Iranian Human Rights Activists Blast Congress's Sanctions Push

11.14.13 10:45 PM ET

Many Iran hawks in Washington claim the mantle of human rights advocacy in their push for ever harsher measures against the Islamic Republic, up to and sometimes including the use of military force against Iran's nuclear facilities. But there's a disconnect: While D.C.'s Iran hawks never relent in their push for more sanctions, human rights activists working inside and outside Iran feel that sanctions are impinging on their work. That's the backdrop for the push by the Obama administration to get Congress to hold off on more sanctions. But Members of Congress, especially from the Republican right, appear poised to press on in their quest to further cripple the Iranian economy. 

“Adding more sanctions at this stage in the negotiations, when there is a lot of hope about the fate of nuclear talks with Iran, is tantamount to sabotage,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the head of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, in a statement released by the group today. “The idea of adding more sanctions at this crucial point in the negotiations disappoints millions of Iranians who are hopeful these talks will lead to a compromise and help lift the sanctions, and sounds like a drumbeat leading to war.”

The release singled out a statement by Sen. Mark Kirk, one of Congress's most avid Iran hawks, to reporters: “How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.” The line refers to Iran's moderate President Hassan Rouhani. While Iran's elections are deeply flawed—only regime-approved candidates can run—it's worth noting that Rouhani was not Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's choice for president. "The 18 million Iranians who defied the odds and voted for change in this year's presidential elections might take issue with Senator Kirk's insulting characterization," noted Jamal Abdi, of the National Iranian American Council, a U.S.-based group that opposes new sanctions, in a press release.

Laying bare Kirk's cynical attack on Iranian moderates requires only remembering his plea for Iran to free the Green movement leaders under house arrest; both Mir Hossien Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, while reformers, were also stalwarts of the Islamic Republic. And Kirk has made impolitic statements before: In 2011, he said, "It’s okay to take the food out of the mouths" of ordinary Iranians to punish them for the acts of their government.

“It is disheartening to see that hardliner radicals in Iran and conservative senators in the U.S. are working hand in hand to ensure the negotiations go nowhere,” said Ghaemi, noting the convergence of hard-liners in Iran and America opposing diplomacy. “Piling on more sanctions at this point will give further ammunition to the radical elements within the Iranian establishment, who find the prospect of a deal unacceptable.” In April, the Campaign released a study pointing to sanctions as a major factor in the deterioration of quality of life in Iran, including weakening civil society.

Another human rights activist living in the U.S., Sussan Tahmasebi, concurred. "The nuclear dispute, the sanctions and the isolation of Iran have hurt human rights and have hindered civil society development greatly," she told me. "The sanctions have pressured and targeted the Iranian middle class, who are engines of change and progress in Iran and who have been the foremost advocates of democracy, while strengthening a group of individuals and groups that are loosely or directly related to the state." I asked her about Kirk's remark about Iranian moderates: "The middle class, civil society and the private sector, are the moderate forces of change in Iran," she replied.

Neither do human rights activists working inside Iran share anything near Kirk's views. "Four years ago ordinary people didn't trust the government, so they saw their problems with sanctions [stemming] from their own government instead of western [ones] and maybe they didn't even blame western countries for sanctions," said one activist, who asked not to be named due to security concerns. "These days situation has changed, people trust this new team, like them and have a great hope," the activist continued: "For example, last night in the subway I heard women talk(ing) about the nuclear negotiations and they were so supportive for [Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif and Rouhani team. I think this is so important!"

Iranians are increasingly blaming the West's sanctions for their hardships. Though polls in Iran must be taken with a grain of salt, a recent Gallup report defies any reasonable margin of error: A staggering 85 percent of Iranians said sanctions were hurting their livelihoods. Nearly half blamed the U.S., whereas only 13 percent blamed their own government. 

"New sanctions wouldn't have any result except [a] worse economic situation, increasing social problems and so on without any achievement," the rights activist, who has spent time in Iranian prisons, said. "As an activist regardless of my opinion about nuclear energy, I can say that this situation make my work (or civil society) hard and harder."

Another activist working on women's rights in Iran, Mahboube Hoseinzadeh, feared that, when and if the nuclear issue gets resolved, the cynics among advocates of human rights in Iran will fall away. "They would totally ignore this subject for their own interests and benefits!" she said.

With Mark Kirk out there leading the charge in Congress, who can blame her? Kirk, however, is unlikely to retract his remark: The most staunch Iran hawks, even while claiming to push human rights, have a tendency to dismiss the views of rights activists they find inconvenient to their aims.