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By Emanuele Ottolenghi


October 15, 2010

The best way to avoid a nuclear showdown with Tehran is to support its democratic opposition and human rights.  from Emanuele Ottolenghi

The recent decision by the Obama administration to sanction some of the Iranian regime’s worst human-rights abusers is a welcome if belated step in the right direction. But it falls far short of what could be done on this front to further isolate Tehran. The European Union, meanwhile, hasn’t even decided yet whether to consider at all human rights sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

This failure is nothing short of astonishing. Apart from the obvious moral reasons for supporting human rights in Iran, such a policy would undermine the regime and thus help the West in its nuclear standoff with Tehran. Iran’s illicit atomic program is a danger principally because of the regime’s aggressive nature. If the opposition were to topple the revolutionary Islamist leaders, Iran’s nuclear project would be instantly less threatening. Regime change is the best way to avoid a showdown with Tehran.

Western democracies therefore ought to target the regime for its human-rights record, bolster the country’s internal opposition, and speak directly to the Iranian people over the heads of their brutal regime. After the Islamic Republic rigged last year’s presidential elections and crushed the ensuing protests, the veneer of order has returned to the country. But underneath, the embers of revolt still burn. Western democratic institutions and civil society can stir them to keep the flame alive.

Symbolic public acts to highlight the regime’s atrocities inside Iran should become the stock-and-trade of Western public diplomacy. Every encounter with Iranian officials is an opportunity to humiliate them for their human-rights violations and to show the Iranian people how isolated their government is. It’s not enough to speak just generically about human rights. Western politicians must raise specific cases of dissidents and imprisoned opposition figures, demand their swift release and exact a price for noncompliance.

For example, those governments that still have an embassy in Tehran, such as Australia, Canada, the EU-27, Japan and South Korea, could downgrade diplomatic relations with Tehran by withdrawing ambassadors if their demands are not met. Certainly, visiting Iranian officials no longer deserve the red-carpet treatment or platforms at think tanks or university auditoriums to spread their propaganda. And Western leaders could more aggressively apply existing human-rights legislation to curtail exports of technology that could be used for repressing Iran’s population.

It’s also time for the West to turn the tables on Iran in all those international venues that Tehran exploits to make a mockery of human rights. It’s a travesty that Iran, a leading persecutor of independent labor union activists, is still a member of the International Labor Organization. Western governments should attack Iran on women’s rights, gay rights and religious rights in every possible forum. Winning is not the goal there, since they’ll hardly be able to match the automatic majorities of the non-aligned and Islamic countries that Iran usually has in the pocket. But they would set a different tone and pose a constant moral challenge to Iran’s lamentable record and to the hypocrisy practiced in such forums as the United Nations Humans Rights Council.

Western governments and NGOs should also bestow human-rights prizes on Iranian dissidents and honor the memory of those Iranians the regime murdered for their opposition to Islamist oppression. One obvious candidate is Neda Agha Soltan, the young Iranian woman who on June 20, 2009 was shot in the chest by a government goon as she protested peacefully against the sham presidential elections. Her death has become a symbol of the struggle for freedom in Iran. Renaming after her the streets in Rome, Berlin and Paris where Iranian embassies and consulates are located would sure upset Tehran and galvanise the regime’s opponents—much as naming a scholarship after her at Oxford University’s Queens College did last year.

Hossein Maleki Ronaghi, a blogger recently condemned to 15 years in jail for defending human rights, is another brave dissident worthy of international attention. Perhaps the European Parliament may want to consider him for its prestigious Sakharov Prize.

As the weight of economic sanctions begins to crush Iran’s economy, it is more important than ever that we reach out to ordinary Iranians to let them know that our disagreement is with the regime, not the people, and that their freedom is the best guarantee for our security. Strengthening free Farsi broadcast (TV and radio) inside Iran is a good way to convey that message. Western leaders could do much more than just fund these programs. Imagine the impact in Iran if Western prime ministers and chancellors were to take to the airwaves themselves to explain their policies and condemn the regime’s atrocities.

For too long, Western democracies have spoken to the regime as if its oppressed subjects did not matter. The time has come to speak directly to the people of Iran and promise them that their human rights will be our cause too.

Mr. Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of the forthcoming book “Iran: The Looming Crisis” (Profile Books 2010). This article first appeared in the European edition of the Wall Street Journal.

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