Human Rights and the Iran Nuclear Talks

Making Iranian human-rights violations an issue in the nuclear negotiations would be counterproductive.

The election of President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 has led to changes in Iran few could have imagined. Yet many commentators have been quick to point out where the rate of progress leaves much to be desired. They argue that, despite Rouhani’s preelection promises to improve human rights in Iran, the country’s track record in that area has, in fact, worsened. Some have gone as far as to suggest human rights should be addressed as part of the ongoing negotiations between Tehran and the P5+1 on the future of the Iranian nuclear program.

The number of imprisonments and executions ongoing in Iran is certainly distressing. And despite women being appointed to key leadership positions, and the election of the country’s first female, Sunni governor, the status of women and religious minorities is far from satisfactory. However, those criticizing Rouhani fail to note the positive impacts of his election domestically, and do not appear to recognize how inclusion of human rights in the nuclear negotiations has potential to backfire. Rouhani and his team have achieved a great deal in just a few months. While some dismiss these efforts—claiming that the “new” approach is in fact presenting the same old ideas "with a smile," to dupe the international community into easing economic sanctions—concrete steps taken so far contradict claims that Tehran’s policies cannot and will not change.

Iran’s domestic political discussion is changing and opening up. As a result, the public debate within the country is becoming increasingly dynamic and polarized. On the one hand, the hardliners have doubled their efforts to create animosity with the international community. Their discourse is as belligerent as that of Ahmadinejad at its worst, and has attracted international attention. This has led Rouhani to request them to refrain from engaging in such rhetoric.

On the other hand, the level of open public debate is unprecedented in the Islamic Republic’s history. This is best illustrated by a debate entitled “The Islamic Republic’s Engagement with the West,” conducted at Imam Sadegh University and published by various Iranian media outlets, ranging from reformist newspaper, Shargh, to regime outlets, such as Fars. In the debate, Sadegh Zibakalam, a well-known and established academic at Tehran University, who is working within the establishment but close to the reformists, made an unprecedented statement, in a way breaking a thirty-five year old taboo. Zibakalam stated openly that he "recognized" Israel because the United Nations does. This debate was conducted at home, not for Western consumption.

And Zibakalam's statements are just one part of the evidence of change. For example, the head of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (responsible for issuing permits to publish books and authorizing various artistic productions) Ali Jannati, who is also the son of hardline ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, has been a surprising agent of change. He has gone so far as questioning thirty-five year old bans on certain forms of artistic expression and, most recently, taking steps to suspend the ban on social media. Those claiming that changes in Iran’s policy are merely rhetorical should pay closer attention to such developments inside the country.

Are the nuclear talks are an adequate platform for those human-rights concerns that remain? Probably not. The nuclear talks are complex enough without the addition of an extremely complicated and largely separate issue. And there are three major drawbacks to including human rights in the talks.

First, by adding human rights to the equation, U.S. officials would only antagonize Tehran and start a new round of unconstructive rhetorical exchange. Washington’s recent human-rights track record is far from impeccable, and Iran’s leadership has been quick to point this out. The United States’ alliance with a country with a far worst human-rights record than Iran, namely Saudi Arabia, will be painted as further evidence of the double standards and biases Iranian officials have been denouncing for thirty-five years. Iran’s human-rights situation will only improve if the demand comes from within the country, not from another government—especially not that of the United States.