Western strategy on Iran should focus on human rights, not nuclear weapons

If leaders like Trump and Trudeau are serious about the wellbeing of Iranians, their policies should aim to change the Iranian government’s behaviour on human rights, not just end its nuclear program, argues Michael Petrou. 

By: /
May 18, 2018
Iranian women gather during a protest against US President Donald Trump's decision to walk out of the 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran, Iran, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Tasnim News Agency

President Donald Trump’s pledge to withdraw America from the Iran nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions on the country avoids a messy reality: Getting a nuclear weapon is not the worst thing Iran could do. It wouldn’t even be the worst thing Iran has ever done.

No occupant of the White House will admit as much before it becomes necessary, but a nuclear-armed Iran could be contained.

It would still be a terrible outcome. Nuclear weapons would give the Iranian regime the same sort of protection enjoyed by North Korea, emboldening its drive for greater regional hegemony. It would probably provoke efforts to obtain nuclear weapons by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, further destabilizing the Middle East. Israel would consider a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat and might respond with commensurate force. But as bad as these outcomes are, the probable costs of a full-scale war to prevent Iran from going nuclear are likely sufficiently high to deter America, even under Trump, from launching one.

President Barack Obama’s alternative was to negotiate, alongside the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in which Iran agreed to temporarily curtail its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.    

The deal has many weaknesses. It delays the Iranian nuclear threat, which is better than nothing, but doesn’t solve the problem. And the sanctions relief Iran received in return funds Iranian belligerence abroad. But its biggest flaw is that it focuses on the nuclear threat to the exclusion of all the things Iran has done already that are even worse.

Topping that list is Syria. President Bashar al-Assad remains in power there largely due to the armed assistance provided by Russia, and by Iran and its various Shia proxies, notably the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. After seven years of war, half a million people are dead, and more than 10 million are displaced. The dead include tens of thousands of prisoners tortured to death.

This conflict has shattered Syria and sparked a refugee crisis that has robbed a generation of a normal childhood, risks destabilizing Syria’s neighbours, and has put wind behind the sails of right-wing, nativist political movements across Europe.

At home, Iran continues a longstanding policy of crushing dissent. Hundreds are executed every year. Its jails house citizens guilty only of free thought. Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was raped, tortured, and died in Iranian custody 15 years ago for the crime of taking photographs of protesters. Iranian-Canadian professor Kavous Seyed-Emami died in custody this February, after he was accused of espionage. Iran says he killed himself. His wife, Canadian citizen Maryam Mombeini, has not been allowed to leave the country. Iran’s Baha’i religious minority is systematically persecuted.

Trump, when announcing America would pull out of the nuclear deal, paid lip service to human rights in Iran. But his focus, like that of his predecessors, is Iran’s nuclear program.

Canada is little different. It continues to regularly sponsor UN resolutions condemning human rights violations in Iran. The Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development does good, if little-noticed, work highlighting these abuses. And Canada has listed Iran as a state sponsor of terror. But its polices with real teeth, namely sanctions, have always been related to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. A bill that would have imposed non-nuclear sanctions on Iran recently died in the Senate, more than two years after it was tabled by a Conservative senator.

This focus on nuclear plays to Iran’s strengths. The Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) know they don’t need nuclear weapons to survive. But they also know how worrying the possibility that they might get those weapons is to America and its allies, so they negotiate accordingly.

"Iran doesn’t suppress resistance with enriched uranium or ballistic missiles. It does so with incarceration, press censorship and baton attacks."

What does threaten the survival of the Iranian government, far more than the absence of nuclear weapons, are Iranian citizens. They have lived under a repressive theocracy for almost 40 years. They continue to demand change — by the millions in mass protests following a disputed election in 2009, and again this winter in demonstrations in which more than 20 people died during clashes with security forces or in prison. 

Iran doesn’t suppress this resistance with enriched uranium or ballistic missiles. It does so with incarceration, press censorship, and baton attacks by the Basij militia of the IRGC.

An Iran with no chance of acquiring nuclear weapons is still a dictatorship and regional hegemon, especially when its oil-trading economy is freed from sanctions. Its government would be far more vulnerable in a country in which citizens gather and protest freely, journalists say what they want, women enjoy the same rights as men, and dissent is not constrained by fear.

If Trump, and, for that matter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, are serious about the freedom and wellbeing of the Iranian people, they need to craft policies aimed at changing the Iranian government’s behaviour on human rights, not just ending its nuclear program. That should include sanctions and travel bans on individuals such as prosecutors, judges and IRGC commanders responsible for the worst abuses in Iran and elsewhere. 

Canada’s Liberal government should also be prepared to walk away from its promise to restore diplomatic relations with Iran. Negotiating such a rapprochement would no doubt be made more difficult were Canada to take a harder line regarding human rights and political freedoms in Iran. But that’s an acceptable cost. Reopening the embassy can wait.