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Continuing The 'Critical Dialogue' With Iran

A truck displaying posters protesting against Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad near the UN building in New York in September 2009
A truck displaying posters protesting against Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad near the UN building in New York in September 2009
Iranians who took to the streets this summer to protest electoral fraud failed to win a new election. But they nevertheless returned concerns about the Islamic republic’s human rights record to the international stage.

On June 20, U.S. President Barack Obama declared: “The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.”

Today, the debates sparked by the summer unrest remain fierce. Inside Iran, politicians call for an investigation into torture and murder at the Kahrizak detention center. Meanwhile, within the Iranian parliament, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s supporters call for new prosecutions of alleged “velvet revolution” plotters.

Outside the Islamic republic, the debate is just as strong -- as officials in the United States and Europe struggle with the balance between engagement on nuclear proliferation and a desire not to legitimize the worst human rights offenders. At an October 5 forum at George Washington University, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tackled the issue directly, explaining that the Obama administration did not see the issue as an “either/or” proposition.

“Human rights [are] at the core of who we are as Americans. We hope for all people the rights that we enjoy here,” Clinton said. “But at the same time, just as no American president walked away from summits with the Russian presidents working to try to achieve the goals that you could possibly find common ground on, that’s what we’re doing with the Iranians.”

Efforts to achieve such balance are not new. It was a desire for balance which underpinned Europe’s “Critical Dialogue” in the 1990s. Concluding its December 1992 meeting, the European Council declared: “Dialogue should be maintained with the Iranian government. This should be a critical dialogue which reflects concern about Iranian behavior and calls for improvement in a number of areas, particularly human rights, the death sentence pronounced by a fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini against the author Salman Rushdie, which is contrary to international law, and terrorism.”

“Improvement in these areas will be important in determining the extent to which closer relations and confidence can be developed,” the council continued.

The evolution of the Critical Dialogue can be instructive. As engagement developed, Iran’s application of the death penalty increased and efforts to lift the bounty on Rushdie faltered. Between 2000 and 2005 -- the height of the Dialogue of Civilizations -- European Union trade with the Islamic republic almost tripled.

Soviet Parallels

But during this period, according to the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, Tehran researched nuclear warhead design and, as revealed last month, began construction of a secret uranium-enrichment facility. Meanwhile, as many European countries’ commercial interests in Iran expanded, they became less willing to hold the Islamic republic to account for its human rights abuses.

Still, Clinton’s Soviet analogy is apt -- during the Cold War, every U.S. administration maintained dialogue with Moscow. The history of U.S. dialogue with the Soviet Union, however, can also provide pointers for how Washington can engage an oppressive regime without ceding human rights advocacy.

At the height of the Cold War, successive administrations struggled with the balance between national security and desire to criticize human rights abuses. Congress inserted itself into this debate with passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, signed into law by President Gerald Ford on January 3, 1975, which denied most-favored-nation status to countries that restricted emigration.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment was furious. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saw the amendment as an impediment to further detente. But with the end of the Cold War, historians generally credit the amendment with stripping the Soviet Union of legitimacy and emboldening internal dissident.

The Helsinki Accords, finalized in the summer of 1975, further intertwined human rights and traditional statecraft. While hawkish critics lambasted the accords’ de facto recognition of the most abusive regimes, they also prioritized freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief. The Helsinki Commission subsequently became a bully pulpit from which to measure states’ respect for human rights.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan entered office skeptical of his predecessors’ engagement with what he labeled “the evil empire.” It is an ironic, then, that he initiated unprecedented detente and disarmament, albeit only after overseeing a massive military buildup so that he could negotiate from a position of strength.

Efforts to balance engagement and human rights advocacy are nothing new. Fortunately, history provides a window into a successful formula. Policy makers may fear that human rights advocacy derails diplomacy but, in reality, moral clarity and strength catalyze diplomacy.

As Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov explained, "A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors." Forcing the Islamic republic to be accountable to its people can catalyze diplomacy’s success.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL