Lifting Human Rights Sanctions on Iran Would Be a Mistake

Lifting Human Rights Sanctions on Iran Would Be a Mistake

Lifting pressure on human rights abusers is not necessary to negotiate effective arms control agreements.


The Biden administration is reportedly poised to lift all sanctions on many of Iran’s worst human rights abusers and terrorism sponsors in exchange for remarkably weak nuclear concessions from Iran. History has shown that sacrificing human rights concerns to achieve arms control objectives is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

Both Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, due in part to the insistence of Congress, maintained strong human rights pressure on the Soviet Union while successfully negotiating major arms control agreements. The current Congress should step in to ensure that the administration’s eagerness for a deal with Iran does not undermine accountability for Iran’s egregious human rights abuses and sponsorship of terrorism.


The Iranians who will reportedly be freed from all sanctions under the nuclear deal include Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Ebrahim Raisi, Vice President Mohsen Rezaei, and Hossein Dehghan, a former brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Each has a horrific record of personal responsibility for human rights abuses and terrorism.

Khamenei was Iran's president from 1981 until 1989 and has been its supreme leader since then. As such, Khamenei is ultimately responsible for four decades of Iranian human rights abuses and support for terrorism. A U.S. federal court held Khamenei personally responsible for the deaths of nineteen U.S. servicemembers in the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Federal courts have also held Khamenei personally responsible for the deaths of U.S. civilians in three terrorist bombings in Israel—two on public buses and one at an outdoor market in Jerusalem.

Raisi is responsible for the execution of thousands of political prisoners and the unlawful torture and execution of hundreds of peaceful protesters. All sanctions will likewise reportedly be lifted on Rezaei, a former IRGC commander in chief who is wanted by Argentina for organizing a 1994 attack on a Jewish community center that killed eighty-five people. Dehghan is responsible for mass executions as commander of the IRGC’s Tehran branch. He also commanded the IRGC in Lebanon when Iran ordered the Beirut barracks bombing, which killed 241 U.S. Marines.

The nuclear deal is reportedly also poised to lift all sanctions on the IRGC, which is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and has carried out terrorist activities that have violated human rights around the world for decades. This sends a particularly counterproductive message in the wake of recent reports that the IRGC is actively working to assassinate former U.S. government officials, including former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton.

Lifting sanctions on these Iranian human rights abusers and terrorism sponsors would send a dangerous message of impunity to Vladimir Putin and his henchmen at a time when they are committing war crimes in Ukraine and human rights abuses in Russia. Such a decision is contrary to America’s values, would wrongly abandon the Islamic Republic’s many victims—including hundreds of current political prisoners and detainees—and would also weaken deterrence against future abuses in Iran and make it harder for the Iranian people to liberate themselves from the Iranian regime. Iran saw mass uprisings in 2018, 2019, and 2020; the regime reportedly killed 1,500 demonstrators in November 2019 alone. The regime’s repression is likely to cause even more mass uprisings in the future. If Washington lifts these sanctions, Iranian officials will have even fewer worries about the personal price they might pay for crushing new uprisings.

Lifting sanctions on these Iranian human rights abusers will also empower these hardliners in the broader Iranian political arena. Islamic Republic officials who violate Iran’s legally binding obligations on human rights—including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party—are among those most likely to violate Iran's nuclear commitments. The United States should isolate and sanction them, not relieve them of sanctions pressure or otherwise rehabilitate them.

A decision to lift human rights and terrorism sanctions on these Iranian officials would be inconsistent with the previously expressed policies of the Biden and Obama administrations. For example, during his confirmation hearing, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said that Washington “should not be loosening sanctions on terrorism or human rights or anything else that checks back Iran’s destabilizing activities.”

In 2015, while discussing the very deal that Biden officials say they seek to resurrect, then-Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate that the United States would not be violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Washington used “our authorities to impose sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights, missiles, or any other nonnuclear reason.” Kerry also said that “the JCPOA does not provide Iran any relief from United States sanctions under any of those authorities.”

The United States’ experience negotiating with the Soviet Union, which had a much more advanced nuclear program and military than Iran does today, demonstrates that lifting pressure on human rights abusers is not necessary to negotiate and implement verifiable arms control agreements. In fact, past efforts have shown that it is counterproductive.

Neither Carter, while negotiating the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), nor Reagan, while negotiating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, made concessions on human rights in order to achieve progress on arms control. Instead, both Carter and Reagan made clear to the Soviets that progress on human rights was key to increasing trust on arms control.

In a June 1978 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter both discussed the importance of the ongoing SALT II negotiations and sharply criticized Soviet human rights violations, saying, “The abuse of basic human rights in their own country … has earned them the condemnation of people everywhere who love freedom.” Even at the height of the SALT II negotiations, Carter publicly “condemned” and “deplored” a Soviet sentence on dissident Anatoly Sharansky.

Both Carter and his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, used public and private forums to impress upon Soviet leaders that continued human rights abuses would anger the American public and hinder the possibility of the Senate ratifying the completed SALT II treaty. Carter and Soviet chairman Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT II treaty in June 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan eventually derailed Senate ratification, but both the United States and the Soviet Union announced they would nevertheless abide by its provisions.

Reagan also negotiated and signed a major arms control agreement—the INF treaty—while strongly pressuring the Soviets on human rights. Reagan publicly called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” He and his administration pressured the Soviets by raising human rights in meetings with them, highlighting human rights in presidential speeches, and openly discussing the issue with members of Congress, human rights activists, and Soviet dissidents.

After a summit with the Soviets, Reagan publicly declared that “we didn’t limit ourselves to just arms reductions.” Rather, he also discussed the Soviets’ “violation of human rights,” noting that “a government that will break faith with its own people cannot be trusted to keep faith with foreign powers.”

Reagan, like Carter, found it helpful to portray Congress as a “bad cop” on human rights issues. He emphasized to the Soviets that progress on other bilateral issues, given the human rights concerns of both his administration and congress, would be easier if Moscow would improve its human rights record.

Congressional action underscored this point to Moscow. The House and Senate passed numerous resolutions condemning Soviet human rights violations, while individual lawmakers criticized the administration when it even vaguely appeared to subordinate human rights to arms control.

Kenneth Adelman, Reagan’s top arms control adviser at the time, eloquently described the interplay between human rights and arms control in a January 1987 speech. He argued that human rights advocacy is not a hindrance, but rather a contributor, to effective arms control agreements.

It is no surprise, said Adelman, that “a nation that makes no effort to abide by its human rights agreement commitments also violates its arms control agreements.” It also comes as no surprise, he added, when a nation “that systematically lies to its own people fails to comply fully with an arms agreement it signs with us.” Adelman concluded that “openness and arms control go together.”

Thus, lifting human rights and counterterrorism sanctions would actually decrease the prospects for Iran’s lasting and verifiable abandonment of its nuclear weapons ambitions. It would also weaken deterrence against further abuses, abandon victims, empower Iranian hardliners, and send a dangerous message to Putin and his henchmen.

Much as it did with Carter and Reagan, Congress should act to ensure that the United States continues to pursue an end not only to Iran’s nuclear program but also to its egregious human rights abuses and state sponsorship of terrorism.

Orde F. Kittrie is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a law professor at Arizona State University. He previously served as the U.S. State Department’s lead attorney for nuclear affairs. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @OrdeFK.

Image: Reuters.