WASHINGTON - The Biden administration is contrasting its criticisms of Iran’s poor human rights record from those made by former President Donald Trump, with a senior official saying the U.S. is trying to make its Iran critiques more credible by stressing a need to also solve rights problems at home.
“President Joe Biden has made clear ... that human rights are going to be a priority in Iran and in the region as a whole,” said U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley in a Wednesday interview with VOA Persian at the State Department. “And I think we have restored a more principled approach in which we push for the respect of human rights throughout the world, including, by the way, in the United States.”
Prior to Malley’s interview, the Biden administration had issued eight public statements about Iran’s human rights record since taking office on Jan. 20, with the toughest being a March 9 announcement of sanctions against two interrogators of Iran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for allegedly violating the rights of anti-government protesters in 2019 and 2020.
The Trump administration had frequently been vocal about Iran’s poor rights record during its four-year term and sanctioned multiple Iranian government-linked individuals and entities for alleged human rights abuses.
In an echo of Trump’s approach, Malley told VOA the Biden administration has tried to “shine a spotlight on Iran [and] the struggle of courageous activists” such as jailed Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. A U.S. official in Geneva had mentioned Sotoudeh in a March 9 statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council urging Iran to end its "systematic use of an arbitrary and unfair justice system to detain and impose sentences against human rights defenders.”
In another message similar to that of the Trump administration, Malley said U.S. officials were putting a “huge emphasis” on trying to bring home Iranian American dual citizens seen as unjustly detained in or prevented from leaving Iran. He named businessman Siamak Namazi, who was arrested in October 2015; Siamak's father and former U.N. official Baquer Namazi, who was detained in February 2016 and has been on a medical furlough from prison since 2018; and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who was arrested in January 2018.
Malley said the U.S. also will continue to seek the return of the remains of retired FBI agent Robert “Bob” Levinson, who disappeared in Iran after being abducted in 2007 and later died in captivity according to U.S. intelligence assessments.
“It is unconscionable that ... the Iranian government would use the lives of individuals as pawns in a political game to try to extract benefit,” Malley said. “This is not something [where] you sign an agreement and that's enough. What you need to do is push and make sure that there's pressure, and make sure that the Iranian people themselves know that the United States is standing with them in that fight.”
In an effort to contrast his message from that of the previous administration, Malley said the U.S. views the human rights fight as one involving not just Iran but other countries.
“And it’s [involving] the U.S. trying to restore its own faith with its commitments back at home, commitments on democracy, on the respect of human rights,” he said. “One of the first decisions President Biden made was to lift the travel ban on Muslims and Africans to try to restore the U.S. to a stronger position in terms of being able to argue for universal human rights everywhere.”
Biden repealed the Trump travel ban on Iran and 12 other nations within hours of being sworn in. He said the visa restrictions on citizens of those nations, seven of them predominantly Muslim states in the Middle East and Africa, were inconsistent with a U.S. tradition of welcoming people of all faiths and undermined national security.
Trump had said the bans were justified by concerns about foreign terrorist entry to the United States and about the ability of U.S. authorities to screen visa applicants from nations afflicted by terrorism.
Malley’s human rights comments drew mixed reactions from U.S. analysts and policy advocates contacted by VOA Persian.
Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council welcomed the U.S. envoy’s position. “The Trump administration approach was riddled with double standards, condemning Iran vociferously while ignoring or soft-peddling egregious abuses by countries 'friendlier' to the United States such as Saudi Arabia. I thought it was important that he admitted that the U.S. record is hardly perfect in this regard,” she said.
National Iranian American Council policy director Ryan Costello said the Biden administration should not only speak out “more evenly” on human rights abuses in the Middle East and the world but also ease Trump-imposed Iran sanctions that he said, “have hurt ordinary Iranians and contributed to the securitized political environment in Iran.” Biden has offered to ease those sanctions if Iran first resumes compliance with a 2015 deal in which it promised world powers to curb nuclear activities that could be weaponized, in return for sanctions relief.
Alireza Nader of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said he does not believe Biden will achieve any human rights improvements in Iran without maintaining the Trump-era sanctions that were part of the former president’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamist-ruled nation. “The Iranian people want the Islamic Republic gone and an easing of pressure only helps the regime,” he said.
Iran International senior analyst Jason Brodsky said the newly defined U.S. human rights approach to Iran is unlikely to influence an Iranian supreme leader who has gone to great lengths to ensure the survival of Iran’s ruling system. “A U.S. universal and self-critical policy by itself won't change that calculus, and the international community needs to understand that dynamic,” Brodsky said.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.