A Nuclear Deal Helps Human Rights in Iran

Source: Getty
A nuclear deal with Tehran that affirms Iran’s right to an exclusively peaceful nuclear program can create more hospitable conditions for Iranians to secure democracy and human rights.
Related Media and Tools

No diplomatic deal to solve the Iranian nuclear standoff will be possible if it does not allow Tehran’s leadership to proclaim some measure of victory—most probably a recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian reactors. This creates a profound dilemma for the United States and other Western powers who deplore the Iranian regime’s repression of democracy and human rights.

Anything that benefits the Iranian regime must be bad, right? Wrong. A nuclear deal that averts war (which would cause even greater human suffering in Iran) need not betray Iranian democrats nor preclude U.S. advocacy of their cause.

Ronald Reagan and other American presidents made arms control deals with the Soviet Union while still seeking an end to its totalitarian empire. So, too, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney could negotiate verifiable measures to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons without undermining Iranian human rights and democracy advocates.

The objective of negotiations is—as it was with the Soviets—to eliminate risks of nuclear proliferation and war in the wider Middle East. The United States and Iran can continue to denounce each other’s political systems, counter each other’s power projection in the region, and seek history’s vindication of the relative merits of each other’s cause, but within a framework that precludes terrorism and hot war. 

Iranian democrats and human rights activists are long-suffering. After the United States and the United Kingdom overthrew nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, Iranians experienced three decades of repressive rule under the U.S.-backed Shah. The 1979 revolution brought early hope, but the forces of democracy and modernity were soon crushed by acolytes of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The presidential election of Mohammed Khatami in 1997 initially offered prospects of political reform and a reinvigoration of civil society, but again the reactionary theocrats and their praetorian Revolutionary Guard leaders reasserted themselves. The Green Movement that emerged after the rigged elections of 2009 inspired a new generation of Iranian liberals, but was unable to withstand the violent countermoves of the state.

Key leaders of the Iranian opposition are painfully wary of revolutionary discourse and violence. They know that democracy cannot be won by the point of a gun, whether their own or that of the United States.

In a 2011 report based on interviews with 35 leading Iranian human rights and democracy activists, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran concluded: “civil society leaders overwhelmingly reflect the opinion that an attack on Iran, no matter how limited in scope, would have ruinous consequences for Iranian society by entrenching the authoritarian regime, intensifying human rights abuses and likely thwarting the democratic aspirations of a large portion of the populace.”

Dissidents like Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi insist that Iranians must make their own political future and that there are only limited things the United States can do to help them and much that Washington can do to hurt them.

Chronicling Iranian government violations of universal human rights can help, as can easing visa processes for Iranians to visit the United States and promoting greater exchange between civil society players. Engineering technological means to bypass state restrictions on the internet and other forms of communication can help too.

Threatening or conducting warfare and coercive regime change hurts, however, for it allows security forces to justify repression in the name of protecting national sovereignty.

It is too early to tell whether the Iranian government is prepared to make the compromises necessary to negotiate an end to the nuclear standoff. But if a formula can be found whereby Iran takes verifiable steps to build international confidence that it will not produce nuclear weapons, and to resolve outstanding issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iranians will gain a calmer environment in which to resume their internal struggle for democracy and human rights.

The focus can shift away from war and external threats that play into the hands of the regime and back to the quality of life within Iran.

Here the Soviet experience is instructive. Glasnost and the unwinding of the Soviet empire occurred in conjunction with nuclear arms control. Political evolution and the reduction of nuclear threats were mutually reinforcing processes. Arms control talks became a venue for reducing fears of aggression, which widened space in Russia and Eastern Europe for dissidents seeking to loosen the grip of security forces.

From the 1980s to the present day, one has not heard Russian democrats regret nuclear arms control agreements. The struggle for genuine democracy remains unfulfilled, but Russians know that this is their struggle and the coercive instruments of U.S. power cannot win it for them.

So, too, a deal that affirms Iran’s right to an exclusively peaceful nuclear program and builds international confidence that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons can create more hospitable conditions for Iranians to secure democracy and human rights.

The United States and Iranian government will continue to contest each other’s values and influence in the Middle East. Washington should use all suitable venues to highlight human rights abuses in Iran and in Iranian-backed Syria, knowing Iran will do the same highlighting of U.S. double standards as well as maltreatment of Palestinians by Israel. Struggle will continue; the objective is to conduct it away from the shadow of nuclear war.

End of document

About the Nuclear Policy Program

The Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program is an internationally acclaimed source of expertise and policy thinking on nuclear industry, nonproliferation, security, and disarmament. Its multinational staff stays at the forefront of nuclear policy issues in the United States, Russia, China, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.


Comments (7)

  • jbfrombigd
    Would not a deal with Iran have to satisfy Israel, which can claim that Iran threatens its existence?
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • globalgary
    The US never has said that Iran should not have a peaceful nuclear program.

    The problems are when they enrich up to 20%, which they don't have to if they accept such material offered to them instead. Or when they "forget" to declare to IAEA entire complexes that are built for nuclear purposes, or they stop inspectors from inspecting certain sites, etc., etc.
    But the main theme is correct: attacking Iran will hurt the democratic opposition.
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • Stephen
    1. It was Carter and EU that helped Ayatollah Khomeini come to power, 2 President Obama removed Washington Funded Human Rights Watch Program on Iran Russia or the former Soviet Union was not a racial Islamic country that sings death to America . Iran has and continues to slaughter thousands of its own people and has since Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. AND you may want to brush up on Iran's involvement in Sudan, its troops there and more . So once again no one brothers to talk about Iran's hand in Sudan's genocide
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • Atefeh
    I have a simple question: why is it that other countries can have Nuclear weapons and Iran should not??? I support disarmament but it shouldn't be selective. if nuclear weapons mean insecurity of nations, it doesn't matter what country has it...its existence is a danger...be it in Iran or France!
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • Thomas W. Makin
    I am a former exchange student to Switzerland (1972) and Envoy for Former President Richard Nixon. The diplomatic crisis concerning Iran appears to me to be based somewhat on unsubstantiated concerns. I do not believe that Iran intends to attack any nation with a nuclear weapon or anything else unless it is criminally provoked somehow. The Nation of Israel should become more conservative with its statements and refrain from disturbing Iran with talk about military mobilization.
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • Taj Badalandabad
    I am the delegate of France in the Security Council. This is our agenda for the conference. Now what i read somewhere that France is supporting Iran's Nuclear Program and is ready to cooperate with Iran in the production of electricity from nuclear sources. Also France is aware of Iran's concerns and its demand to access to nuclear technology for the production of nuclear electricity and is prepared to cooperate in this regard. Now, if this whole agenda is centered around Iran and France is supporting Iran while other Member nations of the SC say that they are against it, what stand should i assume. For or against?
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • Abe Bird
    "maltreatment of Palestinians by Israel"? Really? are you kidding me?Your biased and uneducated approach to that conflict make you not fit to deal with that issue!
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/06/14/nuclear-deal-helps-human-rights-in-iran/bu82

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.