kirk will lead a breakout session on Iran at the conference, as will Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA), cosponsor of the other major sanctions legislation introduced thus far, H.R. 1655.
As a standalone measure, the Kirk bill includes several good proposals, including new targeted sanctions, but is limited almost exclusively to punitive measures. Kirk unfortunately ignores non-sanctions measures called for by Iranian human rights and democracy activists. We have seen how Washington’s almost exclusive focus on sanctions have created a number of unintended consequences for Iran’s human rights and democracy movement—such as preventing Iranian democrats from accessing critical communication hardware and software. Unfortunately, this bill does nothing to eliminate those unintended consequences and instead merely perpetuates the sanctions-only approach.
Additionally, while the bill is presented as the “human rights component” of the broader sanctions effort, it includes several provisions clearly aimed at advancing longstanding ideological battles regarding Iran policy that have little to do with improving human rights in Iran—specifically, chipping away at the President’s authority to conduct Iran policy and building roadblocks to prevent future opportunities to resolve the many disputes with Iran through diplomacy.
Ultimately, because the plan for this bill is for it to be rolled into a package of new “crippling” sanctions, it represents a stalking horse for efforts to punish Iran on the nuclear issue at the expense of the indigenous human rights and democracy movement. By disguising new indiscriminate sanctions behind a thin veil of human rights, supporters of nuclear sanctions may hope to inoculate “crippling” measures against charges that they undermine Iran’s democracy movement. But this package will increase suffering among ordinary Iranians, exacerbate the unintended consequences of broad sanctions, heighten U.S.-Iran tensions, and help cement the U.S. and Iran on a path towards confrontation. Hence, in the end, this bill will likely set back Iran’s human rights and democracy movement.
Advancing isolation policies that undermine Iran’s indigenous democracy movement
The Kirk bill would create an ambassador-level position that would focus on international efforts to improve human rights in Iran <Section 7>. This could potentially be a very positive step that would dovetail with the successful international effort to establish a UN human rights monitor on Iran. Establishing such a position in the U.S. government could help elevate human rights in our Iran policy to ensure human rights receives the priority it deserves instead of being sacrificed for the nuclear issue.
Unfortunately, under Kirk’s bill, this new office would be yet another vehicle charged with helping advance isolation policies that have proven unsuccessful and that are detrimental to Iran’s human rights and democracy movement.
The bill directs the ambassador to “encourage foreign governments to downgrade or sever diplomatic relations with the Government of Iran” and to convince foreign governments “to enact economic sanctions” against Iran. While these may be longstanding goals of Iran hawks in Washington, Iranian human rights and democracy activists have warned that efforts to isolate the country have only made their job more difficult. Numerous historical precedents demonstrate the relationship between isolation and the deterioration of human rights and civil society—including in Cuba, North Korea, Libya, and Zimbabwe.
Green movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, who now is under house arrest along with Mir Hossein Mousavi, has warned that isolating Iran has the effect of “strengthening the illegitimate government” at the expense of the human rights and democracy movement. “Look at Cuba and North Korea,” he said in an interview last August. “Have sanctions brought democracy to their people? They have just made them more isolated and given them the opportunity to crack down on their opposition without bothering themselves about the international attention.”
A human rights ambassador should instead be responsible for directing efforts to convince other countries to adopt targeted measures against Iranian government officials—restrictions that have been enacted by the U.S. and EU and which could be far more effective if made multilateral. Unfortunately, the authorization for this new position ignores these targeted measures restrictions and instead creates yet another official responsible for advancing economic sanctions that have nothing to do with human rights. (The Treasury and the State Department already have officials designated to encourage foreign countries to adopt economic sanctions against Iran.)
The bill does, however, include a section <Section 4> to expand U.S. human rights sanctions on Iranian officials, which have been endorsed by human rights activists and groups like NIAC. But instead of providing the administration new tools to help make these sanctions more effective, it strips the President’s authority to determine which Iranian officials to investigate and sanction for violations. This would diminish the President’s authority to conduct Iran policy and provide a greater role for Congress. Doing so threatens to reduce the process to one motivated by U.S. domestic political jockeying while reducing needed flexibility for the president to apply human rights sanctions in a way that maximizes their benefit.
Missed opportunities to stand with the Iranian people
The bill includes some good measures to prevent Iran’s government from obtaining tools of repression. Last year, NIAC supported efforts to ban U.S. government contracts for companies that sell technology to enable Iran’s government to filter and monitor Internet communication. The new legislation would expand on this to impose asset freezes on such companies, as well as companies that sell other tools to Iran to suppress demonstrations and commit human rights abuses <Section 5>. Expanding these measures is positive, so long as they are implemented in a way that does not unintentionally prevent ordinary Iranians from obtaining important communication tools.
However, the bill fails to address existing U.S. restrictions that prevent ordinary Iranians from accessing the Internet. There are indeed a number of practical, tangible steps to promote Internet freedom. Former Iran-based New York Times correspondent Nazila Fathi has said “If the US wants to help, the first thing [Iranians] need is access to the Internet. Lift the sanctions—Iranians cannot even buy Skype credits to talk on Skype lines, they have to rely on telephone lines that are monitored by the Iranian government. There is satellite internet over Iran, but because of the sanctions they cannot access it.”
But the bill does nothing to address these sanctions that prevent the people of Iran from buying Skype credits, obtaining software and hardware necessary to bypass Iranian government filters, connecting to satellite Internet, or purchasing website domains. The bill simply ignores these issues. Instead, it punts the issue down the road, mandating an Iranian “Internet freedom strategy” be compiled by the White House and transmitted to Congress <Section 9>. It is unclear how this would be any different than what the Administration is already carrying out under Secretary Clinton’s Internet Freedom initiative.
The bill also includes a section on the important matter of facilitating political asylum for Iranian political prisoners <Section 8>. Unfortunately, there is little of substance, only a non-binding measure expressing the “Sense of Congress” that such efforts are important. There is no authorization for new mechanisms or new funding to address the hurdles that confront political asylum seekers. Moreover, the section conveys that the U.S. should support the efforts by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to facilitate relocation of political prisoners, but is silent on how such support could be carried out, which is of particular concern given efforts underway in the House Foreign Affairs Committee to restrict payments to the UN.
One step forward, two steps back
While the Kirk bill includes a number of measures that deserve further consideration, it unfortunately disregards positive measures called for by Iranian human rights defenders and is limited almost solely to new sanctions. It also advances longstanding ideological battles regarding Iran policy at the expense of human rights, including working to prevent future diplomatic opportunities to address human rights abuses and reducing Presidential authority to conduct Iran policy. If these troubling provisions were removed, and replaced with positive measures to eliminate unintended consequences of existing sanctions, this bill could be an beneficial standalone measure to support human rights in Iran.
Unfortunately, as Kirk has stated, his legislation will instead be part of a larger package of new punitive measures aimed solely at the Iran nuclear issue and focused exclusively on imposing economic pain on Iran without regard to what effect this will have on Iran’s human rights and democracy movement or the general population. Thus, when taken as a whole, the final equation would increase human suffering in Iran, increase tensions, and set back Iran’s indigenous human rights and democracy movement.