Frustration is growing among the Iranian people over the Obama administration's silence on human rights abuses in Iran. Condemnations of Tehran's abhorrent treatment of its people have been few and far between. But before nuclear diplomacy moves towards a premature ending, the Obama administration must act quickly to reinvigorate its human rights agenda. Failure to do so may cause any future focus on Iran's human rights violations to be viewed solely as a means to punish Tehran, rather than a strategic imperative worthy of pursuit in its own right. The Obama administration made a genuine effort to kick-start diplomacy by focusing on building confidence and turning back the nuclear clock through a deal brokered by the IAEA. But rather than succeeding to build trust and slow Iran's nuclear advances, Tehran is threatening to expand the program ten-fold. The Obama administration cannot be faulted for not having sought genuine diplomacy with Iran. Washington unilaterally changed the atmospherics between the two countries by reaching out to both the Iranian people and their rulers. Through strategic messaging, the Obama administration helped create circumstances conducive to successful diplomacy.
While the Administration's efforts were genuine, and while the failure to reach an interim deal thus far has more to do with internal Iranian infighting than with Washington's diplomacy, the modalities of the Obama strategy were problematic from the outset. First, the time-frame was too short. Due to pressures from domestic actors as well as US allies in the region, diplomacy was given no more than 12 weeks to make measurable progress. In contrast, US sanctions on Iran have been given more than 20 years to work, and are yet to produce tangible results. With such a short time frame, a single bump in the road could derail the process. Second, significant capital and prestige was invested in an interim deal aimed at shipping out large portions of Iran's stockpiles of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). While the deal would have been of significant tactical importance, it was no more than an instrument to reach the strategic goal of a conclusive settlement of the nuclear issue. As such, the interim deal would have been helpful, but not necessary, towards reaching a final agreement. But by permitting the interim deal to determine whether diplomacy would proceed or not, a helpful tactical objective was made more important than the strategic goal itself. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the narrowness of the agenda - the sole focus on the nuclear issue - made the negotiations a single variable conversation. With only one track, any hurdle could effectively put an end to the diplomatic journey, as now seems to have happened. In particular, the failure to make human rights a prominent part of the talks has been problematic, both in terms of support for talks inside Iran, and for the long-term prospects of finding a sustainable, positive relationship with Iran. Unfortunately, fear in the White House that a forward leaning posture on human rights could jeopardize progress on the nuclear front may have prevented broadening the agenda. The end result is a vacuum on the human rights front from the American side with several negative effects. First, the Ahmadinejad government may have been left with the impression that it can get away with almost any human rights abuses due to America's compromised position in the region.
Second, the green movement -- which represents a force for moderation in the country -- is turning increasingly skeptical about US intentions. While opinions differ within the movement as to the wisdom of US-Iran diplomacy at this time, the neglect of human rights fuels pre-existing suspicions about the objectives of American diplomacy. That is, the fear that the US is solely interested in reaching a nuclear deal and may be willing to sacrifice the Iranian people's aspirations in the process. Looking at Iran solely from a nuclear prism proved disastrous for the Bush administration. The Obama administration will fare no better. It needs to swiftly reinvigorate its human rights approach to Iran and begin giving significant prominence to this issue.
Time is of the essence. Iran's human rights abuses must be addressed now and not just when our focus turns to punitive measures. Otherwise, the administration will unintentionally signal that the rights of the Iranian people are used solely as a pressure tactic against Iran when it fails to compromise on other issues.
Today, opponents of the Ahmadinejad government took to the streets once again, continuing the marathon to determine the future of the country. Their rights to assemble, to speak, and to live freely continue to be denied. The history of the Unites States in the Middle East shows that neglecting human rights comes at America's own peril. Neither short nor long-term security is achieved by failing to recognize the breeding ground for anti-Americanism created when we remain silent on abuses in countries whose governments we engage with.
The Obama administration is right in not making itself a central actor in this historic Iranian struggle. It is also right to engage the Iranian government. But let there be absolute clarity that from a moral standpoint, the United States supports the Iranian people's quest for democracy and human rights. Silence betrays that clarity.