No, The Iran Agreement Didn’t Sell Out Human Rights

One of the criticisms of the deal recently struck in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 is that, by not addressing the issue of internal oppression in Iran, it basically sells out Iranian human rights activists. The Washington Post’s Charles Lane brings up Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman murdered by Iranian security forces during the protests that followed Iran’s 2009 presidential elections:

Today, Iran is once again in the headlines but not because Neda’s murderers are about to be held accountable. Nor has there been fundamental change in the regime that jailed and killed many rank-and-file members of the Green Revolution and continues to confine the movement’s leaders. No, we’re talking about the nuclear deal that the world’s great powers, led by the United States, signed last weekend with Khamenei’s representatives amid much smiling and backslapping. No one’s talking about Neda.

Lane fears that any deal on the nuclear program will eventually free the Iranian government from any pressure at all. “With Iran’s economy restored and its diplomatic legitimacy enhanced, the theocracy could vanquish its internal foes and, over time, increase its clout in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Shiite regions of the Gulf,” he writes. “So much for the Green Revolution. So much for regime change. And so much for the memory of Neda Agha Soltan.”

A few points here. First, this was always a negotiation about the nuclear issue and the nuclear issue alone, so complaining that the agreement doesn’t address human rights (or terrorism, or Iran’s support for Syria’s Assad regime, or why Iranian politicians refuse to wear ties) is obviously moving the goal posts a bit.


But this isn’t to say that the issue of human rights isn’t important. It certainly is. Obama administration officials have made clear that, if and when the nuclear issue is resolved, there will remain a range of other concerns that the U.S. and the international community has with Iran, many backed by their own sets of sanctions, human rights being one.

It’s also important to note that human rights is not something the administration has simply ignored over the past several years as it has sought to engage Iran over the nuclear question. In early 2011, the U.S. lobbied hard at the United Nations for the creation of a U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran. Rightly perceiving the creation of such an office as a blow to its internal legitimacy, the Iranian government lobbied hard against it, and failed. In August 2011, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed took up the post.

Last year I spoke to Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, who described the impact that Dr. Shaeed’s appointment had inside Iran. “The appointment has activated a U.N. mechanism, which put the Iranian government on notice that it’s being watched,” Ghaemi said. “We believe that this has had a preventative impact, putting a break [on potential abuses], preventing things from getting too out of hand. It has also created an address for victims of abuses to register grievances.” Ghaemi noted that immediately after his appointment, hundreds of Iranians contacted Shaheed to submit their testimonies.

Finally, there’s the question of how to actually advance the cause of human rights in Iran, and is this deal good or bad for that goal? In a recent piece in the Daily Beast, journalist Ali Gharib spoke to a number of Iranian human rights activists who criticized Congress for sanctions that threatened to undermine such a deal. Following up on Gharib’s piece, the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake found some Iranian dissidents critical that the deal doesn’t specifically address human rights, but others supportive because it eases sanctions. “The entire opposition inside Iran advocates a democratic state, but they do not agree on the way to achieve it,” Akbar Ganji, a well known Iranian dissident journalist, told Lake. “Economic sanctions punish the people of Iran, which is why the vast majority of democratic forces opposes them and views the nuclear accord as a way of getting the sanctions lifted and the threat of war removed.”

Earlier this month, Iranian human rights activist Taghi Rahmani told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that delivering a deal that eased Iran’s economic situation while also securing Iran’s nuclear rights could empower President Rohani and other more moderate elements in the Iranian government to address broader reform issues. “It would give Rohani and his team more bargaining power with the hard-liners,” Rahmani said . “A successful deal would definitely, positively impact social and political conditions inside of Iran.”

I think President Obama recognized this dynamic in his 2009 Nobel speech:

The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — condemnation without discussion — can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

Time will tell whether the Geneva deal positively impacts human rights in Iran. But here I have to ask critics like Lane: What’s your alternative? Should the U.S. have refused to sign any deal that didn’t address human rights? I think it’s clear that the failure to get a deal in Geneva would have dramatically weakened Rohani and empowered his hardline critics, thereby removing any chance that we could see an improvement on human rights in the near term. As it is, there is now some chance. That’s successful diplomacy.