Obama Throwing Iranian People Under the Bus

Why didn't the U.S. insist on linking the nuclear deal with an Iranian commitment to end its systematic abuse of human rights?

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There are many problems with the interim nuclear deal between the P5+1 powers and Iran. Experts can argue over whether forcing Tehran to halt enrichment of uranium above 5% is a meaningful compromise, if the “intrusive” inspections claimed by the Obama Administration will sufficiently address the clandestine nature of the program, and if the sanctions relief is too generous.

The biggest problem with the deal, however, is not what’s in it, but what’s left out: Any discussion whatsoever of the Iranian regime’s abysmal human rights record or destabilizing regional behavior.

On November 19, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution criticizing the “wide range of systemic and systematic human rights violations” in Iran, the tenth year in a row that the international body has rebuked Tehran for abuses. In just the past 18 months, Iran has executed over 700 people; many were killed in the months after the 2013 election of supposedly “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rohani. The regime continues to clamp down on dissent, throw political opponents in jail, and censor the media. Freedom of assembly is constrained and the right to religious worship is severely curtailed.

Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, leaders of the Green Movement that arose in protest over the blatantly stolen 2009 presidential election (itself a farce considering the Mullahs’ ability to strike any candidate they dislike from the ballot), remain under house arrest. Other Green Movement figures, languishing in the notorious Evin prison, are not so fortunate. Last Friday, a senior cleric said that Karroubi and Mousavi were lucky to have not joined the ranks of the executed.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the nuclear negotiations, the U.S. State Department, in response to questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reiterated a May report stating that Iran had “increased its terrorist-related activity” over the past year. That includes the shipment of weapons, money and men to Bashar Assad, now almost three years into the wholesale slaughter of his own people.

To this day, historians argue over what ultimately led the West to “win” the Cold War over the Soviet Union. But according to the dissidents who lived under communist rule, a crucial factor was the prominence afforded to human rights as part of broader strategic negotiations. In 1975, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact Allies signed the Helsinki Final Act, which, in exchange for recognition of Europe’s political borders committed signatories to respect basic liberties. When figures like Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Lech Walesa in Poland criticized the communist regimes that jailed them in the 1970s and 80s, they were able to cite chapter and verse how these governments were breaking their own promises.

This lesson of the Cold War applies to the West’s dealings with Iran. Rather than decouple human rights from nuclear nonproliferation, the two topics should be dealt with simultaneously. By handling them discretely, the Obama Administration has abandoned the Iranian people.

“We are worried that a deal with Iran will be like Libya, where the only issue was the nuclear issue,” Ahmed Batebi, a former Iranian student leader, told the Daily Beast. “We are worried that the Iranian government will say, ‘We won’t discuss human rights inside Iran while negotiating on the nuclear program.’ And this would mean there would not be pressure from the United States, Europe, and other countries to release political prisoners and human rights reformers.” With Iran’s human rights record now on the backburner, Batebi’s fears have been realized.

As for Iran’s destabilizing role in the region, the Obama Administration has already ceded Syria to Tehran. The Lebanese journalist Hanin Ghaddar observes that, “In the next six months, if a final deal does not lead to a major reconsideration of Hezbollah’s arms and Iranian hegemony in the region, the U.S. will lose its allies, encourage more extremism and sectarian conflict, and more significantly, leave a region where everyone blames the U.S. for its abandonment and failure.” Having escaped censure, never mind a penalty, for propping up Assad, why would Iran “reconsider” support for Hezbollah or its support for “resistance” throughout the Middle East?

Between a president who four years ago demonstrated his indifference to the plight of the Green Movement by remaining aloof as its supporters were rounded up and jailed, and an ambitious secretary of state whose prime concern seems to be leaving behind a memorable legacy, the long-term results of his machinations be damned, this administration is determined to cement a “grand bargain” with Iran that temporarily slows its nuclear program but leaves the regime permanently in place.

The administration’s approach to Iran rests on the faulty assumption that a suitable agreement on the nuclear issue can ever be negotiated with a regime that murders peaceful protestors in broad daylight and hangs homosexuals from construction cranes. History shows that the best way to ensure the demilitarization of a nuclear program is through democratization: Argentina, Brazil and South Africa all abandoned their military nuclear programs after becoming full-fledged democracies, but not a moment before. So fixated is the administration on the chimera of a deal, all in the service of beating a hasty retreat from the region, that it’s willing to throw the Iranian people under the bus.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attend a meeting of the members of the Security Council plus Germany at the UN headquarters in New York, Sept. 26, 2013.Credit: AP

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