The Washington Post has treated us to three op-eds by four authors in two days each advocating that the U.S. make concerted effort to pressure Iran on the issue of human rights. Today, Robert Kagan argues in ” Forget the Nukes: The Most Fruitful Target is Iran’s Weakening Regime ”:

In Iran, the regime’s violent crackdown, its mass arrests of opposition figures—including the children of high-ranking clerics—and all the farcical show trials have been signs of weakness and anxiety, not confidence.

In such situations, an autocratic regime’s biggest fear, well-grounded in history, is that domestic opponents may gain the support of powerful foreign patrons.


Kagan argues, “It is obvious from the show trials in Iran, where the accused have “admitted” being part of various American plots to overthrow the regime in a ‘velvet revolution,’ that this is the clerics’ principal fixation.”
The regime’s overriding goal since the election, therefore, has been to buy time and try to reestablish and consolidate control without any foreign interference in its internal affairs. In this Tehran has succeeded admirably.

But it has also had help. The Obama administration has, perhaps unwittingly, been a most cooperative partner. It has refused to make the question of regime survival part of its strategy. Indeed, it doesn’t even treat Iran as if it were in the throes of a political crisis. President Obama seems to regard the ongoing turmoil as a distraction from the main business of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. And this is exactly what the rulers in Tehran want him to do: focus on the nukes and ignore the regime’s instability.


While more sympathetic to President Obama, Andrew Albertson and Ali G. Scotten also argue for putting to work ” A Human Rights Lever for Iran ”:  
The post-election protests this summer and the regime’s subsequent crackdown have undermined whatever merit the administration may have once seen in a realpolitik negotiations strategy. With the talks looming, the United States cannot pretend that the violence in the streets never happened, but neither can Washington be seen to fold. In fact, it should raise the stakes by broadening the agenda to include human rights.

The critics of diplomacy have a point: Tehran has nothing to lose, and much to gain, by drawing out talks and committing to little.


A better approach, they argue “would be to broaden the agenda to include a focus on human rights.” What would this look like?
First, President Obama should reiterate in an address (offered on YouTube, so Iranians can view it unfiltered) the benefits for average Iranians if Tehran lives up to its obligations with regard to its nuclear program: the opportunity to emerge from isolation, to have full diplomatic relations with the United States (which would include student and other civic exchange programs), and to benefit from international trade and investment. Second, the administration should make clear its desire for the agenda to include “full compliance with international human rights regimes”—by Iran, the United States and any other parties to the talks. To further engage the Iranian people, the administration should call for Iranian and international civil society organizations to take part in the dialogue.

This approach would strengthen reformers in Iran and increase pressure on the Ahmadinejad government.


Those are from today’s Post . The best of the lot, for my money, was yesterday’s article, “A Big Card to Play in Iran” by Anne Applebaum.
It’s an odd thing, but sometimes I could swear that there are two Irans. On the one hand, there is the Iran of the nuclear issue, the Iran analyzed by security experts, the Iran covered by the White House press corps . . . . there is another Iran—a completely different country, as it were. This is the Iran of the democracy movement, the Iran analyzed by human rights activists, the Iran covered by the sort of journalist who takes covert photographs with a cellphone. This is the Iran that made the news more than a week ago when protesters turned a government-controlled anti-Israel march into a spontaneous anti-government demonstration.

But, of course Iran is not two countries, but one. “And the people who make decisions about Iran’s nuclear program are the same people who order the arrests, tortures and murders of dissidents. Indeed, one can learn quite a lot about how these Iranian decision-makers will behave abroad by observing their behavior at home.”

So, what should we do about all this:

Very few security experts point out that there is another option [to sanctions and military strikes]. What do Iran’s rulers truly fear? I’ll wager that the answer is not sanctions and that it might not be a bombing raid, either. An economic boycott can be circumvented, after all, with the help of Venezuela or maybe the Russian mafia, and an attack on Iranian soil might help the regime once again consolidate power. By contrast, a sustained and well-funded human rights campaign must be a terrifying prospect. So what if we told the Iranian regime that its insistence on pursuing nuclear weapons leaves us with no choice but to increase funding for dissident exile groups, smuggle money into the country, bombard Iranian airwaves with anti-regime television and, above all, to publicize widely the myriad crimes of the Islamic Republic?

All well and good, I think. It does make you wonder, however, why we have to wait until we are on the edge of disaster before thinking hard about human rights, regime change, and velvet revolutions in Iran. Better late than never, I suppose, so long as it is not too late.

Now, if they will only include a robust defense of religious freedom in the campaign for human rights . . .

Articles by Keith Pavlischek

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