Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes his annual trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, engulfed in perhaps the most volatile political climate he’s faced since entering office in 2005. At home, his political camp remains at odds with a system — spearheaded by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — that once adorned him as its public face to the world. Bloodied and bruised by his political rivals, the pugnacious president has (thus far) refused to go down without a fight — and has openly threatened to take the system down with him. Abroad, popular uprisings across the Middle East have rocked a long-standing status quo, demanding long-deserved political, economic and social integrity. Rather than helping to usher in a new era of regional progress, dignity and social justice, Ahmadinejad and his conservative rivals share the dubious distinction of ruthlessly repressing its 2009 origins — Iran’s own Green Movement.
In preparation for the inevitable media circus that surrounds Ahmadinejad’s trip to the UN, numerous opinion pieces have been written in an effort to help American journalists question the Iranian president properly, while also holding him accountable for the increasingly egregious human rights abuses that have taken place in the Islamic Republic since he assumed the presidency. Similar opinion pieces were penned last year, but unfortunately didn’t help the likes of Larry King and Charlie Rose avoid Ahmadinejad’s stubborn rhetorical ju-jitsu.
Nevertheless, these opinion pieces are useful, but not in the way that most assume. While American journalists should certainly take note and follow some of the guidance offered, so too should American diplomats present at the UN. While a diverse Iranian delegation is present in New York, the Obama administration should seize the opportunity to raise its human rights concerns with their Iranian counterparts — directly, diplomatically and with the same conviction as Washington has addressed the nuclear file. A key demand alongside the release of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer should be the release of all political prisoners in Iran.
Since Ahmadinejad’s 2010 trip to the UN, the Obama administration has taken tangible steps to hold the Iranian government accountable for its deplorable human rights record. It supported the establishment of a UN Special Rapporteur; implemented targeted sanctions that aim to punish Iranian officials complicit in human rights abuses; and increased its public condemnation of the Iranian governments’ refusal to match its actions with the stated desires of its people. Missing from America’s repertoire is direct, bilateral communication with Iranian officials on these important issues.
Since 2009, U.S. officials have engaged their Iranian counterparts on human rights one time, when now-Deputy Secretary of State William Burns raised the issue in a private conversation with National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili. Rather than limiting the focus to Ahmadinejad, the U.S. should utilize its supremely talented diplomats at the UN to convey America’s human rights concerns to Iran’s delegation face-to-face. The Iranian government’s abuse is an issue that is larger than Ahmadinejad — it’s systemic, and the various actors in Iran’s system should be addressed accordingly.
Like any diplomatic effort, multi-level strategies – bilateral and unilateral — maximize the chances for success. A more practical, real-world focus on human rights in Iran can include bilateral discussions on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Communicating in a professional, real persons voice can go a long way in delivering a needed dose of realism and hard truths to Iranian officials. Talking points and platitudes — whether in an op-ed or in person — are by definition limited in the results they can yield on their own.
Instead, complementing those talking points and media interviews by delivering tough, direct diplomatic messages not only helps legitimize and institutionalize an otherwise standard operating procedure (talking directly with friend and foe alike), but also shows Iranian diplomats — many of whom are fiercely nationalistic, but disillusioned with their government — that America can address issues beyond the nuclear program, and won’t sacrifice human rights to secure a nuclear deal. This kind of tough-minded recognition may cause more Iranian diplomats to think twice about their own governments’ rhetoric, and the U.S. has nothing to lose by delivering in-person messages about a problem that many Iranians acknowledge in their own country. If the Iranian delegation refuses an in-person meeting, that only shows its own intransigence.
The U.S. needs to build a reservoir of diplomatic influence and processes vis-à-vis the Iranian government. A round of “quiet diplomacy” on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly can be a critical American asset that President Obama should not relinquish to satisfy critics who seem to believe that public statements are the sole measure of an effective human rights (and foreign) policy toward Iran.
The U.S., along with the rest of the international community, continues to bear witness to the Iranian people’s courageous pursuit of universal rights in the face of appalling brutality, and the sad spectacle of show trials and mass arrests — all at the hands of an Iranian government that increasingly dishonors its own people. Engaging directly with Iranian officials on this urgent matter does not mean turning a blind eye to abuse. On the contrary, it shows both the Iranian government and the Iranian people that America will stand with those who seek to peacefully protect basic human rights.