Iran is currently facing a “very serious human rights crisis,” said Hadi Ghaemi, a coordinator at the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, at a Center for American Progress event last Monday that aimed to bring human rights at the forefront of the U.S. policy agenda for Iran. Ghaemi was joined by Geneive Abdo, fellow and Iran analyst at The Century Foundation, and Michael Signer, fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute on a panel moderated by Matthew Duss, National Security Researcher at CAP, and introduced by Rudy deLeon, Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at CAP. The event centered on human rights in anticipation of the February 11 anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which will likely see protests and a violent government crackdown.
The massive protests following Iran’s disputed presidential election in June 2009 highlighted Iranians’ disapproval of their ruling regime. Continuing protests have shown that the opposition movement is “a permanent force in Iranian politics,” said Abdo, despite the fact that the movement is as diverse in its constituents as it is in its aims.
The opposition is a political, civil, and human rights mission that was long simmering before it exploded after the June election. Its strength indicates that the Islamic Republic is currently facing its “most serious crisis of legitimacy” since 1979, said deLeon in his introductory remarks.
Many Iranians fear that the U.S. government wants regional security in the Middle East at the expense of human rights and democracy. Now is a “good time for the administration to construct a positive doctrine” to stand for something—for history, for the Iranian people, for the movement, and for democracy—according to Signer. “Bearing witness is not the right long-term position for the United States,” he emphasized.
The U.S. Senate last Thursday passed new sanctions on Iran aimed at, among other things, blocking gasoline imports in a bid to force the government to suspend its nuclear program. Sanctions, however, are often detrimental to civil society and can inadvertently strengthen the political position of the regime against domestic opposition and against the United States, said Ghaemi.
The Obama administration should continue to apply pressure on the nuclear issue, but increase focus on human rights because the latter is more transparent. The line between fact and fiction is disputed when it comes to Iran’s nuclear issue. Human rights, however, are much more explicit. “It’s clear they’ve tortured and killed people since June,” said Abdo. “There’s too much documentation” to ignore it and “Iran has always been sensitive to its human rights record,” she added.
An official U.S.-led United Nations investigation into Iran’s human rights abuses would “bring out the crimes,” Ghaemi urged, and “put the government on the defensive.”
The strength of the regime, however, “shouldn’t be underestimated,” Abdo explained. The Revolutionary Guard controls the economy, and nothing short of a military attack would truly alter Iran’s political landscape.
Still, the opposition seeks a compromise with the state, and a unity government appears more feasible than fundamental political change. They want the world to realize that Iran is “a failed Islamic state,” according to Abdo, and that the regime’s credibility has been so fundamentally challenged that it is now difficult to call Iran either a republic or an Islamic state.
Many of Iran’s regional allies have been unenthusiastic about the regime’s actions against protestors. Mass disappointment can lead the populations of Iran’s Arab neighbors, such as Egypt—which has been led by President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak since 1981—to compare themselves to radicalized Iranians screaming in the streets, “[Ali] Khamenei is a dictator” and ask, “Why are we so passive?”
Much of the highly educated Iranian youth envisions the future of Iran as a secular republic, but according to Ghaemi, there is still much work to be done to counter the country’s anti-Western bias. The United States must begin to understand Iranian public opinion and improve our relationship with the Iranian people.
We should “rebrand ourselves” to the Iranian people to counter the “poisonous perception of us” painted by the regime and our previous administration’s heavily ideological foreign policy, said Signer. To do this, human rights must be at the top of U.S. foreign policy.