Take its human rights conduct, and specifically the trial of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. In response to Iran’s announcement that it will try Rezaian in secret, The Post’s executive editor Martin Baron enumerated the Kafkaesque treatment Rezaian has been subjected to:
It’s worth recalling what kind of system we’re dealing with. Jason was arrested without charges. He was imprisoned in Iran’s worst prison. He was placed in isolation for many months and denied medical care he needed. His case was assigned to a judge internationally notorious for human rights violations. He could not select the lawyer of his choosing. He was given only an hour and a half to meet with a lawyer approved by the court. No evidence has ever been produced by prosecutors or the court to support these absurd charges. The trial date was only disclosed to Jason’s lawyer last week. And now, unsurprisingly but unforgivably, it turns out the trial will be closed. . . . There is no justice in this system, not an ounce of it, and yet the fate of a good, innocent man hangs in the balance. Iran is making a statement about its values in its disgraceful treatment of our colleague, and it can only horrify the world community.
Why would a regime behave in such a capricious manner, one destined to sow distrust in the West and make it even more difficult to rejoin the “international community”? The obvious answer is that its totalitarian fervor shapes its power structure and determines its behavior. The furtherance of its revolutionary ideals ranks far above economic health and international acceptance as a national priority. We have seen that Iran will in fact act in ways contrary to its economic and diplomatic interests when it suits its ideological goals.
Indeed its worsening human right picture in general belies the notion that the regime acts rationally, as opposed to ideologically, or that it is changing its outlook. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom documents the continuing deterioration of human rights in Iran, which is rates among the worst of the worst. A sample:
Since President Hassan Rouhani assumed office in August 2013, the number of individuals from religious minority communities who are in prison because of their beliefs has increased. The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused. . . . Since his June 2013 election, President Hassan Rouhani has not delivered on his campaign promises to strengthen civil liberties for religious minorities. Physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment continued. Even some of the constitutionally-recognized non-Muslim minorities – Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians – face harassment, intimidation, discrimination, arrests, and imprisonment. Some majority Shi’a and minority Sunni Muslims, including clerics who dissent, were intimidated, harassed, and detained. Dissidents and human rights defenders were increasingly subject to abuse and several were sentenced to death and even executed for the capital crime of “enmity against God.”
In short, Obama relies on a fiction — Iran is rational or moderating — because a revolutionary, apocalyptic regime will of course defy any agreement, cheat, pursue its nuclear program and use the deal to gain cover for its terrorist activities. Sanctions relief will go to support the regime, intensify its grip and reduce any inclination to behave like a normal, civilized nation. Sanctions relief over the last 18 months or so has not moderated Iran’s conduct; it has made it more defiant and aggressive. At some level the president understands this, as evidenced by his recognition that sanctions — not economic engagement — forced Iran to come to the table. Now, however, when his “legacy” is at stake his analysis flips and he insists that giving Iran what it wants (e.g. sanctions relief) will lead to better behavior.
Iran wanted to segregate discussion of human rights from nuclear talks because it is unwilling to address the former. The president was only too happy to acomodate because focus on the former raises considerable doubt the latter can ever be successful. It serves both their interests to pretend Iran’s internal conduct has no implications for Iran’s international and nuclear ambitions.
William Russell Mead concludes there is a real question as to “whether President Obama has fully considered the possibility that his counterparts in Iran don’t see the same world that he does, that they don’t think political cause and effect works the same way that he thinks it does and that they see him, for example, less as an independent actor proceeding on the basis of rational convictions and humanitarian good will than as a mask for the real American overlords, the evil Waspo-Jewish conspiracy that in the demonology of Iranian revolutionary thought controls the United States and is driving the world to destruction.” This is not merely an academic matter:
The problem here is that the President, ironically enough, doesn’t seem to understand diversity. He thinks diversity is trivial: that people of different religious faiths, ethnic backgrounds and ideological convictions are not all that different in the way they look at the world. The President’s life experiences have taught him that diversity is superficially important but on the big issues it matters much less. Rulers of great nations, in particular, can’t afford to let their backgrounds and their religious ideas get in the way of clear thinking and planning. . . . President Obama’s answer will deepen the concern among his critics that he has learned nothing from his encounters with Putin and Erdogan, and continues to think that his opponents see the world more or less as President Obama does.
So long as we pretend Iran is something it is not and so long as we ignore the link between its domestic repression and international goals (both serve the cause of Islamic radicalism) we will not alter Iran’s behavior. Indeed, as we have seen from the past few years, our willful blindness causes Iran to intensify domestic repression and international aggression.