Obama Escalates Human Rights Focus On Iran

Issuing his third annual Nowruz greeting to the Iranian people over the weekend, President Obama used the opportunity to tie the recent Middle East uprisings to the post-election demonstrations in Iran in 2009. “These movements for change are not unique to these last few months,” Obama said.”The same forces of hope that swept across Tahrir Square were seen in Azadi Square in June of 2009“:

And just as the people in the region have insisted on having a choice in how they are governed, so do the governments in the region have a choice in their response. So far the Iranian government has responded by demonstrating that it cares far more about preserving its own power than respecting the rights of the Iranian people.

Significantly, for the first time President Obama also specifically named several imprisoned Iranian dissidents:

We’ve seen Nasrin Sotoudeh jailed for defending human rights. Jafar Panahi, imprisoned and unable to make his films. Abdolreza Tajik, thrown in jail for being a journalist. The Baha’i community and Sufi Muslims punished for their faith. Mohammad Valian, a young student sentenced to death for throwing three stones. These choices do not demonstrate strength, they show fear.

Watch it:

Responding in the Washington Times, Eli Lake suggests that Obama has “reversed course” on human rights in Iran, but I don’t think that’s correct. The administration has slowly but steadily increased its focus on Iranian human rights abuses, an approach supported by, among others, the Center for American Progress at an event last February. President Obama’s 2010 Nowruz message was an escalation from the conciliatory tone of 2009’s, noting how, in June 2009, the aspirations of the Iranian people were “met with a clenched fist, as people marching silently were beaten with batons; political prisoners were rounded up and abused… and people everywhere were horrified by the video of a young woman killed in the street.” The latest message represents yet another, albeit more serious, escalation.

A key thing to recognize, however, as I noted in a piece earlier this month on Secretary of State Clinton’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, (and as Karim Sadjadpour notes in Lake’s article) is that the credibility and potential effectiveness of Obama’s criticisms now have been significantly enhanced by Obama’s engagement policy, a policy that conservatives (most of whom spent the Bush years supporting policies that vastly increased Iran’s influence in the region) have relentlessly mocked as naive.

Prominent Iranian dissidents like Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji disagree that it was naive, noting that Obama’s outreach effort, by clearly revealing Iran’s current rulers as the intransigent party, played an important part in creating political space for the domestic opposition. By offering to negotiate in good faith, Obama has presented Iran’s hardliners with a choice they would desperately prefer not to have to make. This is also why it’s important that, even as his administration continues to increase pressure on the regime, the offer of an “open door” to negotiation remains open.