Foreign Policy: Iran, Democracy, Freedom, Human Rights

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh Speaking and Briefing at The United States Congress.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh Speaking and Briefing at The United States Congress.

Earlier this week, I spoke at a Congressional briefing, on the Capitol Hill. I was joined by bi-partisan Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair, House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Middle East and North Africa; Judge Ted Poe (R-TX), Chair, House FAC Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Trade; Rep. Steve Shabot (R-OH), Senior Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Brad Sherman (D-CA), senior member of the HFAC; Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), senior member of the Judiciary Committee, Tom Garrett (R-VA), House Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Member of the Judiciary Committee, Co-Chair House Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus. Professor Kazem Kazeronian, an expert on the history of Iran-US relationship; Dr. Ramesh Sepehrrad, a scholar practitioner at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (SCAR) at George Mason University; Dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Connecticut; and Dr. Sharam Ahmadi Nasab Emran, of Saint Louis University and a frequent commentator in international policy forums, including the Policy Studies Organization’s 2016 Middle East Dialogue, were other panelists. The briefing, arranged by the Organization of Iranian American Communities, was entitled: Iran Regime’s Threats & Rights Violations: Policy Options.

All speakers stated their support for a free and democratic Iran and underscored the need for tough enforcement of IAEA inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites. The Rep. Brad Sherman, the Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives and a ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said, “I will never forget that NCRI revealed Iran's nuke program. Without it, the regime would have had the bomb by now.” Judge Ted Poe (R-TX), Chair of HFAC Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Trade, reminded policymakers that, ”The Iranian regime murdered 30,000 political prisoners in a few months in 1988, adding, “US must stand with the Iranian people to help them bring down the mullahs.”

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, U.S. Representative
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, U.S. Representative

In my remarks I drew on several topics. First, I pointed out that there exist several reasons for why the nuclear agreement has deficiencies.

Iran’s Attitude Since the Nuclear Agreement

1. As outlined in the JCPOA preamble, all signatories “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” The JCPOA’s preamble aside, the congressional ratification also stipulates that the President must certify not only that Iran is fulfilling its basic obligations, but also that the continued suspension of nuclear-related sanctions is in the vital national security interest of the United States.

Has the nuclear agreement positively contribute to regional peace and security? Based on the following evidence, the answer is no. Iran’s military influence, exapnsion and interventions have increased since the nuclear agreement including in Irap, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and most recently Iranian diplomats were caught and expelled from Kuwait for links to “spy and terror” trying to allegedly create proxies in Kuwait. With the newfound sanctions relief and raising oil prices, the Iranian leaders and the IRGC have more money than ever to spend on it allies including Assad, and its militias.

Since the nuclear agreement there has been more than 10 missiles tests some of which had North Korean origins, according to the Pentagon. In three decades, the Islamic Republic for the first time fired a missile into another country, Syria, after the nuclear deal. Khamenei and senior cadre of the IRGC have ratcheted up anti-American sentiments and policies. This includes Iranian vessel approaching and harassing U.S. Navy ships in an aggressive and unsafe manner, detaining and humiliating the US navy sailors, spreading their videos on almost every social media platform, arresting more Iranian-Americans. The Islamic Republic backs almost more than half of the region’s militias, and Tehran supports militias that their core mission is to harm Americans and harm US national security interests. What ISIS does appears to be done on the larger scale by the IRGC, and the Islamic Republic’s non-humanitarian acts such as executions appear enshrined in its constitution. Iran ranks world’s top when it comes to executions per capita. Therefore, can you say that, with all these evidence, the nuclear deal is positively contributing to the regional piece and security?

2. I hear the following argument a lot that: the IAEA is verifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, as a result we should not question anything, and we should sit back do nothing regarding the nuclear agreement. First of all, it seems that many terms of the nuclear agreement are so broad, vague, ambiguous and flimsy that it is hard for the IAEA to state that Iran is not complying. For example, Parchin military site, which is reportedly the main location where the ruling clerics of Iran conduct nuclear research and development is out of the IAEA’s reach. Iran has not allowed the IAEA to inspect military sites. Second, the IAEA’s approvals should be taken with a grain of salt. Remember, it was not the IAEA, but the Iranian opposition that disclosed Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities in Natanz and Arak in 2002, according to the State Department. It was not the IAEA, but the US intelligence that find out about Iran’s other clandestine nuclear activities. So it is unrealistic and irrational to argue that IAEA’s approvals are absolute. Additionally, reports from the NCRI revealed new sites and indicate that some nuclear-related activities may be going on currently in Parchin military site. Shouldn’t the IAEA pursue such report? Frank Pabian, an adviser on nuclear non-proliferation matters at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, previously told the New York Times that the NCRI is “right 90 percent of the time.” Intelligence reports have revealed the after the nuclear agreement the Islamic Republic have tried to obtain illegal nuclear material from Europe.

Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, revealed in its annual report that Iran has pursued a "clandestine" path to obtain illicit nuclear technology and equipment from German companies "at what is, even by international standards, a quantitatively high level." The intelligence report also stated that "it is safe to expect that Iran will continue its intensive procurement activities in Germany using clandestine methods to achieve its objectives." According to the IAEA, the Islamic Republic has also surpassed the required amount of heavy water, used to produce nuclear weapons, on several occasions. In other words, Iran has technically violated the nuclear deal on several occasions. The JCPOA says nothing about the weaponization dimension of Iran’s nuclear program except for one small section, section T.

3. One of the main arguments of the advocate of the nuclear agreement was that the deal will help the Iranian people, and moderate Iran’s domestic policies. Well, let us examine the economic situation right before and two years after the nuclear agreement. The unemployment rate has increased by approximately 30%. Here I am quoting the official number. The unofficial numbers are much higher. According to the official numbers, before the nuclear agreement the unemployment rate was roughly 9%, now it is close to 13%.

It is worth remembering that we are talking about a wealthy nation that has the second and fourth largest oil and gas reserves in the world, but unfortunately poverty is widespread.

Since the nuclear agreement, Human rights abuses have increased according to latest reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Islamic republic is currently ranked number one in the world when it comes to executions per capita. The number of protests for political and economic reasons has also increased.

The Survival and raison de etre of the Islamic Republic

Because of the above-mentioned reasons and evidence, I argued that every signatory of the nuclear agreement should rethink, and can legally change its position towards, the nuclear agreement for the sake of peace, stability, strengthening non-proliferation of nuclear weapons’ treaty (NPT), and empowering the Iranian people, advancing human rights and democratic values.

It is critical to point out that the survival and raison de etre of the ruling clerics of Iran rest on projecting the US as the Great Satan and enemy number one of the region, and, scuttling US foreign policy objectives in the region, harming US national security interests, and promoting anti-Americanism. Since Jimmy Carter several president have tried to change Iran with appeasement policies, but it has not worked.

I genuinely think that, by now, we should learn a lesson from this four-decade history of the Islamic Republic.

A Successful Multi-dimensional Policy Towards Iran: 6 Facets

Finally, we should implement a broader strategy towards Iran which would be multi-dimensional. We can not solely focus on one issue, such the nuclear deal. The strategy should focus on several issues including, but not limited to, Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic program, regional interventions, and human rights abuses. Such a policy will be effective, concentrated and powerful.

1. When it comes to the nuclear agreement, the international community should push for inspection of Iran’s military sites. The current terms of the JCPOA appear to pave the way for the Islamic Republic toward becoming a nuclear power due to the sunset clauses. As a result, the sunset clauses of the JCPOA, which removes restriction on Iran’s nuclear programs after the expiration of the deal, should be removed.

Not only inspectors from the IAEA, but a team of experts from P5+1 should be part of the inspection when visiting Iran. The weaponization dimension of Iran’s nuclear program, about which the JCPOA says nothing, except for one small section, section T, should be addressed. Currently, there is no enforcement or monitoring mechanism regarding the weaponization dimension of Iran’s nuclear program.

2. Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is a core pillar of Iran’s foreign policy and appear to be linked to the nuclear program, should be restricted as well and be part of any nuclear deal. The UNSC should impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic, if it continues to test fire ballistic missiles, by invoking the UN resolution 2231. Iran is violating the UN resolution 2231 by test firing ballistic missiles.

Furthermore, the Congress should only and only consider US national security interests when reviewing any bill related to Tehran. Countering the Islamic Republic, which views the US as enemy number one, will empower the Iranian people, democratic forces and the organized opposition.

3. Regarding promoting and protecting human rights, one effective policy recommendation would be to make any deals with the Iranian leaders contingent on the improvement of the human rights situation, freedom of speech, press, and assembly, as well as a full moratorium on the death penalty including execution of children in Iran. In addition, the US and other governments can impose political and economic sanctions against Iranian officials who are responsible for human rights violations, just as the US has done previously against affiliates of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and has recently designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization. More fundamentally the US and the international community ought to bring those who committed the 1988 massacre mentioned by the Amnesty International, to justice. More than 30,000 men, women, and children were killed.

4. It is very critical to point out that countering the Islamic Republic doesn’t mean going to war with it. It means change from within by relying on the Iranian people and the organized opposition.

Iran’s past history, social-political and socio-economic landscapes are radically different from those in other countries in the region including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. First of all, Iran has had three major revolutions in the past three decades; the 1906 constitutional movement, the 1953 oil nationalization movement by Dr. Mossadeq and the 1979 revolution. The mullahs’ rule is only an aberration. Secondly, Iran has an organized opposition (NCRI-the coalition), an element that was missing in Iraq or Syria.

5. In addition, create united front with regional power in terms of security, military, and intelligence to counter Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions. Many countries in the region would be more than delighted to join and invest in such a coalition due to their fears and concerns regarding the Islamic Republic’s attitude in the region, its pursuit for regional hegemony, its interventions in Syria, Iraq, and other Arab nations, its ballistic missile tests, its expanding influence in the region, and its military adventurism.

6. The most powerful policy, and the strongest blow to the ruling clerics of Iran, would be to officially and publicly support the Iranian people and the organized opposition. I have repeatedly pointed out the what the ruling clerics of Iran fear most is the soft power of the people and the organized opposition, which has significant influence in Iran. Iran fears the soft power of the Iranian people and the opposition more than the hard power of regional and global powers.

In a nutshell, the best policy is the policy of firmness and decisiveness against the ruling clerics of Iran, and recognizing the right of the Iranian people and organized Iranian opposition to establish democracy and human rights in Iran. Instead of investment in the Iranian leaders and Khomeini’s clerical establishment, which many believe it does not represent the Iranian people and is the main source of instability in the region, the US and the international community should stand on the side of the Iranian people and opposition.


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Harvard-educated, Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a world-renowned business strategist and advisor, a leading Iranian-American political scientist, president of the International American Council on the Middle East, and best-selling author. He serves on the advisory board of Harvard International Review.

Dr. Rafizadeh is frequently invited to brief governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as speak, as a featured speaker, at security, business, diplomatic, and social events. He has been recipient of several fellowships and scholarships including from Oxford University, Annenberg, University of California Santa Barbara, Fulbright program, to name a few.

He is regularly quoted and invited to speak on national and international outlets including CNN, BBC World TV and Radio, ABC, Aljazeera English, Fox News, CTV, RT, CCTV America, Skynews, CTV, and France 24 International, to name a few. . He analyses have appeared on academic and non-academic publications including New York Times International, Los Angeles Times, CNN, Fareed Zakaria GPS, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Nation, The National. Aljazeera, The Daily Beast, The Nation, Jerusalem Post, The Economic Times, USA Today Yale Journal of International Affairs, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and Harvard International Review. He is a board member of several significant and influential international and governmental institutions, and he is native speaker of several of languages including Persian and Arabic. He also speaks Dari, and can converse in French, Hebrew. More at Harvard. And You can learn more about Dr. Rafizadeh on here. A version of this post was originally published on the Arab News.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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