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What Can A Biden Administration Do With Human Rights In Iran?

IRAN -- A group of protesters chant slogans at the main gate of the Old Grand Bazaar, in Tehran, June 25, 2018

Today, Iran sees a widening gap between the nation and state as systematic human rights violations grow day by day. This situation has created controversial debates on the intervention of the U.S. administration, whether the U.S. should take action to convince, or rather force, Iran’s leadership to address its misconduct against civil society activists and political dissidents. Although, since 1979, the U.S. government has stood in protest of the violation of basic rights in Iran, and during the Donald Trump presidency imposed more sanctions on individuals and organizations involved in these atrocities, some in Iran believe the actions are not sufficient and expect more drastic steps from U.S. government. The 2020 U.S. presidential election was followed very closely inside Iran and a sharp division emerged over which candidate, Joe Biden or Donald Trump, would be more likely to advance human rights in Iran.

Those who thought an extension of the Trump presidency would improve the situation of human rights in Iran ignore the fact that during the four years of the Trump administration, heavy sanctions were imposed to bring Iran to the negotiating table to reach a new deal focused on the security concerns of the U.S. and Israel. The imposed human rights sanctions have been symbolic and didn’t put much pressure on Iranian officials.

Although Donald Trump took a firm stance against Iranian regime during the massive uprisings of 2017 and 2019 throughout Iran and voiced his support for the protesters, but in practice there was no significant difference compared to that of Barack Obama’s following the 2009 protest. Meaning that on both occasions, none of them engaged in any actions which might have deterred the brutal behavior of the Iranian regime in killing non-violent protestors; However, it is also understandable that the complexities of the situation have made U.S. decision-making tricky.

Over the past 13 years, economic sanctions and international isolation have proven to be ineffective tools for promoting human rights in Iran. The weakness of this approach seems to be the idealism which neglects realities in the structures of power and rules. Realpolitik reminds us that no powerful state takes serious action against violation of human rights in another country unless a genocide or a civil war takes place and the ruling government is seriously challenged to control the situation, rather than a nation suffering from lack of stability. National security considerations, geopolitics and economic interests are the main driving forces for a country to make policies on foreign relations.

Moreover, suppression of human rights is a fundamental factor in the legitimization and power structure of the Iranian regime. Iran’s current balance of power and legal frameworks are not compatible with global norms of human rights; therefore any major improvement in the situation of women’s rights, labor rights, freedom of press or holding free and fair elections necessitates a fundamental political change in Iran, or even a change in regime.

The Iranian government’s pattern of behavior tends to reflect a clear disconnect between its behavior within its borders and beyond. Iran historically shows flexibility on external issues and resists changing domestic behavior when facing foreign pressure. Additionally, from a legal and ethical point of view, foreign governments can only support people’s demands, and there is no ground for them to directly involve themselves with Iranian politics.

A significant shift in the situation of human rights in Iran requires a change in the balance of power between the government and people who are seeking change. Such a change can be achieved through the growing number of organized protests. To overcome the obstacles, Iran needs a strong opposition movement with effective leadership that is committed to human rights principals. Any confusion in this matter not only is not useful but could have adverse impacts on human rights activists inside Iran.

Joe Biden will take power at a much different time compared to the Obama administration when he served as vice president. His administration is inheriting two failed policies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump towards the human rights abuses by the Iranian regime. During the election campaign, just like his rival Donald Trump, Biden tweeted about human rights violations in Iran condemning the execution of young wrestler Navid Afkari. In interviews, Biden emphasized that human rights will be one of his objectives in engaging the Iranian regime, saying, “We will continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran's human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.”

Unlike Trump, Biden has shown his commitment and respect for human rights and promoting democratic values around the world. He belongs to a group of U.S. politicians who consider democracy and human rights as a foundation of American foreign policy and consider pro-democratic groups and human rights defenders as the most reliable international allies for the U.S.

Additionally, 14 years of downturn in global democratic values as well as the reluctancy of Trump administration to support democracy around the world have resulted in the empowerment of two authoritarian states, Russia and China, in their pursuit of ruling the world. With non-democratic models being strengthened and democracy and liberalism being challenged globally, opportunities arose for the U.S. government to once again step up its efforts to assist the transition process to democracy in these non-democratic countries. Biden’s characteristics and background fit the mission of reviving a global democratic movement, which can also benefit the Iranians.

A Biden presidency could benefit Iranian people if he avoids the approaches of the previous administrations by not taking a too-firm position, while maintaining and expanding the targeted sanctions against human rights violators and institutions to help keep Iran accountable in the eyes of international community.

However, the main advantage of the Biden presidency for Iranian defenders of democracy and human rights is breaking the illusion of regime change which grew during Trump's presidency. This was a false hope injected in the society by some opposition groups; although Donald

Trump's administration indicated more than a few times that they are not seeking regime change in Iran. This change will help instill in people a more realistic perception, switching gears to focus more on domestic capacities for activism and building movements.

The Biden team also shares values with the EU, with such an approach capable of enabling further global pressure on Iranian regime to respect its international commitments or at least reduce the severity of human rights offences inside Iran.

The U.S. the crippling economic sanctions that have impacted the daily life of millions of Iranians may help place human rights activists in a better position to combat the hardliners and advocate for a structural overhaul. When citizens are faced with economic deprivation and struggle to meet basic needs, they are not as concerned about human rights violations. However, by reducing these daily struggles, human rights activism can have a chance to flourish more freely. Of course, the future of human rights in Iran is complex, difficult to predict and depends on too many interrelated factors. But U.S. policy towards Iran cannot be one of the more influential ones in this process. The betterment of this condition relies primarily on how the standoff between human rights defenders and hardliners as the system develops and moves forward.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda.

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    Ali Afshari

    Ali Afshari is an expert on Iran and an analyst of Iranian affairs, residing in Washington D.C. Mr. Afshari occasionally contributes analysis to Radio Farda.