Congress Can Still Make A Difference On Iran, By Ray Takeyh
They failed on nukes. Now it’s time to take up the cause of Tehran’s human-rights abuses.
Congress failed to stop the Iran nuclear agreement, but it shouldn’t give up now on taking a tougher line with Tehran. On the contrary, it is time for Congress to intervene seriously in an area where the Obama administration has feared to go and where Capitol Hill has carried major weight in the past: human rights.
One of the curious aspects of the Obama presidency is its marked reluctance to criticize the Islamic Republic for its domestic abuses. In pursuit of its arms control agreement, the administration convinced itself that it had to be deferential to the sensibilities of Iran’s paranoid rulers. As the White House exempted itself from judgment, the Islamist regime jailed dissidents, rigged elections, censored the media and set records for executions. Most recently it “convicted” Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian on trumped-up charges. No one has a greater ability to inspire dissidents than an American president embracing their cause. Ronald Reagan’s speeches highlighting the Soviet Union’s mistreatment of its citizens did much to galvanize the forces of change behind the iron curtain. A determined human rights strategy must involve presidential commitment to similar type of rhetoric.
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But absent any such effort from President Barack Obama, Congress should step in. Congressmen and senators should use their own podiums to denounce Iran’s human rights violations and highlight the cases of dissidents. Congress should spearhead its own set of sanctions such as designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. The Democrats who voted for the Iran deal and the White House that pressed them to do so have all insisted that a nuclear deal does not mean ignoring Iran’s domestic repression. It is time to call both the White House and the Democratic Caucus to account.
Such activism would be consistent with the history of congressional leadership on human rights issues. Historically, the executive branch has moved on human rights only when prodded by Congress. In the 1970s, when the Nixon and Ford administrations neglected human rights concerns in the Soviet Union in the name of détente and arms control, it was congressional pressure that compelled Henry Kissinger’s State Department to establish a bureau focusing on such topics. It was Congress that set up its own Helsinki Commission to monitor Soviet compliance with its pledges made as part of the Helsinki accords, which recognized postwar Eastern European boundaries in exchange for Soviet acceptance of human rights standards. Congress helped focus global attention on the plight of dissidents and insisted that human rights issues be part of high-level discussions with the Kremlin.