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As President Joe Biden sets the course for a new U.S. policy toward Iran, he would do well to put human rights at the center of the American agenda. Under former President Donald Trump, the United States occasionally voiced concern about Iranian human rights abuses, but such advocacy was widely seen as little more than a political bludgeon, and as such it was ineffective. European diplomats went largely silent on the issue, as the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal left them focused on preventing the agreement’s collapse. The new administration in Washington has the opportunity and the imperative to address a human rights situation in Iran that is not only deteriorating but also intimately connected to multiple areas of strategic concern.
The last four years have been dark ones for human rights in Iran. Societal discontent over worsening economic conditions and continued repression exploded in November 2019 into the most serious protests the country has seen in decades. To crush them, security forces used indiscriminate, lethal violence. The judiciary has also issued increasingly harsh prison sentences to human rights lawyers and activists after unfair trials and meted out death sentences to protesters and dissidents.
Yet still the world remains fixated on the nuclear file, portraying it as the foremost issue to resolve with Iran. That view overlooks the link between human rights and security concerns—including the spread of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the United States can more effectively address all of its key strategic interests regarding Iran—nuclear proliferation, missile production, regional conflict, terrorism, and oil markets—by affording human rights a central place in its foreign policy.
Protecting basic civil rights and liberties promotes good governance, and good governance in turn promotes domestic stability. Only with freedom of expression and the rule of law, for example, can officials be held accountable. Without such accountability, stability will always be at risk. Iran’s recent history has amply demonstrated the relationship between poor governance and unrest. Those who protested in the streets of Iranian cities in November 2019 did so explicitly in response to the Islamic Republic’s mismanagement and injustices. The state crushed these protests with extreme violence; security forces fired live ammunition into crowds of unarmed civilians, killing hundreds and arresting thousands in a matter of days.
Some U.S. policymakers have welcomed the prospect of a destabilized Iran. But if Iran were to descend into chaos, the most likely outcome would be further chaos throughout the Middle East. Domestic stability is inextricably linked to regional stability: throughout the region, weak and failed states have fueled destructive substate actors, radical transnational movements, and interstate conflict. Sustained domestic turmoil in Iran could lead to fragmentation along ethnic, religious, and ideological lines and a violent internecine conflict that would open the door to proxy wars among regional rivals and further great-power conflict in the region. All the nearby conflicts, particularly those in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen where Iran is already enmeshed, would be exacerbated, as the drive for the various players to capitalize on the chaos intensified.
The last four years have been dark ones for human rights in Iran.
Burgeoning regional conflicts would put a great many security interests at risk. Weapons would rapidly proliferate. Refugees would surge across borders, bringing destabilizing effects not only to the region but also to Europe. The radicalism that has fueled international terrorism would have a new lease on life. And oil markets would be disrupted at a time when economies worldwide have sharply contracted due to COVID-19.
Put simply, peace and security on the country level are inseparable from peace and security on the regional level—and both depend on the defense of human rights. Basic civil and political liberties are, at the end of the day, a reflection of the rule of law. As such they form the basis of both sound domestic governance and international comity.
The pen may not always be mightier than the sword, but the history of the Cold War shows that dissidents matter. Their voices carry weight and can significantly affect the legitimacy of a state. Such figures are listened to in their own societies, and that is precisely why repressive governments lock them up: tyrants fear them. Figures such as Andrei Sakharov in the former Soviet Union, Vaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa were instrumental in critiquing the state structures of their home countries. The further and more deeply these dissidents’ voices resonated, the more legitimacy drained from the governments that repressed them.
Likewise, in Iran, imprisoned lawyers and activists, such as the defense attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh and the recently released activist Narges Mohammadi, carry great authority. Such figures have not been silenced by incarceration. Rather, their letters from prison circulate widely on Iranian social media. Dozens of lesser known activists have joined the chorus calling for civil and political liberties. Supporting them and the rights they advocate by amplifying their voices, working with allies to jointly raise their causes, and forcefully objecting to their prosecution in every possible forum is not only a moral imperative but a strategic one.
More broadly, a freer expressive space in Iran would serve American interests by lessening the potential for regional conflict. It has been well established that countries with strong human rights records are less likely than those with weak ones to engage in aggression against their neighbors. The costs of war are simply harder to force upon an informed citizenry, and citizens whose civil liberties are protected are able to voice their opposition to acts of aggression. Currently, Iranians do post bitter commentary on social media, not only about human rights abuses but also about the government’s actions in Syria and expenditures in Lebanon. The commentary—and the pressure on the government—would surely be much fiercer if political expression were less constrained.
Respecting human rights could be the first step toward true political reform in Iran. The country’s moderate center—which has consistently supported engagement with the West, nuclear negotiation, and a reduced regional footprint for the Islamic Republic—has demonstrated its numerical dominance in a majority of the country’s elections, both presidential and parliamentary. Yet this moderate center has been unable to sway policy in Iran. Power in the Islamic Republic lies in the hands of the supreme leader, his religious cronies, and the security apparatus that reports to him. Iran’s elected officials have proved unable to deliver on any of their promised reforms, and those identified as “reformists” have all but lost credibility as agents of positive change.
Change remains possible in Iran, but not without respect for human rights. If the country were to honor basic political and civil liberties, such as the right to peacefully dissent, to freely associate with others, and to form real political parties, it would open political space to new, independent candidates who could pursue the widespread demand for nonviolent reform and the structural transformation of the country’s politics. Such a shift can take years. But it could eventually mean the empowerment of a largely centrist citizenry that has long eschewed violence and extremism.
If Iran’s government is to be compelled to respect human rights, it must come under sustained pressure. The authorities in Iran have demonstrated that they are sensitive to public opinion, both domestic and international, especially when the two are combined. For example, for more than a decade, civil society inside Iran and international human rights organizations persistently demanded reform of Iran’s death penalty policies, ultimately leading to a major policy reversal in which the authorities ceased applying the death penalty to low-level drug crimes. The government’s attempts to shape the public narrative—by censoring the Internet, controlling the media, broadcasting the forced “confessions” of detainees, and intimidating the families of journalists and dissidents into silence—attest to its concern for public opinion. The more Iranians can access information and share their views, the costlier rights violations and political repression will become for the government.
External actors have only a limited ability to influence any country’s domestic human rights policies, and the effort to bring about such change is a long-term endeavor that may yield few short-term results. But on almost every continent, examples can be found of brutal and repressive governments finally yielding to international demands for rights, freedoms, and accountability. An Iran policy that builds toward such an outcome is not beyond the realm of the possible—but it would require the United States to recalibrate some of its priorities.
Change remains possible in Iran, but not without respect for human rights.
A U.S. foreign policy that prioritized human rights would continuously and vigorously raise Iran’s human rights record in its bilateral dealings with other countries—not as a perfunctory sidebar but as a central concern, signaling that the United States considered the issue important enough to seek coordinated international action to address it. The United States could use multilateral forums to push for the global censure of the Islamic Republic’s human rights abuses. And by linking progress on human rights to things that the Iranian authorities want—benefits rising from trade, investment, and scientific exchange, for example—the United States could exact clearly delineated costs for continued violations.
A Washington that understood the centrality of human rights to its Iran policy would also consult with human rights organizations frequently and meaningfully, thereby ensuring that its policy was informed by accurate, independent, and nonpartisan information on the state of human rights in Iran and the central needs of Iranian civil society. Moreover, it would make human rights a major component of its policy toward the larger region, demonstrating that such rights were a fundamental U.S. priority rather than a political tool.
The mandate of the negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal was never about anything other than the nuclear file. And progress on nuclear nonproliferation should not be held hostage to other issues. But that does not mean other critical issues—including human rights—should not be pursued just as robustly alongside the nuclear negotiations. A comprehensive approach to security that places human rights on an equal footing with other strategic issues is ultimately the only way to begin to bring peace, stability, and political and economic development to the troubled Middle East.
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