Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the United States has vacillated between engagement and confrontation with the Islamic Republic, with sanctions filling the gap. As Iran has moved closer to achieving its nuclear ambitions in recent years, tensions are rising once again. The latest round of U.S. sanctions, signed into law in 2010, has hurt the Iranian government by restricting finance for oil refineries and discouraging foreign companies from conducting business with it. Yet sanctions have not delayed Iran’s nuclear drive, foiled its support for terrorism abroad, or kept it from meddling in its neighbors’ affairs.

In the wake of revelations about an Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Abdel al-Jubeir, some in Congress are making the case for another round of sanctions, ostensibly to ramp up the pressure even more. But such a strategy leaves much to be desired. Over the past year, for example, Iran has enacted economic reforms and reduced the price of subsidies, riding out and adapting to sanctions.

Washington will only neutralize Iran by exploiting the regime's main vulnerability: its false claim to legitimacy. The ayatollahs' hold on power is inherently unstable because they have no popular mandate. Since staging a rigged election in 2009 to keep Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, they have relied on repression and brutality to silence opposition, jailing journalists, torturing detainees, and executing critics (both real and imagined). By highlighting these crimes on the world stage and actively supporting Iran’s dissidents, the United States can place a new, more effective kind of pressure on Tehran and support the movement for democratic change from within. Focusing on human rights violations will allow the United States to expose the hypocrisy of the regime and remind Iran of its domestic troubles as it tries to expand its power and influence.

The current state of affairs in Iran began with the Green Movement uprising in 2009. As hundreds of thousands flowed into the streets to protest the sham victory of Ahmadinejad in the nation’s presidential election, security forces cracked down, worsening the country’s already severe level of oppression. The Iranian authorities admit to having arrested more than 4,500 protesters during the crackdown. Opposition groups report that there are at least 1,000 political prisoners still in jail, reflecting Iran’s long-practiced tactics of attempting to break dissidents with prolonged imprisonment and isolation and by harassing their families.

Iran has the highest per-capita execution rate in the world, with 252 confirmed executions in 2010 and reports of 300 more (out of a population of over 70 million). In absolute numbers, that is second only to China. And there has been no reprieve in 2011. Official Iranian media and human rights groups report 450 executions this year, many conducted in secret, unannounced to the lawyers and relatives of the accused. There have been 33 public executions so far this year; three men have been hanged for being homosexuals, a capital crime in Iran. In September alone, the state executed more than 100 of its citizens.

Those who fight back often end up arrested, too. One such case is Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian lawyer who has represented juveniles on death row for over a decade and, more recently, defended several prominent human rights activists. She was arrested in September 2010 for “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime” and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. When Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, and their two small children visited her in jail recently, they were detained for five hours because Khandan would not hand over his notebook to the authorities before the visit.

Some may argue that exposing Iran’s human rights record is a poor means of undermining its regime. But it is actually sound statecraft. At little cost, the United States can mobilize international condemnation of Iran’s oppression more effectively than it can unite countries against Iran’s nuclear program, which is a far more contentious issue.

Consider the left-wing parties in Europe, such as Germany’s Green and Britain’s Labour, whose mantra before the 2009 elections was, in effect, “no war against Iran.” After the Iranian regime beat its own people in the streets, major European parties joined in condemning the regime, becoming advocates for jailed human rights activists, students, and labor leaders. This public effort spurred diplomatic action. Although European countries have been slow to enforce economic measures against Iran, they have sanctioned more Iranian officials for human rights violations than has the United States, implementing travel bans and freezing their European assets. Domestic pressure also changed policy in Brazil, where the government went from congratulating Ahmadinejad on his reelection in 2009 to offering asylum to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned for alleged adultery, in July 2010.

The Iranian government takes such campaigns seriously. Last year, for example, Iran announced that it would apply for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. An international outcry ensued, with human rights organizations and governments loudly opposing its candidacy. Once Tehran realized that it could not secure enough votes to win a place on the council, it withdrew its bid rather than suffer the embarrassment of defeat.

International advocacy can change the fate of individual cases as well. The global movement for Ashtiani eventually led Iran to stay her execution. In the case of Sotoudeh, human rights activists worldwide petitioned their governments to encourage the Iranian regime to end her incarceration. In March, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned Sotoudeh in his New Year’s message to Iran; the following month, she won the 2011 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. By August, an Iranian court had reduced Sotoudeh’s sentence from 11 to six years.

U.S. policymakers are increasingly catching on. In June, the State Department sanctioned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its human rights violations against Iranian citizens. Critics, however, insist that the United States will harm the Iranian opposition by assisting it, ruining its credibility. Others believe that a human rights–based initiative will ultimately fail to change Iran’s behavior and thus point to negotiations as the only solution.

Yet the events of the past two years suggest such critiques are outdated. The Green Movement activists who raised banners declaring, “Obama, Obama, either you’re with them or you’re with us!” demonstrated that they want U.S. support. Moreover, the Obama administration abandoned its policy of engagement with the Iranian regime after two years of silence from the ayatollahs.

The United States, then, should adopt new methods of neutralizing Iran. It can begin focusing on human rights by conditioning any future negotiations on Iran’s demonstrated adherence to international human rights standards. It can place travel bans not only on senior Iranian officials but also on their family members (a tactic used against lieutenants of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s). The Obama administration can mention Iranian dissidents by name in speeches and press conferences. Above all, it can place sanctions directly on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The United States can also increase its efforts to support dissidents directly. The U.S. Congress could fund programs to help Iranian activists organize and circumvent electronic censorship. The White House can encourage elected officials worldwide to call attention to Iranian repression by “adopting” individual political prisoners. One such effort is the Iranian Dissident Awareness Program, initiated by U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in May 2011, which highlights the cases of individual Iranian political prisoners, modeled on the campaign to assist dissidents in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. U.S. officials can also ask local governments to “twin” themselves symbolically with Iranian cities and towns where political prisoners are held.

For over 30 years, the threat of armed conflict has loomed over the relationship between the United States and Iran. Yet to restrain Tehran, Washington must expose the Islamic Republic’s human rights violations -- recognizing that the true struggle will not take place on the battlefield or across a negotiating table but on the streets of Iran, led by Iranians themselves.

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  • SARAH MORGAN and ANDREW APOSTOLOU are, respectively, Senior Program Associate and Director for Iran at Freedom House. Apostolou also co-chairs Beyond Sanctions: The Next Iran Strategy, a joint policy task force between Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute.
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