They failed on nukes. Now it’s time to take up the cause of Tehran’s human-rights abuses.
Congress failed to stop the Iran nuclear agreement, but it shouldn’t give up now on taking a tougher line with Tehran. On the contrary, it is time for Congress to intervene seriously in an area where the Obama administration has feared to go and where Capitol Hill has carried major weight in the past: human rights.
One of the curious aspects of the Obama presidency is its marked reluctance to criticize the Islamic Republic for its domestic abuses. In pursuit of its arms control agreement, the administration convinced itself that it had to be deferential to the sensibilities of Iran’s paranoid rulers. As the White House exempted itself from judgment, the Islamist regime jailed dissidents, rigged elections, censored the media and set records for executions. Most recently it “convicted” Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian on trumped-up charges. No one has a greater ability to inspire dissidents than an American president embracing their cause. Ronald Reagan’s speeches highlighting the Soviet Union’s mistreatment of its citizens did much to galvanize the forces of change behind the iron curtain. A determined human rights strategy must involve presidential commitment to similar type of rhetoric.
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But absent any such effort from President Barack Obama, Congress should step in. Congressmen and senators should use their own podiums to denounce Iran’s human rights violations and highlight the cases of dissidents. Congress should spearhead its own set of sanctions such as designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. The Democrats who voted for the Iran deal and the White House that pressed them to do so have all insisted that a nuclear deal does not mean ignoring Iran’s domestic repression. It is time to call both the White House and the Democratic Caucus to account.
Such activism would be consistent with the history of congressional leadership on human rights issues. Historically, the executive branch has moved on human rights only when prodded by Congress. In the 1970s, when the Nixon and Ford administrations neglected human rights concerns in the Soviet Union in the name of détente and arms control, it was congressional pressure that compelled Henry Kissinger’s State Department to establish a bureau focusing on such topics. It was Congress that set up its own Helsinki Commission to monitor Soviet compliance with its pledges made as part of the Helsinki accords, which recognized postwar Eastern European boundaries in exchange for Soviet acceptance of human rights standards. Congress helped focus global attention on the plight of dissidents and insisted that human rights issues be part of high-level discussions with the Kremlin.
In the 1980s, once more it was Congress that compelled the Reagan administration to apply punitive measures against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The institutional racism of the South African government had long been ignored because of its anti-communist inclinations in the face of Soviet attempts to penetrate the continent of Africa. Such geopolitical arguments were cast aside by responsible legislators who imposed sanctions on the apartheid government. The civil-society groups were not far behind as they instituted boycotts of South Africa’s cultural and athletic organizations. In the end, it was such activism that helped to usher in the end of one of the most repressive governments in the world.
Symbolism has its purposes, but punitive measures cannot be excluded from consideration. The United States should target its sanctions against those in Iran most responsible for repression, terrorism and regional aggression, the Revolutionary Guards and their vast business conglomerates. The Guards’ substantial business holdings in areas such as automotive, telecommunications, energy, construction, engineering, shipping and air transportation should be subject to not just U.S. but secondary sanctions. This would imply that any foreign firms engaging in business dealings with such entities would lose their access to the American market. The best manner of facilitating such a step would be to designate the Guards as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, thus making any international transaction with them an illicit one, and to greatly expand human rights designations of Guard officials under existing executive and statutory authorities.
Congress should also establish an independent, bipartisan human-rights commission that would hold hearings and conduct its own investigations. Such a commission would not just highlight the dismal situation in Iran but would also hold the executive branch responsible for conceiving and implementing a human rights strategy. Indeed, such a congressional mandate may even presage greater collaboration between the executive and legislative branches. Once the administration is put on notice that Congress takes the issue of human rights seriously and is prepared to enact sanctions to ensure Iranian compliance, then the administration is likely to be more active in forging policy initiatives. Only such congressional advocacy can shed light on the Islamic Republic’s darkest corners.
There was always a misplaced hope that an arms control accord would pave the way for a more humane Iran. Somehow closet moderates free from the shadow of a nuclear stalemate would take helm of the state and press it toward more pragmatic directions. This is unlikely to happen. It is entirely possible that even a more robust human rights strategy will yield little from a regime that relies on repression to prolong its rule. However, at the very least, such measures would place America on the right side of history.