The American presidential campaign is over and Americans have elected a president who will have to face many challenges inside and outside the U.S. How to tackle the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear ambitions was a recurrent theme in the campaign, but the candidates did not offer solutions that could have a long-lasting impact on the now three-decade-old tension between the two countries.
Both candidates showed determination to prevent a nuclear Iran, including by military action. Neither of them however, wondered publicly whether the Iranian people, who have the most at stake in case of war, approve of Iran's leadership's policies? How could such a crucial factor not be relevant to any discussion regarding Iran and its mostly unelected decision makers?
To make a difference, the future American president should challenge Iran's leaders with a well-articulated human rights agenda, a consistent multilateral policy containing clear demands and landmarks aimed at opening a space for Iranian citizens to express themselves.
The truth is that no one really knows whether Iran's silent majority approves of the government's policies, including its nuclear ambitions or not. Censorship and a swift and arbitrary justice prevent accurate opinion polls in Iran. Iranians have no access to the foreign media and policy maker, and are not actively present on the web. Further, a flurry of laws, rules and regulations severely hamper citizens' right to express views deemed incompatible with the goals of those in charge of "protecting the Islamic Republic," let alone to form groups to promote them.
As a result, most Iranian citizens do not attempt to comment openly on their government's policies from fear of retaliation against them and their families. Many, who bear the brunt of their leaders' damaging policies, are too exhausted by the daily effort to survive to care.
The unelected and unaccountable Supreme Leader and his allies are impervious to the impact of their decisions on the lives of ordinary Iranians. They are determined to withhold from their supporters and foes unpleasant information such as that regarding the disastrous consequences of a military attack on the country's nuclear facilities in terms of human lives and environmental damage; hence the need to silence dissenting voices.
There are however, Iranians who brave the danger and speak out against their government's foreign policy. Their voices however, have rarely been heard outside the country or taken seriously. For example, time and again, starting before President Obama's 2008 election, Iran's main student body, the Office of Consolidating Unity (OCU), an elected body representing thousands of students across the country, criticized the Iranian leadership for its nuclear "adventurism" and for endangering the country's security. It also stressed that the leadership's firm stand in the nuclear dispute is designed to impede international focus on Iran's deteriorating human rights situation.
Today, the facts speak for themselves. The nuclear crisis had, at least until two years ago, the undivided attention of the U.S. and its allies, giving a free hand to Iran's leaders to crack down on civil society, including the OCU, whose members were imprisoned, silenced with suspended prison sentences or forced to seek asylum outside the country.
But there is still hope. Today, unlike the immediate post-revolutionary years, the Iranian leaders are concerned about their image abroad. They also respond to their critics and deny the routine violation of their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Since 1975, Iran is bound by the ICCPR, which set forth the rights and freedoms essential to an open, safe and pluralistic political system where citizens can be heard and determine their own destiny.
For too many years, the international community, including the United States, has dealt with Iran's nuclear ambitions and its use of violence in foreign policy independently from the abysmal human rights situation inside the country. It is time for a long-term strategy that would seriously challenge the leadership by shifting the focus to their human rights record, the non-representative nature of Iran's political system and on the rights of citizens to organize and express themselves.
Iran has so far not produced a Vaclav Havel or an Aung San Suu Ky capable of bringing sustained international attention to dissenting voices. But, over the years, thousand of Iranians have fought and continue to fight, often at great cost, for their rights to freedom of expression and association, due process of law, and free and fair elections.
The future U.S. president should pay attention to their demands and work with its allies to include specific rights-related demands in any negotiations with Iran. A human-rights focused strategy is a long-term investment that would be beneficial to both the American and the Iranian people. The diversity of voices in Iran and a more representative government will be more effective in moderating Iran's foreign policy than any attack on its nuclear installations.