Richard Perle on Engaging with Iran

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May 22, 2013

Richard Perle is a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, and staff member to Senator Henry Jackson (D-Wash.). We asked Richard Perle about the chances of meaningfully engaging the Iranian regime on issues related to human rights and nuclear proliferation.

The world's attention is focused on halting Iran's nuclear enrichment program more than holding it to account for its ongoing human rights violations. What do you make of the argument that the nuclear program will be never be abandoned until Iran democratizes, and therefore we should focus more on pressuring Iran to liberalize and respect human rights, rather than to abandon its nuclear program?

It is always dangerous to speculate about how leaders as erratic as Iran’s will behave in the future, but there is no evidence that they will agree to abandon their nuclear weapons program, no matter how menacing the sanctions or generous the blandishments proposed by outside powers. 

I’m afraid that pressure to respect human rights will be equally unsuccessful because the regime in Teheran is a theocratic dictatorship that relies on coercion to remain in power.  I see no conflict between the two objectives of halting Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions and greater individual freedom for the Iranian people: both objectives can be achieved only when the current regime is removed, and it is that removal that should be the principal purpose of our policies, including sanctions. Sanctions that aim to change the minds of the mullahs will not work but sanctions that aim to undermine the power of the mullahs by encouraging the internal opposition just might.

Is it possible for the international community to engage productively with Iran on nuclear proliferation issues and human rights simultaneously, and if so, what might this kind of two-track diplomacy look like? Or is seeking progress on human rights with the current leadership a dead end?

Both are dead ends as years of fruitless engagement demonstrate.

Could sanctions eventually cripple the Iranian regime to the point that the nuclear threat and the regime's ability to repress the Iranian people are neutralized?

This seems the only hope: that draconian sanctions, integrated into a policy of regime change, could help topple the regime.  But the sanctions would have to be far more onerous than those in effect today. And we would have to find ways, overt and covert, to support the opposition. The Obama administration shows no interest in such a strategy – or any strategy.

What are the chances that Iran transitions to a new, less autocratic government in the next decade without massive human rights violations and upheaval?

Nil, under the current regime.

What could the Obama administration do differently that would better help the people of Iran, and mitigate the threat the Iranian regime poses to regional stability and global security?

Abandon its naïve, passive policy of pleading from behind, begging the regime to enter into an agreement that, if it actually promised to end the nuclear weapons program or to lead to increased individual liberty, would certainly be violated and rendered nugatory.  There is a harsh reality here that the Obama administration has yet to face – and that the Bush administration faced but lacked the will to act against: the Iranian theocracy, despised at home and reckless abroad, should no longer be tolerated.

Also in the series


Human Rights and Historical Amnesia

Kaveh Shahrooz on why it is essential to revisit Iran's painful past to get to a democratic future.

Nationalism & Human Rights in Iran in Historical Context

Ali Ansari on the historical context of the Iran's push for human rights.

John Baird on Canada’s New Dialogue with Iran

Minister John Baird on Canada's advocacy on the issue of human rights in Iran.

The Key to Religious Freedom in Iran

Geoffrey Cameron and Robert Joustra on why the rights of Iran's religious minorities won't be respected until those of the majority are as well.

Why Iranian Women Can't Have Any of It

Gissou Nia on why denying women the right to run for President is only a small part of the regime's apparatus of repression.