Rights and security: a broad view

John Tirman
July 26, 2007

I WILL SPEAK to three dimensions of the human rights issue in Iran, but in all cases I address this more broadly than what typically is taken up in human rights discourse.

First is the question of what the Iranian state is up to, and why. While it has been said many times, it bears repeating that Iran sees itself as repeatedly victimized by the U.S., from Mossadegh and the Pahlavi regime to the threats and isolation it now endures. The Iran-Iraq war, with its enormous toll, was viewed in Tehran as partly an American enterprise, and, at least in the latter stages of the conflict, their perception is partly correct. Not long after that war ended, a series of economic sanctions have tightened a stranglehold on Iran, from which it experiences considerable pain. The post-9/11 actions of the U.S. in the region, justified or not, end up looking in Tehran like American military encirclement.

The causes for the bilateral animus are well known. Less well known are the small steps taken since Khomeini’s death to improve relations. This included what Tehran probably thought was a quid pro quo during the Bush 41 administration for some reciprocal good will when Rafsanjani helped get hostages in Beirut released. No such gesture followed from Washington. What did occur, some few years later, were sanctions and money from the Republican Congress for overthrowing the regime. When Khatemi became president, a few entreaties began again, but were laced with old grievances from both sides. When there was genuine cooperation on the opening stages of the Afghanistan operation in 2001—remember, Iran had housed 2 million Afghan refugees for many years—and another rapprochement seemed possible from the Bonn conference in December of that year, it was answered by the “axis of evil” speech a few weeks later. And the now- famous 2003 letter, approved by Khamanei and conveying an offer of a “grand bargain,” was not merely rebuffed in the Bush administration, but ignored.

The causes for American antipathies also appear skewed in Iran. Support for terrorism in Lebanon and Israel and Palestine? The U.S. has some blood on its hands from that arena and others. Nuclear weapons? The United States is also in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and is happily doing business with proliferators like Israel, Pakistan, and India. Mischief in Iraq? Whatever Iran is doing there to support violent actors, it pales beside our laying waste to the country and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead. Even on the issue of human rights, Iran remembers the overthrow of Mossedegh like it was yesterday.

This is not a brief for Iran, but a way of looking through their lens. They are besieged by U.S. hostility, seemingly unrelieved hostility, and hypocrisy.  The suspicions run very deep.

When an elite that is significantly detached from global institutions, commerce, and society is under this kind of stress, the tendency is to raise the drawbridge and round up the usual suspects. That the economic situation is so parlous in Iran is another major source of tension, and it is also creating a reaction—a diversion, in effect—to issues of social norms, observance, and class cleavages. The resort to heightened national security vigilance mixed with xenophobia and protests of lifestyle choices is a combination very familiar to the American scene as well.

So while we may not sympathize with the reactions to these pressures in Iran, we should at least understand them. They are no worse than many places we completely ignore, or largely tolerate. And there is democratic practice in Iran than remains remarkably robust even amidst all this tumult.

A second point to be made here regards the U.S. Government reaction to the human rights situation. If, as I suggest, the heightened security wariness of the Iranian state is occasioned at least in significant part by perceptions of U.S. intentions, then some assurances would seem to be in order. I worry much less about the famous, or infamous, $75 million for civil society, which is well within the Wilsonian tradition of liberal internationalism, than I do about the threats of regime change by force that is often muttered under the breath of several U.S. officials and indeed many Democratic Party politicians, too. Bashing Iran is a free card in American politics, and everyone feels entitled to play. But words have consequences, and the words of a Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton carry weight that is only slightly less significant than that of the current administration because it reinforces the notion that American policy is all of one piece.

The threats do not come in direct response to the civil liberties situation; rights abuses are, however, an oft-cited part of a larger bundle of complaints about Iran. But the connection between the threats and the human rights abuses is rather direct. Anyone and everyone connected to America is suspect, because the U.S. has declared itself essentially at war with Iran. That is why the $75 million is so problematical, because it is seen as part of a larger plan, already underway, to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

This is not merely difficult for activists and others inside Iran. It is also dangerous. A few missteps and the Bush administration may be enticed to begin airstrikes, not just to set back the nuclear program, but to bring down the regime. The results of this would, among many ill effects, be most hurtful to human rights activists in Iran and the near-term possibility of stability in Iraq as well.  

And this is my third point. We often hear that the U.S.-Iran confrontation is a new Cold War. It is not, and the differences are significant. Iran does not have much military capacity, unlike the USSR, which may be one reason for Iran’s nuclear development program. It is parity and respect on the cheap. More important, the U.S.-Soviet competition was a highly formalized affair, with a large number and variety of institutions and norms to keep it from spinning out of control—treaties, multilateral and bilateral organizations, commerce and trade, academic and scientific exchanges, and so on. These institutions and norms were nested in many locales in each country—several state institutions (foreign office, defense establishment, executive), as well as academic institutions, party institutions, the news media, and civil society. All acted to moderate the conflict, in effect, and to counterbalance the occasional incendiary incident or bad actor. The effect of this thick web of political, scientific, and social relationships was exceptionally powerful. Even on human rights, the USSR felt compelled to moderate its behavior after the Helsinki Accords were in force, due to Soviet commitment to international norms and institutions, their need for legitimacy, and to satisfy other national interests. When the end came, it came very swiftly and peacefully, in large measure because these institutions and norms had long been accepted.

No such system of institutions and norms govern or guide the U.S.-Iran competition. We have purposefully excluded Iran from the international community and its normative framework and processes, labeling Iran instead a pariah, rogue, or terrorist regime. The absence of formal ties, commerce, and other kinds of exchange has rendered Iran opaque to Americans, and that opacity is reciprocal.

This is a perilous situation. One misstep can lead to war, with all its catastrophic consequences for human security. So while it seems improbable that war is on the agenda of the U.S. decision makers, events can take over, not least events engineered by those in Iran who wish to see the U.S. further humiliated in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Regardless of provocations or the weakened U.S. position in the region, we need to recognize that the 28-year policies of strangulation and intimidation have not worked. The withholding of good will and normal relations, for many who are in power in Iran, is not a penalty but a blessing: Rapprochement itself is suspect because the accommodationism of the Khatemi years, and to a lesser degree the Rafsanjani years, brought nothing but sanctions and “axis of evil” rhetoric. The insularity this has bred makes the hardest of the hardliners impervious to many of the sticks and carrots the international community uses. As a result, more tough talk and mild incentives seem very unlikely to work.

So it is worthwhile to consider something very different—talking to Iran directly about the nuclear program and security perceptions, and tangible steps toward ending sanctions together might produce very pleasing results, empowering moderates by dissolving the war clouds and demonstrating that dealing with the U.S. and the values we care to represent are not mortal threats to national survival.  How such steps are put together is for a different discussion, but we need to recognize that the absence of negotiations cannot produce a satisfying outcome, and punitive economic actions tend to undermine those who are most likely to want better international relationships.

Avoiding war, hostility, and isolation are the first orders of business. The future of human and democratic rights in Iran, I expect, would then be for Iranians to decide in an atmosphere of greater security and normalcy. That is very likely to be good for nearly everyone.


John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at the Center for International Studies at MIT.