The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the controversial international agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, was implemented on January 16, 2016. After the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had fulfilled the necessary cutbacks to its nuclear program, the UN and the West repealed their debilitating nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions against the country. While some experts worry that Iran will use the opportunity to evade foreign pressures to promote domestic freedom and civil liberties within the country, other activists optimistically predict that increased trade and economic activity will reduce internal tensions and improve human rights conditions in Iran. Although supporters of both of these viewpoints raise legitimate claims, the reality is that any reasoning that predicts the direction of human rights in Iran will likely fall in between these two interpretations.
The JCPOA holds the potential to both harm and ameliorate human rights in Iran. On one hand, due to the normalization of its relationship with the United States, the Iranian government could feel threatened by the expansion of Western values into both Iranian society and its political sphere. This fear is rooted in a longstanding conspiracy theory commonly held by the Iranian government and some of its citizens that the West, in particular the U.S. government, is plotting to overthrow the current regime. The dominant regime operating under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tends to resist changes in foreign policy and is reluctant to see moderates within the power circle expand their influence.
During the uprising following Iran’s contested 2009 presidential election, Khamenei refused to negotiate with the leaders of the short-lived “Green Movement.” This unwillingness to meet with the opposition served to underscore the determination of the Supreme Leader and his following in enforcing radical principality and using the top revolutionary guard generals to preserve Iran’s current political state. As an anocracy (a mixture of democratic and authoritarian regime traits), Iranian authorities may very well attempt to legitimize their oppression of the country by portraying the JCPOA as a plot by the United States to propagate Western influence. As a result, some may argue that the nuclear deal could lead to a further crackdown on human rights and freedoms in order for the regime to maintain its status quo, as well as its aggressive foreign policy to halt Western influence in Iran and support for fundamentalist views of Shiite Islamic discourse.
Others would argue, however, that the Iranian government’s pattern of behavior tends to reflect a clear disconnect between its foreign and internal affairs. This was the case at the end of the Iran-Iraq War when, even after declaring a ceasefire with Iraq, the government of Iran continued to take critics of the war into custody. This was also the case upon implementation of the JCPOA. The same day the announcement was made, Iran’s Guardian Council disqualified the majority of pro- Rouhani and reformist candidates from parliamentary elections. Iran has shown a tendency to abuse human rights and systematically oppress civil society during international conflicts that drive the country to engage with foreign opponents. The same could occur as a result of the nuclear agreement.
Ultimately, the impact of the JCPOA on Iran’s human rights situation is contingent upon the approach of Western countries, especially the United States. If the West prioritizes human rights as a non-negotiable factor in future engagements with the Iranian government, the JCPOA and Iran’s re-integration into the international community could serve as a turning point in the country’s sordid human rights history.
The future of human rights in Iran is complex and difficult to predict. However, Iran’s position on human rights during the nuclear standoff could give a more definitive picture of what is to come. Over the past twelve years, economic sanctions and international isolation have not proven effective tools to promote human rights in Iran. The UN’s nuclear-related sanctions were motivated purely by security concerns and, as such, they had a minimal impact on increasing freedom and human dignity in Iran.
In fact, sanctions restricting Iran’s oil revenue have harmed both the human rights movement and everyday citizens in the country, as they exerted extraordinary pressure on the national economy and the Iranian population’s ability to cover expenses. When citizens are faced with economic deprivation and struggle to meet basic needs, they are not as concerned about human rights infractions. However, upon alleviating some of these concerns, human rights activism can flourish more freely.
Of course, expecting that Iran will resolve its human rights problems quickly is only wishful thinking. Iran will only be able to respect and adhere to the principles set forth by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if its political systems undergo major structural changes. Iran’s current balance of power and legal framework are not compatible with fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, genuine diversity in political parties, gender equality, minority rights, and free and fair elections.
In order to overcome these obstacles, Iran needs a strong opposition movement with effective leadership that is committed to human rights. However, unlike outright negotiations between Iran and P5+1, the JCPOA has a chance to bolster human rights in Iran by easing both economic problems at home and political tensions with the West. While Iran’s Supreme Leader, judiciary, intelligence groups, and revolutionary guards will resist any and all changes needed to improve human rights conditions, the JCPOA will position human rights activists to better combat the hardliners and advocate for a structural overhaul.
Although the nuclear deal does not guarantee that Iran will see improved human rights or even an open discussion about these rights, the deal holds the potential to energize the pro-democracy and human rights movements in Iran. Of course, change requires time, and human rights advancement will not simply materialize following the execution of the nuclear accord. The end of tensions revolving around Iran’s nuclear program and accompanying economic sanctions, however, will go a long way in easing security concerns and facilitating Iran’s economic recovery. It is these developments that can truly boost freedom in Iran and empower its human and political rights advocates, even in the face of government resistance.
Ali Afshari is an Iranian political analyst. He is a former student leader and member of the Central Committee of the Office for Consolidation of Unity, which was the main and largest student organization in Iranian universities during the Reformist era. He is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University and contributes regularly on current Iranian political events in Persian and English-language media.