Washington – “Although the government in Iran has been successful in silencing the green movement’s leadership, it is has not been able to crush Iranian aspirations for a clear and more democratic system of government,” said RAND Corporation policy analyst Alireza Nader at a hearing in the House of Representatives on Thursday.
Nader testified before the Middle East Subcommittee on a panel evaluating U.S. responses to the human rights situations in Syria and Iran.
“The intense U.S. focus on the Iranian nuclear program, however, has convinced many Iranian democracy activists that the United States is solely concerned with its security interests in the region, rather than the plight of ordinary Iranians,” Nader said. “I would assert that a more balanced policy with greater emphasis on the regime’s human rights abuses could counter negative Iranian perception of U.S. policies and its intentions.”
Nader also expressed the importance of continued diplomatic engagement with Iran. “I don’t think we should give up efforts at engagement with the Islamic Republic. I do think that it is a valuable tactic in terms of the United States achieving its objectives. I do think Iran‘s total diplomatic isolation benefits the regime because it isolates the people.”
Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) stated, “I think that it is very important to strengthen our diplomatic relationship with the Iranian people.” He offered two methods for helping achieve this–increase the budget of Voice of America Persian, and increase “people to people exchanges,” with Iran by easing travel and study visas restrictions for Iranian citizens to come to the U.S.
Khalaji also had suggestions on how to make targeted sanctions against human rights abusers fully effective. He expressed the need for the U.S. to publicize when existing sanctions have prevented these human rights abusers from travelling. “We can’t just sanction them. We have to tell Iranians and other people in the region that anti-human rights activities have practical consequences,” said Khalaji.
Michael Singh, also of WINEP, endorsed additional pressure measures. “Sanctions are great but quite frankly it is hard to reach all of these individuals through sanctions.” Instead of relying primarily on targeted sanctions, Singh suggested, “we need to use our bully pulpit, the White House the State Department, the Security Council to shed greater light on what’s going on inside these countries.”
Jon Alterman, Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned the U.S. must avoid taking an approach to the Iranian and Syrian democratic movements that would make them vulnerable to being labeled as American movements rather than the bona fide grassroots movements that they are.
“The greatest favor the United States could do for these regimes would be to somehow make their problems into a confrontation with the United States,” said Alterman. “Ultimately it’s not about us it is about them and we do a disservice to them when we act as if it is all about us.”