Sakharov’s Ghost

How America’s Nuclear Deal Sold Out Iran’s Liberals

By ignoring the issue of human rights during nuclear negotiations, the U.S. is giving the regime a free hand to continue its brutal repression of dissidents.

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

Human rights are the biggest victim of the Iranian nuclear deal announced last week. In the name of nuclear cooperation, the West has abandoned the issue of human rights inside Iran. It is no wonder so many democracy activists have a hard time trusting America. Just as occurred with the Libyan nuclear deal, Iran’s cooperation on its nuclear program means that the free world will loosen pressure on a brutal regime. While the nuclear issue is important, it cannot be allowed to trump human rights. Ultimately it is the regime which is the most dangerous, not the particular weapons they choose to kill with.

Our disappointment is shared by many Iranians hoping for a better future. Consider the fact that as President Obama announced the nuclear deal, he did not mention human rights even once. Hundreds of journalists, bloggers and dissidents remain behind bars. The leader of the free world missed a golden opportunity to speak up on their behalf.

Sadly, human rights have been almost entirely absent during the Iran negotiations. How many times were the names of political prisoners such as Majid Tavakoli or Shiva Ahari raised? How often were improvements in human rights linked to the nuclear issue? Seemingly not at all.

By contrast, a former American arms negotiator with the Soviets told one of us that in the 1980s, during every negotiation he had with the USSR, the names of three dissidents—Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and Yuri Orlov—were brought up as proof that the Soviets could not be trusted. The 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment directly linked most favored nation status to the Soviet Union to improvements in human rights.

The deal with the Iranian government will give them a free hand to repress activists and keep political prisoners behind bars. The regime will now say if America does not want to jeopardize the nuclear deal, then it must remain silent on human rights. They will claim that repression of dissidents is an “internal affair.” It is not. Human rights are universal.

Even as the nuclear deal was being negotiated, the Iranian government was furiously imprisoning bloggers, lawyers and journalists. Last year, the government targeted Sunni Muslims, executing many, arresting their religious leaders and attacking mosques. Many Bahai’s remain in prison. Women, students and workers are all denied basic rights. In the 100 days since President Rouhani assumed power, more than 300 people have been executed.

Perhaps nothing better exposes the cruel cynicism of the regime than its use of social media to spread its message abroad while banning it at home. Fittingly, Iran’s foreign minister announced the nuclear deal on Twitter. Iranians cannot see the tweet because the regime prohibits them from accessing the site.

In October, one of us confronted the foreign minister in New York and asked if he thought it was ironic that he enjoys posting on Facebook while his government bans it in Iran. “Ha! Ha! That’s life” he replied. Laughing at the wholesale denial of free speech is not the voice of moderation.

On Tuesday, Zarif posted his first YouTube video in support of Iran’s nuclear program. “We’re all endowed with free will, with the ability to determine our own destiny,” he said. “Free will is in our being, in our DNA.” That’s odd coming from a representative of a regime which imprisons dissidents, bloggers and journalists whose free will led them to advocate democracy.

What is the Iranian government afraid of? The regime may seem strong from the outside, especially as the international community fawns over officials like Zarif. But any government that cannot tolerate the power of a few tweets is very weak indeed. Iranian officials who use social media while banning it at home should be laughed out of any room. Can the Iranian government be trusted to enforce a nuclear deal when it does not even trust its own people to access one of the largest sites on the Internet? The answer to this question is intuitive. When the Iranian government no longer fears its own people, the West will have no reason to fear it.

Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi told one of us that the only way the world will know that Iran’s government is actually reforming is if it releases all political prisoners. Ebadi names specific Bahai’s, lawyers, journalists and student leaders still in jail. “The government announced that they had released political prisoners on amnesty but that is not true,” she says emphatically.

Keeping free speech advocates and student leaders like Majid Tavakoli behind bars tells you everything you need to know about the Iranian regime. A six-month quasi-limit on uranium enrichment does not mean the government has changed. It remains a brutal theocracy that imprisons its critics.

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Toward the end of Zarif’s video, he says “[I]mposition is not sustainable.” He should tell this to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has imposed his will on the Iranian people for decades.

Zarif regularly enjoys posting on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. When his fellow Iranians can do the same without going to jail, perhaps he can begin to speak about their free will. Until then, he should stop insulting American intelligence and Iranian dignity.

Rather than celebrate this deal, global powers should refocus their attention to human rights in Iran. This is not a tangential issue. It is the ultimate bellwether of Iran’s desire to advance peace and stability.

David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and a contributor to The Daily Beast. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and Reuters and appeared on MSNBC, Bloomberg, PBS and Al Jazeera among many other media outlets. He can be reached at [email protected]

Ahmad Batebi is a former Iranian political prisoner and dissident who was sentenced to death following his role in 1999 student protests in Tehran. His sentence was eventually reduced to 10 years in prison. After nearly a decade of torture in Evin prison, Batebi escaped Iran while on temporary medical leave. He currently resides in the United States where he continues his journalism and activism in support of Iranian human rights.