Washington, DC – With significant attention being paid to new nuclear diplomacy with Iran, speakers on the NIAC Leadership Conference panel, “US-Iran Diplomacy: New Opportunities for Human Rights and Democracy Building in Iran,” discussed what the recent developments could portend for improving human rights. The panel, moderated by Nazila Fathi of the Harvard Kennedy School, conveyed a sense of cautious optimism about the positive steps that have been taken in Iran recently, while still noting that abuses remain pervasive and systematic changes have yet to occur.
Mehrangiz Kar, a former Iranian lawyer and activist that spent years imprisoned in Iran, rooted her sense of hope in the fact that Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani ran a hugely successful campaign on a platform of increasing freedom. Of course, the phrase “human rights” was never used by Rouhani because, as Kar put it, it’s a “bad word” in Iran’s political establishment. However, she said that Rouhani’s promises combined with his margin of victory could enable him to reshape the limitations of political culture and presidential power in Iran and implement major changes.
Strategic analyst Bijan Khajehpour noted Rouhani’s establishment of a special assistant to the President on ethnic minorities as a potential opportunity. Khajehpour observed that the protections provided in Iran’s constitution for the country’s minorities have been inconsistently enforced, and said that the establishment of the new position to address this issue could bring greater awareness and accountability regarding the rights to which all Iranians are supposed to be entitled.
Despite the shift in demeanor, Sarah Lee Whitson, Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, noted the continued detention of political prisoners and record-setting pace of executions in Iran this year. Whitson’s immediate concern was Iran’s “draconian” drug laws which are often cited as a major contributor to the increasing frequency of executions in Iran. Whitson said that, while positive changes have been made to Iran’s penal code that have limited the number of minors who are executed for drug violations, much more progress is necessary.
“Iran’s biggest challenge,” Whitson said, “is a lack of transparency and accountability.” For example, she noted, the Iranian government is inconsistent in releasing execution information and other rights-related data, which significantly compromises accountability. Without the necessary information, holding Iran to its international obligations on human rights is exceedingly difficult.
While the panelists agreed that there may be new hope for progress on human rights, and welcomed the release of political prisoners and the opening of Iran’s House of Cinema, they urged for greater action. At the same time, they warned against potential pitfalls in promoting human rights. Whitson cautioned against the “instrumentalization” of Iran’s human rights record to achieve other ends, such as to increase leverage in nuclear negotiations. The panelists agreed that addressing Iran’s human rights record will require a tough balance between pressure and avoiding instrumentalization.
For a way forward, Khajehpour proposed a “win-win-win” approach to diplomacy, wherein an improvement of Iran’s rights record would benefit from a nuclear resolution and vice versa. As an example, Khajehpour said that with a nuclear deal, the securitized atmosphere in Iran could more easily be reduced. This would allow Rouhani to focus more on Iran’s domestic situation and and open the window for increasingly consequential steps to resolve Iran’s significant human rights problem.