The U.S. Can Support Freedom’s Ferment in Iran

Even Iran has its bipartisan moments in American political circles. Democrats and Republicans alike now largely agree that the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, needs to be renegotiated and its provisions strengthened. Members of both parties believe that any prospective agreement must address Tehran’s ballistic missiles and its suspect regional activities. Yet often missing is any serious consideration of Iran’s human-rights record. The most consequential victims of the theocratic regime are its own citizens, and their plight shouldn’t be ignored.

Human rights have played an important role in U.S. diplomacy. During the Cold War, American officials routinely brought up the Soviet Union’s repressive policies with their Russian counterparts. In 1975, as part of the Helsinki Accords, the U.S.S.R. agreed to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”

Soon, so-called Helsinki groups appeared in the Soviet bloc as civil-society activists used the Kremlin’s pledges against it. More than arms control and arms buildups, the Helsinki Accords triggered changes that loosened Moscow’s totalitarian grip. The accords empowered dissidents and highlighted Soviet domestic misdeeds.

One paradox of Iran is that conversations about the Islamic Republic are at times more sophisticated in Tehran than in Washington. Far from being beaten into ambivalence, Iranians are engaged in an informed discussion about their government’s priorities and even the viability of the regime. Former government officials, enterprising intellectuals, dissident clerics and reformist newspapers such as Sharq question many aspects of Islamist rule. They may be shut out of power, but they still command a national platform.

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Supreme Leader

Ali Khamenei’s

stewardship of Iran’s foreign relations has come under scathing attack. Some 100 Iranian activists signed an open letter in 2018 criticizing the government’s lack of engagement with the U.S.: “We, the undersigned, contend that direct, official and transparent dialogue with the United States will benefit regional and global peace and security and will improve the welfare, freedom and dignity of Iran and Iranians.”

Mostafa Tajzadeh,

a former deputy interior minister and one of the most courageous voices of reform, went further in a tweet last spring: “Building and flying satellites and missiles may be glorious, but if they are not accompanied by gaining people’s trust and improving the economy, we will be in the same position as the Soviet Union which conquered space and split the atom, but collapsed. And at worst, North Korea which has missiles but no bread.” These themes have penetrated the popular imagination, appearing in the protest movements of recent years.

The theocracy’s internal problems haven’t escaped criticism. The Islamic Republic is at an impasse, unwilling to reform but unable to meet the demands of the Iranian people without doing so.

Abbas Abdi,

a crusading Iranian journalist with wide readership, boldly compared the Islamic Republic to the shah’s government, which fell in 1979: “Every society that is transparent and grants freedom of expression reveals the factors that threatened it. For example, the previous government’s lack of transparency and freedom made it unable to see the dangerous elements against it.”


Mohammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha,

an elder of the revolution, last summer took a swipe at the supreme leader in his own open letter: “The people believe the highest authority in the country’s management should have prevented the cultural, economic and social chaos the country is facing today.” He added that “the current situation cannot continue.”

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In recent years, all elements of Iranian society—including the working classes thought to be the mainstay of the Islamic Republic—have expressed their discontent through protests. Political repression, a mismanaged pandemic, economic stagnation and rampant corruption have alienated much of the population. Less visible are the civil-society activists providing the intellectual foundation for the protest movements. America can protect and amplify these voices of change.

In Helsinki, the U.S.S.R. was obligated to commit itself to adjusting its internal practices. In any potential talks between Iran and the U.S., human rights should be included. The Islamic Republic’s access to international markets should be contingent on its improved treatment of its citizens. The Soviet Union didn’t get a pass. Iran’s mullahs shouldn’t either.

Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Last Shah: America, Iran and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.”

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