January 4, 2011 | Wall Street Journal

Punish Iran’s Human-Rights Abusers

In September the Obama administration sanctioned eight Iranian officials for their role in the recent wave of repression inside the country. Meanwhile, the European Union is still discussing human-rights sanctions—but nothing has seen the light of day yet.

Rectifying this situation should be central to trans-Atlantic cooperation, and not just because Europe and the U.S., as open societies, should put principle before expediency when it comes to human rights. Equally important is that in the standoff with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, the West can only gain by undermining the regime's legitimacy.

If Western democracies were to target the Islamic Republic for its human-rights abuses, bolster the country's internal opposition, and speak directly to the Iranian people over the heads of their oppressors, they would cause significant harm to Tehran. This is particularly important as in the current international climate additional United Nations sanctions are unlikely.

A top priority for policy makers should be to increase resources for the dissemination of free information inside Iran and to help ordinary Iranians organize against the regime. One way of doing this would be for EU countries to strengthen their own Farsi broadcast services, such as those from the BBC and Deutsche Welle, and to counter the regime's efforts to jam satellite transmissions and censor the Internet. An effective low-tech strategy would be to boost short-wave broadcasting. Tehran would have to confiscate every transistor radio in the country to prevent uncensored news from reaching Iranian homes.

But our governments' support for radio, TV and Internet broadcasting should not stop at funding. The leaders of the free world must get on the airwaves themselves and start explaining Western policies while condemning the regime's human-rights abuses. Imagine the impact in the streets and bazaars in Tehran and beyond if David Cameron or Angela Merkel spoke directly to the Iranian people and expressed their support for freedom and democracy in Iran.

In addition, the U.S. and the EU should go after the stalwarts of the regime, ban them from traveling to the West, and freeze their assets. The eight names currently on the U.S. list could easily become 800 or more if Washington and Brussels really went after all the regime's jailors, torturers and murderers. Once judges and prosecutors from political trials are included, heads of political prisoners' detention centers are added, local Revolutionary Guard and Basij commanders are counted, and intelligence and interior ministry officials are factored in, the regime will be grounded at home. The least that freedom-loving governments can do is to begin to chip away at the privileges of those officials with blood on their hands, who can still travel to the West for shopping, entertainment and education.

While going after Iran's worst human-rights offenders, Western democracies should also give voice to their victims. Every day, the regime throws innocent Iranians into jail or executes them on account of their opinions, religion or life style. Their names, their plight, and their fate should not come to pass without at least a word of condemnation from those who represent, in our democracies, the voice of the people.

Let's have, every day, a member of the U.s. Congress or of the European Parliament spend just 30 seconds recounting the tale of one Iranian dissident, or one victim of Iran's suppression, and plead for their freedom. Their suffering and their struggle would become a daily reminder to the free world of what is at stake, and would be a constant source of humiliation for their oppressors.

For too long, Western democracies have spoken to the regime as if it legitimately represented the Iranian people, and as if the plight of those people did not matter to us. The time has come to give voice 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 “Iran: The Looming Crisis” (Profile Books 2010).

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Issues:

Iran