Why human rights sanctions could work with Iran
March 14th, 2014
01:32 PM ET

Why human rights sanctions could work with Iran

By Dwight Bashir, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Dwight Bashir is Deputy Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  You can follow him @DwightBashir. The views expressed are his own.

This coming week, two seemingly unrelated events concerning Iran are taking place.  First, the U.N. expert on human rights in Iran is presenting his latest report in Geneva at the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council, and will conclude that conditions have not improved since President Hassan Rouhani took office last August. Second, in Vienna, global powers (P5+1) begin the next round of talks with Iran seeking a comprehensive, long-term deal over Tehran's nuclear program.

On the face of it, Iran's human rights record and its nuclear capabilities have little or no connection. But a deeper look suggests that they in fact do – and the implications are profound.

In January, the United States and European Union eased some economic sanctions as a first step toward implementing the short-term agreement struck in November. Today, supporters of a long-term nuclear deal increasingly advocate the complete lifting of sanctions of any kind.

In essence, they endorse the following logic: If you favor sanctioning Iran, you are advancing a policy of belligerence. If not, you back diplomacy. The implication is that if the United States wishes to pursue constructive diplomacy, it would do well to reject sanctions, period.

But the premise of this thinking – that sanctions and peacemaking are incompatible – is flawed.  It assumes that the quest for a deal will be harmed by the type of broad-based actions, affecting all of Iran, which certain sanctions entail.

Yet even if this were true, it ignores an unassailable fact: There are other kinds of sanctions that don’t affect the Iranian people as a whole, but which instead train a careful but glaring spotlight on selected Iranian officials who are themselves obstacles to peace, while highlighting the opportunity of purported moderates like President Rouhani to pursue diplomacy. In so doing, such sanctions could well advance, not thwart, efforts for an accord.

What sort of sanctions might achieve such an outcome? The words of U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice in December point to a possible answer:

"As we test the potential for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue...another key test is...progress on human rights. Our sanctions on Iran's human rights abusers will continue..."

Rice's words recall two salient facts. First, targeted sanctions are not an untried idea. As she implies, they were available when she spoke. Second, as anyone familiar with these sanctions knows, the human rights abusers being targeted weren’t moderate peacemakers, but unabashed hardliners historically opposed to diplomacy with the West.

Two American laws provide for such sanctions: the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA) and the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012. Both allow for travel bans and asset freezes on Iranians deemed responsible for, or complicit in, violations after Iran's 2009 disputed presidential elections, while CISADA explicitly calls for identifying officials involved in severe abuses of religious freedom.

The problem, though, is this: Washington has failed to publicly name a single abuser since Rouhani's electoral victory in June of 2013. While hardliners continue to trample on human rights – including the freedoms of religion and expression, association and assembly – the United States has abandoned rights sanctions for now, despite Rice's words.

This retreat is inexplicable. Far from harming Iran's people, these sanctions proclaim our solidarity with them, while naming and shaming those who abuse them – typically the same officials who impede diplomacy, including a sensible nuclear deal.

For those who believe Iran has moderates willing and able to enact rights reforms and strike a nuclear deal, and that Rouhani is among them, naming and shaming their natural opponents can only strengthen their hand. For those who insist that moderates either don't exist or have no power, sanctions put Tehran on notice that amidst the nuclear discussions, rights abuses matter and have consequences.

The jury is still out on whether Rouhani's promises to improve the rights of the Iranian people are being blocked by hardliners, or if Rouhani has any intention of fulfilling them. In either case, the Obama administration should return to sanctioning Iran's rights violators while the nuclear negotiations continue over the next several months.

Such a strategy cleanly divides abusive officials from the people they've been abusing, the seemingly moderate colleagues they've been obstructing, and the peaceful nuclear outcome they've been resisting. It provides the United States and its European allies a stronger hand in holding Iran accountable under its international obligations while teasing out what cards the “moderates” may hold.

In the end, human rights sanctions aren’t an obstacle to a long-term nuclear deal with Iran. Rather, they identify who the real obstacles are. And they represent what could be a key ingredient to peacefully resolving the nuclear standoff.

Post by:
Topics: Iran

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. Felix Unger

    Just where do we Americans come off talking about human rights? What about those people who are being butchered on a daily basis by our godless drones and Apache helicopters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen? All this idiot Dwight Bashir can do is to mouth off about Iran and their human rights "abuses" and how they can be fixed through the politics of hunger by starving the Iranian people. This Dwight Bashir is truly pathetic!

    March 14, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Reply
    • Jack Smith

      I could have sworn after reading the article above that it was talking about human rights sanctions against despots, not economic sanctions affecting the people, especially given that the headline includes the words, in plain English, "Human Rights Sanctions," but along comes Ayatollah Felix to tell us otherwise.

      Either Felix can't read or he can't think. I'm betting on the latter.

      March 14, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Reply
      • sadiqna

        You did skip this line ?,Two American laws provide for such sanctions: the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA) and the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012.Basically this kind of laws and sanction affect common Iranians whatever u put on headline on law.If you put sanctions then what about Saudi Arabia,egypt ?.You call it democracy if it aligns with American interests that's what I call double standard.Better sensible thing to do is lift sanctions and if iam correct Iranians are educated and they can transform the system their own Like Amin said below

        March 15, 2014 at 11:16 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        There are Iranians, who have become enormously rich, thanks to sanctions. No doubt, they belong to the ruling elite and the Revolutionary Guard. They are more likely to be the hardliners, who oppose a nuclear deal and Rouhani's reaching out to the West. Indeed, they should be put on a sanction-list instead.

        March 15, 2014 at 7:08 pm |
    • Reno

      Bashir? The name says it all. LOL

      March 17, 2014 at 8:01 am | Reply
      • john gurley

        That's right, his opinion can be discounted because of the ethnicity of his name. Way to go, Reno.

        March 18, 2014 at 11:42 pm |
      • Pete

        And your point is......?

        March 19, 2014 at 5:20 pm |
  2. iranian

    i dont have any problem of human rights as an iranian i dont want sanction
    sanction is not useful tool for implementing diplomacy this is holocast sanction a civilization with 7000 years old is holocast

    March 14, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Reply
    • tthorn777

      I agree, sanctions will only hurt the people of Iran not the rich government that is collecting all of the money and pushing for a nuclear bomb. I think we need to put sanctions on the wealthy elite like we are with russia and back Isreal in taking out the nuclear capabilities. The reactors are far from the civilian population and can be carried out with special forces and bunker busters.

      March 20, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  3. Mike

    I think the priority should be to lift the indiscriminate sanctions that are impoverishing tens of millions of Iranian people to placate powerful political donors like Sheldon Adelson (multibillionaire, the biggest political donor in US history).

    March 14, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  4. chrissy

    Agreed @ Mike!

    March 14, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Reply
  5. Pete

    The article isn't for punishing Iran's people with economic sanctions. It's for punishing Iran's mullahs with human rights sanctions. You're all fighting a strawman, although Jack S. may have it right. Maybe the author should weigh in.

    March 14, 2014 at 9:12 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Pete...The west has been trying to overthrow mullahs for past thirty plus years at the request of the top 1% of the Iranian elites and oil shieks of the Arabian deserts with little or no success. Isn't time to stop barking and start biting, i.e military action, and make everyone reach an "orgsm" watching the explosions?

      March 17, 2014 at 8:08 am | Reply
      • Pete

        I'm not sure what you mean, Mike. Just sanction Iran's human rights violators, which harms no one but them.

        March 19, 2014 at 5:22 pm |
  6. Alireza

    Four years ago Obama administration failed to support Iranian when they asked Obama to help them, but Obama helped Mullahs to remain in power.
    Most of Iranian people are pro-west rather pro-Russia or China.
    The option is still open but it was ignored by West for 35 years: help and trust Iranian people to get rid of the Islamic Regime.

    March 14, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      I wish the US would do that.

      March 19, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  7. Procivic

    Parroting Washington officials isn't journalism. Besides, the U.S. would do well to address its own sorry record of invasions, intrusions and remote killings by drones before pointing fingers, to say nothing of prodding some of its dictator pals in the Arab world to enter the 21st century.

    March 14, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Reply
    • Jack Smith

      Nice try at trying to silence Americans who are standing with the people of Iran who are demanding human rights from their brutal oppressors. It sounds like you're in bed with those oppressors. There's a name for people who snuggle up to oppressors for gain.

      March 17, 2014 at 2:18 am | Reply
  8. Iranians are pigheaded

    Iranians are historically very well known to be pigheaded. Trying to convince any group of people that are that pigheaded, about anything, is merely a waste of time. Just let them continue to wallow in their pigsty.

    March 15, 2014 at 1:05 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      What you said about the Iranians above is even truer about the pigheaded, right-wing politicians in Washington. Look at how these thugs are handling the Crimean issue. Tomorrow the Crimeans are going to get to choose whether to remain a part of Ukraine or join Russia. Just who are these thugs in Washington to say no to that?

      March 15, 2014 at 8:51 am | Reply
      • Jack Smith

        Joseph forgot that Adolf pulled the same tactic in the 1930s on Czechoslovakia and the Sudetenland as Putin just did with Ukraine and Crimea.

        March 17, 2014 at 2:00 am |
    • Jack Smith

      Don't conflate the regime with the people, half of whom despise their leaders.

      March 17, 2014 at 1:56 am | Reply
  9. Ahora

    What a brilliant idea! Actually Iran's leader, Khamenei, suspected the same thing: he predicted that nuclear issue is just a distraction, after it is solved they will sanction us for rockets, then human rights and then god knows what other things, like many others, i am getting to the conclusion that the problem is "us", "Iranians"; whether we hate the regime or like it, west never wants a powerful Iran in this region and they continue to oppose us, so let's stop this rediculous negotiations, blow the A-bomb and get back our lands from Arabs, and then the west will accept us as a reality on the ground, and no more silly discussions.....

    March 15, 2014 at 7:31 am | Reply
  10. Arash

    Americans and EU are really crazy and pathological they had intensified sanctions against Iran over their stupid claims of nuclear weapon. now they want to again put pressure on people. USA itself is violators of human rights they killed 18 million people in the name of democracy.

    March 15, 2014 at 9:14 am | Reply
    • 50/50


      March 15, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  11. Amin

    Human Rights are very important but that is something that will evolve from within Iran. External pressures just makes us Iranians feel that there are double standards. We don't sanction Saudi Arabia, Egypt or a host of other countries that are equally bad at human rights. The nuclear issue and assassinations have just given the regime cover to abuse everyone under the guise of national security. Lift the sanctions, open up the society and I am sure change will come about. Iranian people are no different than any other people.

    March 15, 2014 at 9:48 am | Reply
    • Jack Smith

      Amin, what's wrong with limiting sanctions to Iran's leaders?

      March 18, 2014 at 10:46 am | Reply
  12. sadiqna


    March 15, 2014 at 11:07 am | Reply
  13. Mitt Moran

    Mr. Dwight Bashir,
    Why not write about what Israel is doing to Palestinians? Oh, I forgot, you are working for CNN and your Zionist master does not allow your to do so.

    March 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Reply
    • Jack Smith

      Oh great, another groveling apologist from the Ayatollah's clown car of knuckle-dragging medievalists. How does it feel to be defending the jailers of the Iranian people, you nitwit?

      March 17, 2014 at 1:47 am | Reply
  14. Mitt Moran

    Mr. Dwight Bashir,
    Why not write about what Israel is doing to Palestinians? Oh, I forgot, you are working for CNN and your Zionist master does not allow you to do so.

    March 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Reply
    • 50/50


      March 15, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Reply
    • Jack Smith

      You just repeated yourself. Now run along, Tehran's theocrats are calling. You don't want to miss your daily groveling session.

      March 17, 2014 at 1:51 am | Reply
  15. but you chant death to America in your streets

    Funny stuff. It seems that most Iranians actually love America and our iGadgets and our music and our way of life. So then who are those buggers that are marching in the streets of Tehran chanting "death to America" and burning the US flag???

    March 15, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Reply
    • 50/50

      people of iran are 50/50
      50 percent are relegios
      50 percent are secular
      like Ukrain
      we have 2 way of life in iran

      March 15, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Reply
      • Jack Smith

        But the future is with Tehran's educated young people and its strong middle class - and they are so sickened and embarrassed by their medievalist leaders who are the world's laughingstock, many are willing to stand up and risk everything.

        March 17, 2014 at 1:55 am |
  16. but you chant death to America in your streets

    Thank you 50/50 for clearing up the confusion. So half the Iranian people love America and half the Iranian people hate America. Very interesting. The Shah of Iran was pro-western. When the Ayatollahs took over, in 1978, all concepts of so-called western freedom were dashed to hell. How sad that so many Iranians are actually building houses with "sound proof" basements, so that the Ayatollah's "party police" will not hear the sounds of human beings trying to be happy!!!!!!!!!!! I feel so sad for Iran. The western world used to be completely controlled by "The Church" until everybody figured out that it was a bad idea. That was in 1700 AD!!!! Maybe Iran will get there someday.................

    March 15, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Reply
    • wow, what a comment

      Good comment. Actually, the entire Muslim World has to figure out that it is not very smart to allow the Mullahs to run the show. Observing how the nations in North Africa have been struggling with this concept, it just might take some more decades, or centuries, but to be fair to the Muslims, it did take the Christians quite a few centuries to figure that out.

      March 16, 2014 at 11:49 am | Reply
    • wow, what a comment

      The "concept" I am talking about is called: "Separation of Church and State". Once the entire Western World figured out how to keep the Padres away from Politics, they were able to make the Renaissance and eventually the Industrial revolution happen. Unfortunately, this confined the Padres to their Church Pulpit, and we have seen their sad decline over the last 300 years, culminating in the scandal of Pedophilia, within the Catholic Church. Maybe the Muslim World is going to have to do the same thing with their "ignorant" Mullahs. This may motivate enough smart Muslim businessmen to step in and improve things for the common person.

      March 16, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Reply
      • Jack Smith

        The US figured it out best, and that's partly because the best post-Reformation groups were persecuted in Britain and ultimately chose to come to the New World, where they worked out a new relation between religion and state without any church or state hierarchy there to breathe down their backs.

        March 18, 2014 at 10:54 am |
  17. Jack Smith

    It seems the pro-dictatorship puppets are out in force here, along with their obedient little American faux-socialists in their parents' basements, typing furiously away.

    These little weasels can have their say, but Iran's own human rights and pro-democracy demonstrators, the future of Iran, stand for Mr. Dwight Bashir, not them. These weasels are the past - Bashir and Iran's educated youth are the future.

    March 17, 2014 at 1:37 am | Reply
    • wow, what a comment

      Funny how jack smith and john smith have the same last name, but completely opposing views. Are you guys relatives??? bad idea to invite both of you to Thanksgiving dinner. How about we invite you both to a boxing ring, take your gloves off, and let you both have a free-for-all fight?????

      March 17, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  18. Jack Smith

    Note how many people here are hoping we forget that Iran's tyrants don't represent Iran's people, anymore than a jailer represents a prisoner.

    March 17, 2014 at 2:22 am | Reply
  19. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    March 17, 2014 at 2:23 am | Reply
    • wow, what a comment

      My dear john smith......... your real name is obviously Mohammed Ali Reza, or some such thing......... you have been posting this same exact comment for over 6 months now.......... get over it, dude!!!!!! Fully 50% of your Iranian people LOVE America, love our iGadgets, our music, our way of life........... get it??? Do you know how many highly educated Iranians are living very very happily in the US, at this very moment????? I wonder why........... hmmmmmmm..........

      March 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Reply
    • Jack Smith

      Wow What a Comment, I hope you have better things to do in life than monitor john smith for months on end.

      John Smith, your opening words tell us more about you than about America. "The root of all terror?" Please. Even you don't really believe that. Since WW II, your own time choice, in China alone, from 1949 until his death in the 1970s, Mao was responsible for the deaths of over 70 million of his own people. Nothing that the US has done anywhere compares to that number.

      March 18, 2014 at 10:41 am | Reply
  20. Sam Bean

    If Iran will cooperate it will be his chance to off load its oil stock pile to EU and U.S as Sanctioned in Russia Begins more money for Iran.

    March 18, 2014 at 10:14 am | Reply
  21. chrissy

    Democracy is NOT a spectator sport! And the citizens of Iran have every right to have a say in their government! Nor should the citizens be punished because of the actions of their oppressors!

    March 18, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      So why then are you against the article which wants to sanction the leaders?

      March 19, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Reply
  22. Marcus Fernando

    Another pro-Israel lackey on government dough wants to say he exists. These folks make up something, and then make up their demented solution, and sell it on pliant ignorant media. What a farce!!! No more wars, no more sanctions, no more meddling into affairs of other countries and ruining the US economy. Enough!!!!

    March 18, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      So you're saying that since the writer is for human rights in Iran (1) it's a bad thing and (2) it's proof that he's pro-Israeli?

      It sounds like you're the one on their payroll. You just paid them an enormous compliment.

      March 19, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  23. glennrobert

    Why did you not post my last post?

    March 19, 2014 at 3:35 am | Reply
  24. UK:OK

    America needs The UK and Russia and Iran to stop those MERKELITE terrorists from Germany.
    God bless the real America of Roosevelt and lets rise up and get rid of the fascist EU regime.

    March 19, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  25. chrissy

    Anen @ Marcus Fernando! EXACTLY!

    March 19, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  26. The Mayor of Medinah

    I can't believe that we and the rest of the free world is allowing the production of heavy water, this is part of weapons production. If this was clearly for peaceful purposes we or someone else could give them fuel grade or research grade fissionable material. but unfortunately this administration is to blind to see.

    March 19, 2014 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  27. America is a crumblin'

    Do we Americans realize that our own CEO's imposed gargantuan sanctions, against us, the American people, when they shipped all our jobs overseas? And less than 10,000 of these super-rich traitors continue to live opulently, in gated mansions, on a hill not too far from you? Who cares about sanctions against Iran or Russia!

    March 21, 2014 at 9:49 am | Reply
    • America is a crumblin'

      Verily I say unto you, we Americans have been "sanctioned" into poverty, by our very own super-rich CEO's. How come there is absolutely no discussion, at any level, about this "elephant in the room"??????

      March 21, 2014 at 9:52 am | Reply
      • Pete

        The "elephant in the room" is the willingness of so many commenters here to switch the subject from Tehran to just about anything.

        March 28, 2014 at 5:50 am |
    • Superpowers always crumble in the end

      Yes, indeed, and these sanctions, against the average American, leaving them jobless, have had a much more devastating effect, than any sanctions the US and its NATO buddies can impose on any other country!

      March 22, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  28. zcyrus

    Iran regime executed more than 500 people last year without holding court and right of having lawyer! Thousands of prisoners are in waiting list to get executed!

    March 26, 2014 at 10:13 am | Reply
    • Pete

      That's correct. Facts are stubborn things, aren't they.

      March 28, 2014 at 5:45 am | Reply

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