When dealing with Iran, don’t abandon those stuck living there

Why there is too much emphasis on nuclear capability

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The United Nations Security Council has passed six resolutions requiring Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Most of the provisions in these resolutions are legally binding on all UN member states.

Now the Western nations that struck a deal with Iran on its nuclear program have — in the words of Brookings Institution scholar Michal Doran — “shredded” those resolutions by allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium over the next six months, so long as the enrichment process does not exceed five per cent.

Those resolutions were the result of years of difficult multilateral negotiations. That they’ve been tossed aside without so much as a return to the Security Council that originally passed them is a blow to the legitimacy of that body. What is a Security Council resolution worth, if it can be so easily dismissed?

And what exactly has the West received from Iran in return? So far, not much. It’s an interim deal that trades sanctions relief for increased inspections and that commitment to scale back uranium enrichment. Iran has bought itself time. The real test will come in six months, when it is hoped a comprehensive deal will be signed that will conclusively end Western fears that Iran’s nuclear program is a military one.

We can’t yet know what that deal might look like, but signs from negotiations so far suggest it won’t be one worth celebrating.

It’s worth noting what’s not on the table: human rights; political freedoms; the ongoing rampage of the Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Washington is virtually silent on all these issues — even as Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy Lebanese militia, keeps Assad in power, and the number of executions in Iran itself soars.

Iran’s much-trumpeted mass release of political prisoners, announced as new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani began his charm offensive this summer, never happened. Iran got the positive press it desired, and prisoners of conscience continued to rot in jail.

Payam Akhavan, an international law professor at McGill University, has long argued that the West’s almost exclusive focus on Iran’s nuclear program is myopic.

“Nuclear capability as such is not the issue. It’s the nature of the regime,” he said in an interview today.

“Security concerns in Iran and the wider region cannot be solved in any lasting way unless the nature of this and other regimes in the region are transformed in a non-violent way, with the understanding that it will take time, and that gradual reforms are better than abrupt and violent change.”

Nuclear technology is going to proliferate, Akhavan says. A country that wants to get it, will. Iran, he says, is engaged in a “strategic retreat” because of sanctions, but is not necessarily committed to forswearing nuclear weapons capability.

“If Iran does not democratize, you will have a militarized hard-line regime with a fanatical populist base, which will need that kind of military capability — not so much for the preservation of the national interest, but for the preservation of a very narrow power base within the nation.”

On the other hand, says Akhavan, a democratic Iran may well follow the examples of countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa, which gave up their nuclear weapons programs as they democratized.

I’ve floated this theory a number of times with Israeli officials. They are consistently unreceptive. Shortly before the deal was signed, I met with a senior Israeli official who lambasted what he described as Western “ignorance, naivety, and wishful thinking” about the Middle East. Israel, he said, conducts its affais in the region based on its interests, rather than fuzzy values such as a desire for democratization.

This so-called realist policy of international affairs is attractive, in a way, because it deflects charges of hypocrisy. America is caught trying to explain how it can simultaneously champion democracy and human rights, while backing the despotic monarchy that runs Saudi Arabia like it owns the place. Israel doesn’t need to pretend it cares whether women can drive in Saudi Arabia, or Islamists get a fair trial in Egypt, so long as both states share its opposition to Iran and don’t do anything to undermine its security.

But even if we’re willing to throw Iranian democrats under the bus, and leave Syrians to the mercies of Assad — and I’m not — I don’t think a deal that is limited to Iran’s nuclear program is wise. Iran is dangerous because of the kind of country it is. Our ability to change that is limited but not non-existent.

Akhavan notes that the 1975 Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union contained human rights provisions. These didn’t have teeth. But because the Soviet Union had made a formal commitment to civil rights, Soviet dissidents were empowered to push harder for changes to the way they were governed.

Iran’s a far weaker adversary than the Soviet Union was. When we deal with its government, we can afford not to forget the people stuck living there.