Bashir, Special to CNN
note: Dwight Bashir is Deputy Director of Policy and Research at the
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. You can
follow him @DwightBashir. The views expressed are his own.
coming week, two seemingly unrelated events concerning Iran are taking
place. First, the U.N. expert on human rights in Iran is
presenting his latest report in Geneva at the 25th session of the UN
Human Rights Council, and will
conditions have not improved since President Hassan Rouhani took
office last August. Second, in Vienna, global powers (P5+1) begin the
next round of talks with Iran seeking a comprehensive, long-term deal
over Tehran's nuclear program.
the face of it, Iran's human rights record and its nuclear
capabilities have little or no connection. But a deeper look suggests
that they in fact do – and the implications are profound.
January, the United States and European Union eased some economic
sanctions as a first step toward implementing the short-term agreement
struck in November. Today, supporters of a long-term nuclear deal
increasingly advocate the complete lifting of sanctions of any kind.
essence, they endorse the following logic: If you favor sanctioning
Iran, you are advancing a policy of belligerence. If not, you back
diplomacy. The implication is that if the United States wishes to
pursue constructive diplomacy, it would do well to reject sanctions,
the premise of this thinking – that sanctions and peacemaking are
incompatible – is flawed. It assumes that the quest for a deal
will be harmed by the type of broad-based actions, affecting all of
Iran, which certain sanctions entail.
even if this were true, it ignores an unassailable fact: There are
other kinds of sanctions that don’t affect the Iranian people as a
whole, but which instead train a careful but glaring spotlight on
selected Iranian officials who are themselves obstacles to peace,
while highlighting the opportunity of purported moderates like
President Rouhani to pursue diplomacy. In so doing, such sanctions
could well advance, not thwart, efforts for an accord.
sort of sanctions might achieve such an outcome? The words
of U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice in
December point to a possible answer:
we test the potential for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear
issue...another key test is...progress on human rights. Our sanctions
on Iran's human rights abusers will continue..."
words recall two salient facts. First, targeted sanctions are not an
untried idea. As she implies, they were available when she spoke.
Second, as anyone familiar with these sanctions knows, the human
rights abusers being targeted weren’t moderate peacemakers, but
unabashed hardliners historically opposed to diplomacy with the West.
American laws provide for such sanctions: the Comprehensive Iran
Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA) and the
Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012. Both allow
for travel bans and asset freezes on Iranians deemed responsible for,
or complicit in, violations after Iran's 2009 disputed presidential
elections, while CISADA explicitly calls for identifying officials
involved in severe abuses of religious freedom.
problem, though, is this: Washington has failed to publicly name a
single abuser since Rouhani's electoral victory in June of 2013. While
hardliners continue to trample on human rights – including the
freedoms of religion and expression, association and assembly – the
United States has abandoned rights sanctions for now, despite Rice's
retreat is inexplicable. Far from harming Iran's people, these
sanctions proclaim our solidarity with them, while naming and shaming
those who abuse them – typically the same officials who impede
diplomacy, including a sensible nuclear deal.
those who believe Iran has moderates willing and able to enact rights
reforms and strike a nuclear deal, and that Rouhani is among them,
naming and shaming their natural opponents can only strengthen their
hand. For those who insist that moderates either don't exist or have
no power, sanctions put Tehran on notice that amidst the nuclear
discussions, rights abuses matter and have consequences.
jury is still out on whether Rouhani's promises to improve the rights
of the Iranian people are being blocked by hardliners, or if Rouhani
has any intention of fulfilling them. In either case, the Obama
administration should return to sanctioning Iran's rights violators
while the nuclear negotiations continue over the next several months.
a strategy cleanly divides abusive officials from the people they've
been abusing, the seemingly moderate colleagues they've been
obstructing, and the peaceful nuclear outcome they've been resisting.
It provides the United States and its European allies a stronger hand
in holding Iran accountable under its international obligations while
teasing out what cards the “moderates” may hold.
the end, human rights sanctions aren’t an obstacle to a long-term
nuclear deal with Iran. Rather, they identify who the real obstacles
are. And they represent what could be a key ingredient to peacefully
resolving the nuclear standoff.