How to Be Smarter about Dealing with Iran

Iran Human Rights Abuses

I was struck by the following in Aaron David Miller’s piece, which argues that Iran is outwitting and outmaneuvering the United States in the Middle East:

Iran isn’t 10 feet tall in this region, but by making the nuclear issue the be-all and end-all that is supposed to reduce Iran’s power, the United States is only making Tehran taller. . . .

The U.S.-Iranian relationship is not symmetrical. It’s not as if we both are doing terrible things and are looking for a fair and equitable compromise to stop our respective bad behaviors. Iran is about to try a U.S. citizen and Washington Post reporter and we have made a judgment that even while we protest, we will keep the nuclear issue separated not just from this case but from Iran’s serial abuse of human rights, including the behavior of its Shia militias in Iraq. I can only hope there is a carefully orchestrated behind-the-scenes plan to have Iran release Jason Rezaian.

If not, we’re legitimizing a bad regime and compromising U.S. values and interests in the process by not ensuring that all Americans being held by Iran come out as part of the nuclear deal.

I agree strongly with this viewpoint, in large part because I wrote something closely tracking it a little over two years ago:

Calls for [Iran and the United States] to engage in talks have become especially insistent given the concern that Iran continues to make progress in its apparent effort to acquire nuclear weapons. Because of the urgency that issue, the United States may be tempted to make it the sole focus of talks with Iran. But a singular focus on the nuclear issue may not serve American interests well.

Both countries will use high profile negotiations to rally world opinion to their side; favorable public opinion will, after all, make it easier for the recipient of that public opinion to achieve its goals. In order to successfully rally world opinion to its side, United States would do well to make negotiations touch on a multitude of subjects that will serve to cement Iran’s image as a rogue state in the eyes of the international community. In particular, the United States should highlight the many human rights abuses that go on regularly in Iran, and make the case that through oppression of its people, the Iranian regime should be a pariah in the international community.

This tactic has a historical parallel. During the Cold War, the United States was able to enhance its standing in the international community and its negotiating position by pointing out repeatedly in Soviet-American summits that the Soviet Union habitually violated the rights and freedoms of its citizens. This caused the bulk of world opinion to turn decisively against the Soviet Union, which doubtless served to weaken the Soviet negotiating position on other issues as well. Thus, in addition to promoting human rights—itself a worthy project—the United States was able to use human rights as a tool of realpolitik to further other interests as well.

Similarly, pointing out the depth and breadth of Iranian human rights abuses could put the Iranian regime on the defensive in any talks with the United States. Such discussions should highlight the stolen 2009 presidential election; the murder, harassment and imprisonment of members of the Green Movement, which is dedicated to reforming the Iranian political system; the commission of outrageous and barbaric punishments of accused criminals that are entirely out of proportion to the crimes they are alleged to have committed; and the imprisonment and killing of dissident online activists. Additionally, the United States can take Iran to task over efforts to hinder the education of Iranian women and efforts on the part of the regime to engage in massive amounts of Internet censorship that would serve to cut Iran off from the rest of the world.

I continue to believe that making a discussion about human rights part and parcel of any series of negotiations with Iran will serve to strengthen the American negotiation position regarding Iran’s nuclear program, for the reasons that I outline in my article. I am increasingly pessimistic, however, that American policymakers will abandon their myopic focus on the nuclear issue, and pay some attention to Iranian human rights abuses–if only to put the Iranian regime on the defensive in talks with the United States.