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Iran is a key test of American leadership. Biden should take this window to act

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In “Why America Must Lead Again” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020), President-elect Joe Biden promised to renew American leadership by returning to the source of American power — its democratic traditions, commitments and partnerships.

The Biden-Harris foreign policy plan, “The Power of Our Example,” makes democracy the touchstone of American foreign policy. It’s truly vintage de Tocqueville: “Democracy is the root of our society, the wellspring of our power, and the source of our renewal,” the plan states. “It strengthens and amplifies our leadership to keep us safe in the world. It is the engine of our ingenuity that drives our economic prosperity. It is the heart of who we are and how we see the world — and how the world sees us.”

Biden promises to “organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world” during his first year in office. Fighting corruption, repelling authoritarianism and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad will be on the agenda for the world’s democracies.

Nowhere is the need for renewal more evident than the Middle East.

America has failed to deliver on the promise of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war on terror has shattered Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and the maximum pressure policy has crippled Iran’s economy. The U.S. has not supported democracy and human rights in Iran. The Iranian people’s century-long struggle for freedom, equality and justice remains quashed by the fundamentalist theocracy. Instead, China has become the beneficiary of tyranny, corruption and sanctions — siphoning discounted oil to subsidize its economic growth at the Iranian people’s expense.

As with Berlin in the midst of the Cold War, Iran is an early and urgent test case about the nature of America’s commitment to restoring a liberal world order. Iran policy can send a powerful signal to America’s friends and foes alike about the nature and direction of American leadership.

President Trump’s 2019 message to Iran pledged that Americans will never “turn a deaf ear to the calls of the Iranian people for freedom, and we will never forget their ongoing struggle for human rights.” Biden has already taken up the bipartisan cause of human rights in Iran.

On Sept. 12, after the Iranian judiciary’s execution of champion wrestler Navid Afkari for protesting actions of the regime, Biden tweeted: “Iran’s cruel execution of Navid Afkari is a travesty. No country should arrest, torture or execute peaceful protesters or activists.”

That was not all.

In the same tweet, Biden also called attention to the imprisonment of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a women’s rights lawyer widely recognized as Iran’s Mandela, for her insistence that Iran uphold the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter, to which it is a signatory: “Iran must free its political prisoners, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, and release unjustly detained Americans.”

The rights of millions of Iranian women and girls hinge on the resolution of the Sotoudeh case.

Biden led on human rights in Iran and Europeans took note.

Appearing before the European Parliament on Oct. 7, Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that while Europe would fight to keep the nuclear agreement alive, he would work to make Iranian authorities aware that “respect for human rights is the sine qua non for us to engage them.”


Excerpts from the European Parliament draft resolution on Iran

The European Parliament:

1. Strongly condemns the arbitrary detention, sentencing and, recently, return to prison of woman human rights defender and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, and calls on the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately and unconditionally release her, as a matter of urgency, and allow her to receive the healthcare she requires;

2. Strongly condemns the execution on 12 December 2020 of French-based journalist Ruhollah Zam, editor of the Amad News Telegram channel, and on 12 September 2020 of wrestler Navid Afkari; expresses its deepest condolences to their families, friends and colleagues; calls on the EU and its Member States’ institutions to provide more effective protection to Iranian nationals residing in the EU who are subjected to harassment and threats from Iranian intelligence services;

3. Calls on Iran to immediately halt the imminent execution of Swedish-Iranian academic Ahmadreza Djalali, release and compensate him, and stop threatening his family in Iran and Sweden; strongly condemns, furthermore, his torture, arbitrary detention and death sentence; ...

13. Strongly supports the aspirations of the Iranian people who want to live in a free, stable, inclusive and democratic country which respects its national and international commitments on human rights and fundamental freedoms; calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure independent and impartial investigations into all of the deaths that occurred at these protests, into all of those suspected of bearing criminal responsibility for the killing of protesters, and into all cases of victims being subjected to ongoing enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions; calls on the Iranian authorities, furthermore, to exhume and return the remains of the victims to their families, to identify and prosecute the perpetrators, and to provide effective remedies for the victims ...

To read the full draft resolution, click here.

However, no sooner had Borrell enshrined human rights as the sine qua non condition governing Europe’s deals with Iran than Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian journalist granted asylum in France, was lured to Iraq, kidnapped and executed in Iran. Zam’s execution on Dec. 12 came exactly three months after Biden’s Sept. 12 tweet condemning Navid Afkari’s execution.

On Dec. 13, Biden’s National Security Adviser-designate Jake Sullivan tweeted that “Iran’s execution of Ruhollah Zam, a journalist who was denied due process and sentenced for exercising his universal rights, is another horrifying example of human rights violations by the Iranian regime. We will join our partners in calling out and standing up to Iran’s abuses.”

America’s allies noticed. Using the hashtag, European ambassadors canceled their participation in the Europe-Iran Business Forum scheduled for Dec. 14-16. The conference aimed to harness “the power of economic diplomacy while providing a framework for constructive relations.” Mr. Borrel and Minister (Mohammad Javad) Zarif were to have been the keynote speakers.

European parliamentarians were not willing to sweep Navid’s and Zam’s executions and Sotoudeh’s imprisonment under the rug of trade and diplomacy. On Dec. 15, they proposed an alternative framework for Iran policy. The motion for a resolution placed before the European parliament makes Iran’s compliance with democratic values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other legal instruments the sine qua non of relations with Iran. In light of the stakes, all of us would benefit from reading this important document.

The first of the points in the Resolution is a reminder that the enduring power of America’s example has not been extinguished in Europe and will not be in Iran specifically by stating:

“The European parliament strongly supports the aspirations of the Iranian people to live in a free, stable, prosperous, inclusive and democratic country, which respects its national and international commitments on human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

On Dec. 16, U.S. Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., co-chairs of the Senate Human Rights Caucus, issued a bipartisan statement stating that, “in addition to addressing Iran’s nuclear program, its ballistic missile tests, and its support for violent militant groups across the Middle East, the United States must be clear in condemning Iran’s human rights violations.”

There is a global consensus around Biden’s vision of rallying the free world around the idea of democracy, with Iran a key test of American leadership. The window of opportunity is open. Now’s the time to act.

Khosrow B. Semnani is an Iranian-American industrialist, community leader and philanthropist. He is the author of “Where is My Oil? Corruption in Iran’s Oil and Gas Industry.” Amir Soltani, a human rights activist, is a former board member of PEN Center, USA, and author of “Zahra’s Paradise,” an award-winning graphic novel on Iran’s 2009 protests.