Human Rights and the Iran Nuclear Talks

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.

Second, the human-rights situation in Iran and the nuclear dossier are indeed linked, but in a more complex manner than advocates for combined talks suggest. The nuclear dossier and the looming threat of a war have, for the past few years, provided the regime a pretense to perpetrate human-rights violations and stop the population from taking action. Indeed, the nuclear, economic and foreign-policy crises have provided an excuse for the regime to crack down on opponents. What is more, the threat of war and longstanding economic insecurity exacerbated by sanctions have made the population reluctant to take concrete action against the government. Iranians frequently tell me that they fear any opposition to the regime will be misinterpreted by Israel or the United States as a green light to attack the country. They have therefore become hesitant to highlight human-rights abuses. This was reflected in the 2013 presidential race, where the candidates and their campaigns focused heavily on the nuclear issue and the economy. Human-rights issues were largely absent. If serious efforts are made to solve the nuclear issue and normalize relations between the West and Tehran, hesitancy to address human rights at home will dissipate. This will empower Iranians to demand their fundamental rights, which will in turn provide the platform for more profound and sustainable reform than any requests or requirements from the White House.

Third, linking the nuclear talks with the human-rights issue will empower hardliners, who would likely utilize such a move to show that the West is indeed seeking to weaken Iran. Hardliners, such as Ayatollah Jannati, have been vocal since the beginning of the talks, making every effort to derail them. They have pleaded to the Supreme Leader and have tried to discredit Rouhani. So far, they have not been successful in convincing Ayatollah Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or the Iranian people that the talks are doomed to fail and should not be supported. The cautious optimism and endorsement of the talks could, however, be revoked if further demands, especially those directly related to Iran’s internal affairs, are added to the negotiable items well after the outlines of a final nuclear deal had been agreed in Geneva.

As Rouhani’s team moves forward in easing tensions with the international community and the domestic political climate in Iran becomes more conducive to open discussion on various issues, including foreign policy and especially Israel, the hardliners are likely to increase pressure on the Obama administration to influence the talks with Iran. Likewise, certain factions in Israel and the U.S. are also likely to continue to try to put pressures on the Obama administration not to engage with Iran. Managing the hardliners in the U.S., Iran, and Israel, while refraining from undermining the steps taken by the government elected by the Iranian people, is key to a successful nuclear deal, long-term confidence-building, and normalization of Western-Iranian relations. Managing expectations and refraining from unnecessarily burdening the negotiators with issues beyond the scope of the nuclear dossier would antagonize Tehran, empower the hardliners, and undermine both the nuclear and human-rights discussions. The P5+1 should continue the current trend and advance the nuclear negotiations, with the aim of reaching a final deal. Other venues provide a more adequate forum to discuss human-rights issues. The priority now must be to bring an end to the nuclear issue, ease sanctions, and Iran’s reintegration into the international community, all of which will help weaken the hardliners, empowering the Iranian people and the government they elected to take tangible action—including on human rights.

Ariane Tabatabai is an Iranian Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a Ph.D Candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.