In his new memoir, Barack Obama recalls a moment that shocked the world.
In 2009, as protestors swarmed the streets of Iran’s capital, the clerical regime’s Basij militia shot and killed a young woman named Neda Agha Soltan. The 26-year-old philosophy student became a symbol of the uprising after a video of her final moments, her blood gushing on a Tehran street, went viral.
In the White House, however, the reaction was subdued.
Obama writes that his “first impulse was to express strong support for the demonstrators. But when I gathered my national security team, our Iran experts advised against such a move.” The experts feared that robust expressions of U.S. support would “backfire” by delegitimizing the unrest as the product of “foreign agents.”
Thus, Obama explains, he “signed off on a series of bland, bureaucratic statements” noting that Washington was monitoring the situation. Tehran, he stated, should respect the rights of its people. The regime ignored him. Protesters chanted, “Obama, Obama, ya ba una ya ba ma!” – “Obama, Obama, either with them [the regime] or with us!” Security forces crushed the protests, the largest mass demonstrations since the 1979 revolution.
Last year, Hillary Clinton, who served as Obama’s secretary of state during his first term, told Iranian human rights activist Masih Alinejad that she regrets her earlier silence in the face of Tehran’s onslaught against Iranian protestors. “I came to regret that we did not speak out more forcefully and rally others to do the same,” Clinton writes in her 2014 memoir, Hard Choices.
Now Joe Biden faces a critical decision just like the one he watched Obama make in 2009. The 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, which the Trump administration abandoned in 2018, remains on life support following two years of crippling U.S. sanctions on Iran. Biden wants to save the accord, but he also wants to support the Iranian people.
In a recent op-ed for CNN, Biden asserts that he would rejoin the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if Tehran resumes compliance with it. This step would pave the way for significant sanctions relief, effectively unwinding the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and greatly diminishing leverage that Washington possesses to deter conduct-based violations of international norms and U.S. law.
After Iran resumed compliance, Biden writes, he would seek “follow-on negotiations” that aim “to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern,” including Tehran’s “ongoing violations of human rights.”
This focus on human rights reflects Biden’s larger view of American global leadership. In an essay for Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden writes that he intends “to put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda.” America, he proclaimed in November during his introduction of his foreign policy team, “is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.”
Yet if Biden puts the nuclear deal first and lifts sanctions without a change in Iran’s illicit behavior, why would Iran feel any pressure to conduct follow-on negotiations regarding human rights?
Obama also claimed that having a nuclear deal in place would make it easier to address Iranian terrorism and human rights violations. Instead, the Obama administration – perhaps in its eagerness to preserve the JCPOA – rarely spoke about human rights in Iran, and imposed no new human rights sanctions, after the accord’s finalization.
The sequential approach Biden proposes would simply repeat Obama’s error.
Instead, Biden should make clear that if Iran fails to respect the basic rights of its citizens, he will speak out forcefully and rally other democratic governments to do the same. The regime’s repression – as well as Iran’s cratering economy, among other regime failures– spurred mass uprisings in 2018, 2019, and 2020. Reuters estimates that Tehran killed approximately 1,500 demonstrators in November 2019 alone. The country is likely to witness further mass uprisings as the Islamic Republic clings to power in the face of a disaffected and angry population.
Rather than provide sanctions relief to Iran merely for its return to the JCPOA, Biden should condition sanctions relief, as well as any future nuclear agreement, on the termination of Tehran’s human rights abuses. Standing up for human rights is not just consistent with Biden’s principles; it is a powerful source of leverage in any negotiations with the Tehran regime, which fears its own people as much as or more than it does the United States.
The Trump administration also had trouble recognizing this key point. While Trump expressed more robust support for Iranian protesters than Obama did, the outgoing administration did not list human rights as one of the 12 conditions that Iran must meet for any future agreement.
Biden has emphasized how Donald Trump abandoned American values abroad. Iranians have been trying to curtail the despotic powers of their rulers for over one hundred years. In other words, they have been trying to embrace America’s most notable achievement: constitutional government that matters. No other Muslim Middle Eastern people have tried as hard for so long. Is Biden going to ignore that quest for the hope that mendacious theocrats, who oversaw the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Syria, are going to forsake their nuclear ambitions?
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda.