Today's date:
Spring 2006

Link Human Rights to Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

Shirin Ebadi, a human rights advocate, was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Muhammad Sahimi is a professor of chemical engineering and materials science and the NIOC professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California.

Tehran—Lost in the international fury over Iran’s nuclear energy program and the deplorable statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regarding Israel has been the fact that respect for human rights and a democratic political system are the most effective deterrent against the threat that any aspiring nuclear power, including Iran, may pose to the world.

When the United States and its allies encouraged the Shah in the 1970s to start Iran’s nuclear energy program at a time when it had no economic justification, they helped create the Frankenstein that ultimately became Iran’s nuclear program. If, instead, they had pressed the Shah to undertake political reforms, respect human rights and release Iran’s political prisoners, history could have been very different.

Since the 1970s, when the Shah started Iran’s nuclear program, India, South Africa, North Korea, Israel and Pakistan have joined the nuclear club. In the 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid regime made several nuclear bombs, but the democratic government of Nelson Mandela dismantled them. India has developed a nuclear arsenal, but nobody perceives the world’s largest democracy a threat to the world. Israel is not likely to be the first nation in the Middle East to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.

But North Korea’s nuclear program is a threat because its regime is secretive and its leader a recluse. The nuclear arsenal of Pakistan is dangerous because Pakistan’s military, which runs the country and is populated by Islamic extremists, helped create the Taliban and allowed Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear supermarket, to operate freely but secretly for so long.

Iran’s nuclear program actually began accelerating around 1997 when Mohammad Khatami was elected president, but it was no accident that the world started paying much closer attention to it in 2003. The first few years of Khatami’s presidency witnessed the development of an independent vocal press and the election in 2000 of a reformist parliament. The reformists, while supporting it, were (and still are) demanding the nuclear program to be fully transparent and in compliance with Iran’s international obligations. These were all reassuring signs that Iran’s nuclear program would not get out of control.

But instead of backing Iran’s fledgling democratic movement, which would lead to nuclear transparency, the US has undercut it by demonizing Iran.

Whereas Khatami proposed people-to-people dialogue between Americans and Iranians, the US government blocks every year a large number of Iranian scholars, artists and authors from visiting the US. In return for Khatami’s government assisting the US in the war in Afghanistan, the US designated Iran a member of the “axis of evil.” In response to the overwhelming victory of Iran’s reformists in the 2000 elections for the parliament, the US lifted sanctions on importing Iranian pistachios and carpets, which hardly made a dent in Iran’s troubled economy.

By 2003, when it became clear that Khatami’s reforms had stalled and Iran’s independent press had been crushed by the hardliners, the world started paying closer attention to Iran’s nuclear program. So, what has demonizing Iran achieved?

Addressing the issue of Iran’s nuclear program entails neither threatening Iran with military strikes nor dragging it before the United Nations Security Council. While a vast majority of Iranians despise Iran’s hardliners and wish for their downfall, they also support Iran’s nuclear program because, aside from being economically justified, it has become a cause for national pride of an old nation with a glorious history. Moreover, the driving force behind Iran’s nuclear program is the hardliners with a history of radicalism and an ideological view of the world. The hardliners, who now control the parliament and the presidency through rigged elections, oppose fiercely Iran’s democratic movement and will use any credible threat of military attack as an excuse to crush the democratic movement.

At the same time, a military attack on Iran would only inflame nationalist sentiments. Iranians remember the US help to Iraq during its war with Iran and see the double standards when the US offers security guarantees and aid to North Korea and advanced nuclear technology to India, yet nothing but sanctions and threats to Iran.

Iran is not Iraq: Given Iranians’ fierce nationalism and the Shiites’ tradition of martyrdom, any military moves on Iran will receive a response that would engulf the entire region in fire, resulting in countless number of innocent people getting killed, and a ruined economy not only for the region but for the world. Taking Iran’s case to the UN Security Council and imposing sanctions on Iran will prompt the hardliners to leave the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and its “additional protocol.” Is the world ready to live with such terrifying prospects?

The West does have leverage on Iran, which it can use to provide it with incentives to move toward a democratic political system without interfering in its internal affairs. The hardliners need continued commerce with the European Union and would like the same with the US. However, during years of dialogue with Iran, the EU has been paying only lip service to the cause of democracy and respect for human rights in Iran. Instead, it has used the hardliners’ dismal human rights record to extract more commercial concessions from them.

So, what can the West do? First, Western nations with clean human rights records should help the UN appoint a special human rights monitor for Iran, bring up annually to the General Assembly its human rights record for discussion and strongly condemn it if the record keeps deteriorating. Contrary to the general perception, Iran’s clerics are sensitive to outside criticism. There has always been tangible improvement in Iran’s human rights record whenever such criticism has been expressed by the UN.

Second, the World Bank should stop providing Iran’s government with loans and, instead, try to work with true NGOs and the private sector in Iran in order to strengthen the civil society. The West should support Iran’s human rights and democracy advocates, nominate their jailed leaders for international awards and keep them and their cause in the public eye.

Third, the West should downgrade its diplomatic relationships with Iran if the hardliners continue violating the basic human rights of Iranians.

Fourth, the EU must declare unequivocally, backed by practical steps, that new investments that Iran needs badly will be provided only when Iran takes practical steps toward establishing a truly democratic political system.

As a signatory of the NPT, Iran is entitled to the peaceful use of nuclear technology including uranium enrichment, the main source of concern in its nuclear program. So, demanding that Iran set aside its enrichment program forever is a nonstarter. Even if Iran were to go along with the demand, what would stop the West from demanding that Iran should also not have access to, for example, advanced electronics because it can be used in modern warfare?

In addition, short of outsiders installing a puppet regime in Tehran, no Iranian government, regardless of its ideology or democratic credentials, would dare to stop Iran’s nuclear energy program. The Russian proposal for enriching uranium for Iran in Russia is also not acceptable, since it implies that Iran give up its rights under the NPT.

On the other hand, Iran does not need enriched uranium for at least a decade. The latest US National Intelligence Estimate indicates that Iran is at least 6–10 years away from a nuclear bomb, an assessment with which most objective experts agree. In short, the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program is not even a crisis. It has been fabricated by certain special interest groups in the US. There is ample time for political reforms in Iran before it ever develops the bomb.

Therefore, the West must insist that Iran can start a limited uranium-enrichment program, strictly safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency in the framework of Iran’s proposal to the EU in March 2005, only when it undertakes meaningful and lasting reforms. These include freeing political prisoners, allowing true freedom of speech and the development of an independent press, and permitting all political groups to participate in the political process through elections that are considered free and fair by the international community.

Last, the US and Iran should enter direct negotiations. It is simply absurd for the US and the most important nation in the Middle East not to have any direct negotiations. The Bush administration should not allow itself to be seduced by exiled Iranian groups that have no support in Iran. Development of democracy is an internal affair for Iranians living in Iran. The West should only support them to achieve their goal, not to decide for them who should run their country.

Ahmadinejad recently said, “If we abandon our enrichment program, the West will bring up our human rights record,” hence indicating that the hardliners consider their Achilles’ heel to be not violation of Iran’s international nuclear obligations but violation of human rights of Iranians.

Given Iran’s young and educated population that yearns for democracy, the above steps will be far more effective than any other alternative toward alleviating and even eliminating the concerns about Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. In fact, democracy would provide the ultimate safeguards, as a truly democratic government in Iran, backed by a great majority of Iranians, could well feel secure enough not to pursue dangerous nuclear adventures.