September 10, 2014

Kirk-Rubio Bill Would Undermine Human Rights in Iran, Torpedo Nuclear Talks

A new Senate bill that purports to support human rights in Iran would actually ratchet up broad sanctions on the Iranian population, bolster Iranian hardliners, and even directly target some Iranian human rights defenders. 

Following the thwarted effort to pass new sanctions that would have caused the U.S. to violate the interim nuclear agreement earlier this year, some legislators have considered advancing new sanctions ostensibly aimed at non-nuclear issues in order to circumvent the agreed freeze on new “nuclear-related” sanctions. The Iran Human Rights Accountability Act of 2014, recently introduced by Republican Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), is one such manifestation of this approach. The bill would impose new sanctions under the guise of human rights and threaten to derail the nuclear talks while undermining human rights defenders inside Iran. Considering that Senator Kirk has previously called on the US to collectively punish and “take the food out of the mouths” of Iranians, this charade of human rights concern is especially callous.

As Iranian civil society activists continue to speak out against sanctions and in support of current diplomatic efforts, the Kirk-Rubio bill would escalate Iran’s isolation through broad sanctions and risk torpedoing nuclear talks. If passed, the legislation would be a gift to hardline political factions in Iran, who themselves are widely suspected of  ratcheting up abuses to gain the upper-hand against moderates seeking to implement internal reforms and secure a diplomatic deal with world powers.

What Does the Kirk-Rubio Legislation Do?

Under existing legislation, the President is required to impose sanctions on persons who are Iranian government officials that the President determines are responsible for serious human rights abuses in Iran. This is a targeted human rights sanction that the President can employ at his discretion.

Unfortunately, this new bill undoes this balance. It would automatically impose blanket sanctions on a large class of Iranian government officials (and their family members), presuming them responsible for and complicit in Iran’s human rights abuses without need for a Presidential determination to that effect. The President would only have the limited discretion to exempt certain individuals from the sanctions list if the President determines that, during the prior 10-year period, the individual did not engage in or support human rights abuses, acts of international terrorism, or WMD proliferation. In this way, the new legislation reverses a presumption found in both CISADA and the Iran Threat Reduction Act and instead more broadly targets all Iranian government officials for human rights sanctions, regardless of culpability.

By imposing such a blanket sanction, the bill frustrates a more nuanced approach to human rights concerns and threatens to do more harm than good. The requirement for the President to include on the sanctions list the family members of any individual otherwise included on the list would even have the perverse consequence of directly subjecting notable Iranian human rights activists to human rights sanctions because of their familial ties. Thus, by taking away the President’s discretion to include or exclude persons on the sanctions list, the bill would impose sanctions so broadly as to swallow up some of Iran’s own human rights activists.

Beyond imposing new sanctions, the bill would also require the President to designate a Special Coordinator for Human Rights and Democracy in Iran within the State Department. The Special Coordinator’s prescribed duties, however, reflect hawkish attitudes towards Iran more than actual concern for human rights conditions in the country. The Special Coordinator would be tasked with, among other things, ensuring adequate investigation and designation of Iranian human rights abusers, encouraging other countries to downgrade or sever diplomatic relations with Iran and enact their own economic sanctions against Iran, and working to expel Iran from certain international forums. These duties are all aimed at further isolating Iran and the Iranian people from the outside world – something long a goal of US hawks and an effective reprisal of the last decade that has undermined Iranian civil society and human rights. The Special Coordinator initiative is not a new one — it was a component of previous legislation Kirk introduce under the feigned premise of supporting human rights.

Thankfully, the bill is not expected to garner bipartisan support or advance in the near future. While Iran’s human rights record remains deplorable, this legislation is a blunt instrument that renders Iran’s entire political leadership subject to sanctions without interrogating actual policies. The United States can  take a more nuanced and effective approach to human rights issues that does not undermine ongoing diplomatic efforts and hurt those seeking to improve human rights inside Iran.


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