The Iranian government is “taking advantage of the nuclear program” to distract western governments from the issue of human rights, according to Mojtaba Vahedi. Speaking at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, Vahedi—who for a number of years was a close political advisor to Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karoubi—was joined by Philo Dibble, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran; Markus Loning of the German Foreign Office; Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute; and Geneive Abdo of the Century Foundation.
All of the panelists agreed on the importance of pressing the Iranian government on its human rights abuses. Abdo emphasized that “Iranians want western governments to draw attention to human rights violations in Iran.” That point was reiterated by Kenneth Pollack, head of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, who said that was the overwhelming response he received when he asked members of the Iranian diaspora what western governments could do to help the Green Movement in Iran.
Abdo said that Iran is sensitive on human rights pressure, “partially to international pressure and also to the kinds of pressure coming from within the country.” She added that “criticism from the clerical establishment” is a significant problem for the Iranian government because “their Islamic credentials are being called into question.”
Markus Loning, the federal government commissioner for human rights policy and humanitarian aid at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, agreed with this point, noting that Iran has been sensitive to pressure on human rights from Germany. “Whenever I make a statement to the German press,” he said, “I get a long letter from the Iranian Ambassador explaining why I am wrong.”
Vahedi, who fled Iran last summer, added that he supports sanctions aimed at human rights abusers in Iran’s government. However, he said, more officials should be added to the list, arguing that Iranians were wondering, “Why don’t the sanctions include the main leaders of the crimes committed, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Khamenei?”
When asked if the US would stop pressing Iran on its human rights abuses if it reaches an agreement with Iran over the nuclear issue, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philo Dibble said that the US would remove sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program should the two countries reach a peaceful agreement. However, Dibble said even if an agreement is reached, “human rights will continue to be pursued.”
“We should not forget the human rights question,” Loning added in agreement, “and must address the human rights question whether there is a nuclear issue or not.”