When the United States' efforts to pass new Iran sanctions finally came to fruition just days before the June 12 anniversary of Iran's dubious presidential elections, some observers concluded that the new sanctions must have been a result of the Iranian government's atrocious human rights violations.
The Obama Administration encouraged this impression, even though the sanctions push actually came at the expense of concerted action on Iran's human rights crisis. The day after the sanctions vote Secretary Clinton declared. "The sanctions that were passed by the United Nations yesterday are designed to target those who are behind government actions that have increased human rights abuses, like the Revolutionary Guard."
The truth is that the U.N. sanctions did not make even a passing reference to Iran's human rights crisis. The Revolutionary Guards were sanctioned not for their appalling human rights abuses, but for their role in Iran's nuclear program.
Indeed, the Obama Administration made a conscious decision to forgo a major push on human rights in Iran so as to not distract from the all-important UN sanctions push, according to multiple officials who've worked with the Administration on Iran's human rights crisis.
As a result, some human rights organizations resorted to lobbying Congress in hopes of putting pressure on the Administration to lead on human rights.
That initiative bore fruit last week when Republicans and Democrats in the Senate momentarily halted their usual partisan back and forth to unanimously urge the President to fight harder for human rights in Iran at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Specifically, the Senate urged the administration to use the UNHRC "to condemn the ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by the Government of Iran and establish a monitoring mechanism by which the Council can monitor such violations."
Since the US joined the Human Rights Council early in 2009, the Council has said remarkably little on the human rights crisis in Iran, even following last year's disputed election. It passed a statement about Iran's abuses as part of its regular periodic review process, but the UNHRC has not called for a special session to handle Iran's human rights crisis and western countries have not treated pressuring the Iranian government to curtail its human rights abuses with nearly the same urgency as Iran's nuclear program. Insiders at the UNHRC attribute this international inertia to the United States, which has neither pushed for these actions nor signaled to our hesitant European partners that it would support such a push by them.
Human rights defenders at the UN maintain that United States feared robust efforts at the Human Rights Council would detract from the push for sanctions on Iran's nuclear program.
Indeed, it was only after the UN Security Council's vote on Iran sanctions that Norway issued a strong statement about Iran's human rights abuses in the Council, with the support of the United States and over 50 other countries.
Concerted international action and pressure is very important because Iran's regional aspirations make its government surprisingly sensitive to criticisms of its human rights record. Iran regularly sends large delegations to the Council to fend off international action. Those delegations are even headed by Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary general of Iran's High Council for Human Rights and a member of Iran's very influential Larijani family. In fact, the Iranian delegation even tried to block Norway from reading its statement, demonstrating that this is a key pressure point for Iran's government.
But the Obama Administration has shied away from placing pressure on Iran's human rights abuses, preferring to focus almost exclusively on sanctions regarding its nuclear program. Even in the Administration's October 2009 direct diplomatic efforts with Iran, human rights were not a top agenda item.
Direct diplomacy provides an opportunity to make clear that human rights are important to the international community and that continued abuses carry consequences. It won't change the nature of the government, but it can serve as a restraint if Iran's top leaders realize their brutality is hurting their own interests. But now, the sanctions push appears to have preempted any further direct diplomacy regarding Iran's abuses for the next few months.
Iran won't be eager to sit down with the United States about any issue so soon after having a fresh round of sanctions slapped on them. A cooling off period should be expected before the two sides try to find another way to sit down and reduce the temperature of the rising conflict, meaning further engagement is unlikely to occur until after the midterm elections this November. Even then, engagement on human rights will only occur if the United States' domestic political environment hasn't become hostile toward any diplomacy at all, and if the Administration makes human rights a key component of talks.
What is clear is that while the Iranian government continues to carry out more executions, more unjust imprisonments, and more repression, the Iranian people will be watching to see if the international community treats Iran's human rights obligations as seriously as its nuclear obligations.