Since the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, President Obama has stood up for peaceful protestors and criticized the Iranian government for its brutal tactics without (so far) playing politics with the issue at home. But his stance on human rights in Iran has brought little in the way of tangible actions. With nearly the entire Middle East embroiled in protests against the status quo, Obama may have an unprecedented opportunity to move his Iran agenda forward.
There are two major challenges facing any comprehensive, long-term U.S. strategy on Iran. First, because the U.S. has an unsuccessful track record of supporting opposition movements in Iran, any change in existing policy would require cautious implementation to avoid marring those movements as American puppets. Second, the U.S. has countless security interests that are affected by its hostile relations with Iran. Both countries lack the standard diplomatic channels that could enable the U.S. and Iranian governments to discuss issues directly and peacefully. Given these challenges, as Iran’s government adopts increasingly brutal tactics against its population, how can the U.S. effectively promote human rights in the country? Here are three options that Obama has available to him. First, his administration could help establish an independent human rights monitor under UN authority. The Iranian government has executed over 100 people since January 1, 2011 — only the latest chapter in its increasingly brutal human rights record. Despite this disturbing uptick, the international community has yet to take any additional, concrete steps to address Iran’s systematic abuses. The United Nations could implement serious measures to help curb Iranian government repression by establishing an independent UN human rights monitor at the Human Rights Council. The U.S. and its allies could establish this monitor to investigate and report on Iran’s human rights situation to the international community. In other words, to name and shame. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Suzanne Nossel pointed out at a conference by the National Iranian American Council this week, such country monitors are in place in many of the world’s worst human rights violators, such as Burma and North Korea — but not in Iran. Establishing a UN monitor — and ensuring its yearly renewal until Iran’s human rights situation no longer warrants monitoring — will provide scrutiny, transparency, and public pressure that might help chasten the Iranian government into curbing its abuses. Second, imposing wider targeted sanctions would punish human rights abusers but not the Iranian people. Iran has long operated under the burden of broad-based sanctions. Rather than yielding under such pressure, these sanctions appear to have only strengthened the resolve of Iranian decision-makers — many of whom are veterans of revolution and war, with a world view shaped in part by perceiving (rightly or wrongly) an international community that has repeatedly turned its back on post-revolutionary Iran. But with the Iranian economy in tatters, it’s average Iranians who bear the brunt of broad sanctions. Standing with the Iranian people in their quest for universal rights would require Obama to avoid hurting the people he seeks to help. This is big part of why Obama has implemented targeted sanctions on Iranian leaders and human rights abusers — including freezing bank accounts, imposing travel restrictions, and prohibiting business cooperation with certain government entities. Such sanctions can alter the strategic calculus of Iran’s government without unduly harming the Iranian people. But these targeted sanctions are eclipsed by the far more severe broad-based sanctions. Obama’s choice to implement targeted sanctions suggests he appreciated their effectiveness — shifting emphasis to more such sanctions, and away from the broad-based sanctions, could be a way forward for U.S. policy. Expanding the list of targeted Iranian officials, phasing in additional rounds of targeted sanctions, and building international adherence will sharpen Iran’s choices, shield average Iranians from the “unintended” consequences of broad sanctions, and provide flexibility to maintain credible offers of diplomacy.
Third, establishing and enforcing a consistent, region-wide vision for human rights could bolster U.S. policy in individual countries. Recent unrest across the Middle East has highlighted a key principle for Obama: There is no viable long-term solution to the U.S.’s uneven relations with Iran — or any Arab country — that does not include human rights as a central tenet. Relationships centered on security at the expense of basic freedoms are, to many people in the Middle East, the cardinal sin that poisons U.S. standing in the region. A consistent, regional dedication to improving human rights would do more than just further human rights in Iran — it would help the U.S. to overcome its costly association with such autocrats as now-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah, who on Monday invaded Bahrain to put down that country’s protests. Historically, the U.S. has favored national security concerns over human rights in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia. But now Obama may have an opportunity to balance those strategic objectives in Iran.
With ongoing uprisings in the Middle East, Obama might find that a two-pronged, region-wide strategy could serve his short-term security interests as well as the longer-term need to support indigenous, democratic reforms. That strategy could combine consistent efforts to catalogue, condemn and punish human rights abusers with a dedication to working with authoritarian governments to encourage change in their societies. Failing to balance these two strategies to defend human rights could cheapen the concept and weaken the cause. Regional due diligence, however, could ensure that the U.S. leads through the power of its example.
Each of these measures will require the U.S. to utilize political capital and strike diplomatic quid-pro-quo’s with allies — some of whom do not wish to exacerbate an already toxic atmosphere that could devolve into military conflict. Such is Obama’s Iran dilemma: America’s values and security interests must be balanced. Achieving both will require policies that consider America’s short-term tactical maneuvering as part of a long-term strategic vision. Defending human rights in Iran is hard, and it’s going to get harder. But in the new Middle East, pursuing this balance through tough-minded recognition of tangible, strategic actions is not an option, it is a necessity.