Sanctioning Progress


As democracy becomes a lifeless dream for Iranians and the Green Movement becomes a fleeting memory of a brave but futile attempt for change, there seems to be reason, backed up by the recent behavior of the international community, to look at Iran as a monolithic nuclear threat. It is one thing, though, for the Iranian nuclear threat to dominate the world’s headlines; it is quite another for this threat to eradicate or render obsolete the world’s efforts to help the Iranian people transform their political system.

Forgetting the Iranian people’s fight for reform is as morally erroneous as it is strategically shortsighted. The best hope for preventing a nuclear Iran is promoting the development of an Iranian government that attains its authority through the people, not through nuclear power.  As Tom Malinowski, Director of the Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C., explains, “So long as an authoritarian government rules Iran against the wishes of much of its people, it will have an incentive to provoke confrontations with the outside world, in hopes of distracting its people from domestic problems, and to justify domestic repression.”

For the United States and the international community to play a critical part in fostering the rise of a democratic Iran, it must promote Iranian human rights and the growth of Iranian civil society. To do this, the world must turn its focus to the oppressive nature of this Iranian regime, stop sanctioning the Iranian middle class, and foster an environment that promotes human rights.

In advocating for the rise of a civil society capable of promoting democratic reform in Iran, it is important to look at the reasons for the 2009 uprising and the response of the Iranian regime that led to its deterioration

In the immediate wake of the fraudulent 2009 Iranian elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was falsely reported to have won in a landslide, and Iranians took to the streets in protest. The opposition quickly assumed the title of the Green Movement, named after the Islamist campaign colors of the revolutionary-turned-reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Protestors formed a human chain around Tehran’s center square, set fires outside of the Interior Ministry building, and chanted “Down with the Dictator.” Hope for a changed Iran seemed tangible for the first time in thirty years.

Such hope, though, did not last for long once the Iranian government responded. Backed by the resilient Revolutionary Guard, the Ahmadinejad-led Iranian regime killed 171 innocent protestors and arrested and tortured thousands more. In all, 312 people were executed in 2010 alone. In 2011, emboldened by the successes of the Arab Spring around the Middle East, the Green Movement began to plan a new protest.  This time, the Iranian government sought to end the protest before it could even begin, and the Green Movement’s leaders, Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were placed under house arrest, where they remain today. For the first time since the protest movement began in 2009, members of the Iranian parliament publically called for the execution of Mousavi. In the Iranian parliamentary elections on March2, 2012, the Green Movement was nowhere to be seen. It was as if 2009 had never occurred.

The intense military response to the protests has been coupled by human rights violations for a huge number of Iranian citizens, specifically minorities and those who speak out against the government. Ever since the government’s crackdown in 2009, repressing civilian dissenters became the regime’s primary means of retaining power. As the climactic Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and North Africa, Iranian authorities refused to allow critics of its government to engage in peaceful demonstrations. In Iran’s Arab-majority Khuzestan province, security forces allegedly shot and killed dozens of protestors. Around the country, the regime increased its use of the death penalty. Since then, the regime has continually targeted civil activists, lawyers, students, and journalists.

Human Rights Watch reports that Iranian prison authorities have executed over 600 people since January 2012, many of them children. When a demonstration demanding governmental accountability, reform, and an end to discrimination against ethnic minorities hit the streets, thousands were killed, beaten, and arrested by security forces. Iran has imprisoned the greatest number of journalists in the world – 42.  It continues to be one of the world’s most repressive and brutal regimes. Human rights researchers are not even allowed into the country. This is the environment where a protest movement must struggle to form. If any opposition movement is to rise up, then, it will require both international assistance and strong internal support to gain a footing capable of influencing change. But in recent months the opposition movement has faced a new hardship: the economic side effects of the international community’s actions to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Before the international community can begin to take smart, strategic, and concerted action to force the Iranian regime to rectify its record on human rights, it first must stop its use of sanctions that are harming the very middle class that should be encouraged to lead the next wave of the protest movement.

Recent reports have emphasized that the sanctions are primarily hurting an innocent Iranian population, specifically the reform-oriented middle class. "Sanctions are affecting the entire country, but it is the people that bear the brunt and have the least ability to protect themselves from this pressure," as Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, told The Guardian this summer. Those middle class women who historically are the voice for change within Iran are increasingly unemployed and forced to retreat from volunteer work. The sanctions, which are precipitating the demise of public enterprise, will inevitably force people to depend more on the state, spelling the end of civil activism. Not only are these sanctions harming the opposition, but they also have minimal effect on their intended targets: autocratic countries. Indeed, ultimately, the Iranian regime will not comply with international demands even if its people are suffering. The only sanctions that are necessary are those that apply pressure directly on the Iranian government. By sanctioning over forty Iranian terrorist and nuclear-material related entities as well as state-owned banks since 2006, the U.S. Department of the Treasury has begun to do this, but these types of sanctions need to be broadened and strengthened.

There is also a stronger course of action that the international community can and should take to better the chances for a renewed democratic movement. In the late 20th century, the American and Western European community adopted the Helsinki Accords, effectuating an international environment that valued respect for human rights to the extent that the Eastern Bloc found itself forced to reform its policies. Today, an international consensus stands opposed to the Iranian nuclear program, and it stands to reason that this international consensus should be further utilized to demand the end of the Khomenei government’s oppression. As Malinowski points out, “Iran’s human rights activists…want us to speak out on their behalf, to expose and condemn the government’s human rights abuses, and to sponsor resolutions in U.N. bodies challenging their government to stop its repression. ” The history of the Helsinki accord should serve as a guide for policymakers seeking to do more to hasten the day when Iran begins to respect its people.

As much as the Gorbachev-led Soviet Union was in a perhaps more open position toward accepting change than Khamenei-led Iran is today, the Helsinki model does offer some striking and useful parallels. Daniel Thomas explains in The Helsinki Effect that the economic pressures on the Soviets in the mid-1980s were not enough to democratically reform the regime as Gorbachev eventually did, rightly pointing to China’s Tiananmen Square Massacre as an example where economic reform did not entail political liberalization. The international adoption and promotion of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 created an international environment in which normalizing relations with the West depended on the strength of a country’s human rights record.

Quite like Khamenei, Gorbachev was well aware that his country faced international isolation, and sought to rectify this environment, leaving him little choice but to accept the need to improve his country’s human rights record. The international community issued widespread criticism of the regime in the international press. American officials, led by none other than former Secretary of State George Shultz, stressed the preeminence of human rights in America’s dealings with the world. During routine meetings with senior Soviet foreign policy advisors, the co-chair of Congress’ Helsinki Commission listed the names of specific Soviet political prisoners to be released.

The constant push by Western governments to the Soviets to release political pressures convinced the Soviets to release dissidents who quickly resumed their political activities against the state. The social mobilization that can result from such opportunities erodes a repressive regime’s control of information and public discourse. Such constant and relentless focus on human rights abuses ultimately left the government with little choice but to reform. If Iranian political prisoners were to be freed, a re-energized dissident movement could continue to do what the international community might not have the influence to achieve on its own.

“The Iranian government cannot survive with tanks and prisons alone – it needs at least some degree of political legitimacy at home and abroad,” said Malinowski.  “We should do everything we can to deny it that legitimacy.” The key to the success of this kind of international action is the formation of an environment where there are no other options – a process the United States must lead today. States that identify weakly with international society will calculate the instrumental value of compliance with international norms. If the international community can redefine Iran’s interests so that losing power at home is deemed preferable to massive repression, as was achieved with the Soviet Union, the calculus of the Iranian regime can and will change.

In Hidden Iran, Ray Takeyhprovides historical background to the success of diplomatic pressure and economic incentives. He discusses how long-standing militant Iranian practices, such as the assassination of dissidents living abroad, were curtailed following the European Union’s threat to cut off diplomatic relations and German threats to impose trade restrictions in 1997. In 2011, when Iran announced that it was applying for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, the international outcry that ensued, with human rights organizations loudly opposing its candidacy, led the regime to withdraw its bid. Indeed, the creation of this normative environment has already begun, perhaps most noticeably through Senator Mark Kirk’s Iranian Dissident Awareness Program, which aims to turn courageous dissidents into household names.

The imposition of such a normative framework can also offer protest movements an internationally legitimate model to construct transnational networks for mobilization. Even partial compliance expands opportunities for domestic mobilization and increases the likelihood that the regime will be persuaded to reform. It is evidently time for a new Helsinki process today. The international community should use Iran’s current weakened, surrounded position and offer it a way out. By ceasing to pointlessly sanction the Iranian people and offering to stop all economic censures on the Iranian regime in return for a new respect for human rights, the United States and the international community can provide a democratic movement the chance to reform Iran from the inside and offer the Islamic Republic the road to legitimacy that it so craves.

The short-term goal of halting Iran’s nuclear program can and should be coupled with the long term goal of fostering a more democratic, open Iran, if only because the sanctions that target those worth targeting and a diplomacy that offers Iran a path to legitimacy are ultimately the solutions to both these issues. “An action that extends Iran’s nuclear clock by a couple of years, but its democracy clock by ten years, will undermine the long term goal of denying Iran nuclear weapons,” said Malinowski. America cannot turn a blind eye to the best solution to the Iran problem, which requires the rise of a newly energized protest movement. The nuclear centrifuges are continuing to spin, faster than ever, in Tehran today. The long-term analysis dictates a radical revision of today’s current international strategy. If Iran’s future is to change, the international community’s approach must change first.