TCS Daily

Shaming Iran

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - June 23, 2006 12:00 AM

The Bush Administration has reversed longstanding American policy and offered to conduct direct negotiations with Iran, subject to certain provisos. With the offer for talks out in the open and with preliminary public posturing on the part of both the United States and Iran well under way, it is safe to assume that at some point in the near future, American and Iranian negotiators will sit down and discuss their differences under official auspices for the first time in nearly three decades -- i.e. since the dissolution of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States over the 1979 hostage crisis. (Note: It has been the Swiss government that has facilitated backchannel negotiations between the two countries; one of the more recent examples of Swiss facilitation being noted here).

So the diplomacy genie is out of the bottle. But while talks with Iran may be a practical response to current events, there is a danger in conducting open and official negotiations with Iran that should be noted.

Totalitarian governments -- for all of their public contempt for the democratic institutions of other states -- crave the acceptance of those very same states. This is understandable; democratic governments are in place because of the free and considered judgments of the populaces that elected them; while totalitarian governments come to power without bothering to gain the assent of their people. Thus, the acceptance of totalitarian governments as the diplomatic equals of democratically elected governments gives the former the appearance of legitimacy it would not otherwise have. With said legitimacy, such regimes are able to quash domestic dissent while presenting themselves as respectable members of the international community.

The dilemma for the United States is how to conduct negotiations with Iran while preventing the Islamic regime from gaining the legitimacy it clearly craves. Official contacts with the world's only superpower and greatest force for democracy does seem to confer legitimacy.

The answer may lie in the successful conduct of negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War; negotiations that pursued the dual track of arms control and improving the political climate in the former USSR.

In 1975, the Helsinki Final Act was adopted by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Denounced by many Cold Warriors -- including eventual President Ronald Reagan -- for supposedly recognizing spheres of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe that Cold Warriors feared would be considered inviolable, the Helsinki Accords ended up helping Cold War efforts to roll back the Communist empire and bring down the Soviet Union.

In addition to statements regarding the need to respect the sovereignty of other nation-states, the Helsinki accords provided for the need to respect human rights and political freedoms. Article VII of the Accords says in pertinent part:

"The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

They will promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development.

Within this framework the participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.

The participating States on whose territory national minorities exist will respect the right of persons belonging to such minorities to equality before the law, will afford them the full opportunity for the actual enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms and will, in this manner, protect their legitimate interests in this sphere.

The participating States recognize the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor for the peace, justice and well-being necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and co-operation among themselves as among all States.

They will constantly respect these rights and freedoms in their mutual relations and will endeavour jointly and separately, including in co-operation with the United Nations, to promote universal and effective respect for them."

And Article VIII reinforces the message:

"The participating States will respect the equal rights of peoples and their right to self-determination, acting at all times in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and with the relevant norms of international law, including those relating to territorial integrity of States.

By virtue of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, all peoples always have the right, in full freedom, to determine, when and as they wish, their internal and external political status, without external interference, and to pursue as they wish their political, economic, social and cultural development.

The participating States reaffirm the universal significance of respect for and effective exercise of equal rights and self-determination of peoples for the development of friendly relations among themselves as among all States; they also recall the importance of the elimination of any form of violation of this principle."

These commonsense statements regarding the need to respect human rights and political liberties became part and parcel of any and all negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. By consistently raising them in the context of summits and other high level discussions, the United States managed to elevate the issue of human rights concerns regarding the Soviet Union to the point where questions regarding the treatment of Soviet dissidents became insistent, led to the liberalization efforts pursued by Mikhail Gorbachev and eventually served to break apart the Warsaw Pact and bring an end to the Communist governments in the Soviet Union and in its satellite nations.

If negotiations eventually ensue concerning Iran's nuclear program, the United States should take the opportunity during those negotiations to expressly bring up the principles of Articles VII and VIII of the Helsinki Accords and other provisions from charters and treaties concerning human rights and political liberties, and challenge Iran to live up to those principles both during the negotiations and in public statements.

Furthermore, the United States should make clear that it will make discussions of human rights and political liberties part of every round of negotiations between it and Iran. This tactic will both serve to prevent the Iranian regime from gaining the legitimacy it desires from direct contacts with the United States, and will also help bring the Iranian regime's myriad human rights violations to the attention of the international community. If a constant emphasis on Iran's human rights violations help do to the Iranian regime what they did to the Soviet and Eastern European Communist regimes, then so much the better.

It may be that circumstances surrounding Iran's burgeoning nuclear program have forced the United States to deal directly with Iran in the diplomatic sphere. But that does not mean the United States needs to ignore other subjects of discussion. Human rights and political liberties should be discussed with Iran so that the atmosphere of political repression in Iran may lift and so that the Iranian regime is denied international legitimacy. It is a tactic that worked before in dealing with the former Soviet Union. It can work again.

Pejman Yousefzadeh is a TCS contributing writer.


1 Comment

It worked with the former Soviet Union
It worked with the former Soviet Union, because President Reagan did the negotiating himself and did not trust the bureaucrats in teh State Department.

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