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A Human Rights Lever for Iran

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By Andrew Albertson and Ali G. Scotten
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The situation has changed significantly since the Obama administration's initial offer to talk with Tehran. The post-election protests this summer and the regime's subsequent crackdown have undermined whatever merit the administration may have once seen in a realpolitik negotiations strategy. With the talks looming, the United States cannot pretend that the violence in the streets never happened, but neither can Washington be seen to fold. In fact, it should raise the stakes by broadening the agenda to include human rights.

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The critics of diplomacy have a point: Tehran has nothing to lose, and much to gain, by drawing out talks and committing to little. However, beyond diplomacy, the administration's policy options are limited and in all likelihood counterproductive. Broad sanctions of the kind Congress is considering won't work; going after Iran's ability to import gas is likely to simply frustrate ordinary Iranians. Nor would the U.S. negotiating position be bolstered by encouraging Israel to bomb Iran, as John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has suggested. Far from weakening the regime, these steps would strengthen it politically as Iranians rallied to support the hard-liners around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the perceived bullying of the United States.

So a better approach would be to broaden the agenda to include a focus on human rights. First, President Obama should reiterate in an address (offered on YouTube, so Iranians can view it unfiltered) the benefits for average Iranians if Tehran lives up to its obligations with regard to its nuclear program: the opportunity to emerge from isolation, to have full diplomatic relations with the United States (which would include student and other civic exchange programs), and to benefit from international trade and investment. Second, the administration should make clear its desire for the agenda to include "full compliance with international human rights regimes" -- by Iran, the United States and any other parties to the talks. To further engage the Iranian people, the administration should call for Iranian and international civil society organizations to take part in the dialogue.

This approach would strengthen reformers in Iran and increase pressure on the Ahmadinejad government. Pro-democracy dissidents such as Akbar Ganji have asked the international community to play a more active role by holding the Iranian government to a higher standard on human rights, one that would be more commensurate with the regional role and modern image to which Iran aspires.

Years of sanctions and threats have not weakened the regime. Attacking Iran only unifies its citizens behind its hard-liners. But what did strengthen our position was Obama's clear message to the Iranian people this spring that the United States is not a threat to Iran and that it wishes to see the country emerge from diplomatic isolation. That message shifted Iranians' focus to domestic issues, which include corruption, inflation and economic mismanagement. Rather than rallying people against the United States, this tactic got America out of the way and allowed the Iranian people to confront their unresponsive government on their own terms. Taking a public stance that is respectful of Iranian nationalism while strongly supportive of human rights would further empower and embolden the Iranian people.

Americans, too, will be more approving of any deal that advances rather than dismisses human rights. And diplomatic strategies based on human rights have worked before: The Helsinki Process began as a dialogue that offered respect and recognition to the Soviet government while calling it into open dialogue about human rights that it purported to support.

There is reason to believe Tehran could be goaded into accepting this broader agenda. In his own impish way, Ahmadinejad has all but invited this conversation: In August, his government proposed a $20 million fund to examine the U.S. human rights record and expose its shortcomings. In addition, a letter from the Iranian government sent just before the opening of the U.N. General Assembly last week made countless references to Iran's commitments to principles such as "human values and compassion." Whatever Iran's actual intent, the Obama administration should seize on these openings.

Obama has shown an admirable willingness to speak frankly about U.S. failings in the pursuit and interrogation of terrorist suspects as well as a determination to improve that conduct. That openness is a powerful weapon to wield against an Orwellian leader such as Ahmadinejad. The United States has a strong record on human rights. We should welcome an opportunity to discuss that record and, in doing so, to involve Iranians in a conversation about the rights all individuals deserve.

Washington has been unable to force concessions from the Iranian regime on its own. By broadening our support for the aspirations of ordinary Iranians, the Obama administration can continue to tilt the balance of power in its favor. Such an approach would add pressure on the Iranian regime, enhance domestic political support for talks and maximize the opportunity for successful negotiations.

Andrew Albertson is executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. Ali G. Scotten was the 2008-09 Huffington fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.



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