May 4, 2011 | Washington Post

Lawmakers Introduce Human Rights into Iran Sanctions Debate

A quartet of lawmakers have banded together to raise the prospect of human right sanctions against Iran. A press release reads, in part:

The Iran Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Act of 2011, sponsored by Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in the Senate and by Congressman Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Congressman Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) in the House, would make it the policy of the United States to deny the Iranian regime the ability to oppress the people of Iran, to fully support democratic activists inside Iran, and to help the Iranian people freely and safely access and share information.

The bipartisan legislation would establish a “Special Representative on Human Rights and Democracy in Iran” with budget authority over all relevant funding and impose sanctions on companies that sell or service products that enable the Iranian regime to oppress its people. It would require a comprehensive strategy to promote Internet freedom in Iran and reauthorize the Iran Freedom Support Act.

It is clear the lawmakers are using reams of available material on Iranian human right atrocities to goad the administration into action:

Last month, the State Department released its 2010 report on human rights in Iran, concluding that “security forces under the government’s control committed acts of politically motivated violence and repression, including torture, beatings, and rape.” According to the report, “security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals, often holding them incommunicado. Authorities held political prisoners and continued to crack down on women’s rights activists, ethnic minority rights activists, student activists, and religious minorities.” .? .?.

According to research conducted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the Iranian regime uses products purchased from international companies to carry out its oppression. In a study published today, FDD reports the products range from sniper rifles and riot gear to web filtering technology and cell phone monitoring equipment.

“International companies are providing goods and technologies that help the Iranian regime brutalize its own people,” said Mark Dubowitz, FDD’s executive director and head of its Iran Human Rights Project. “One day a free Iranian people will build a museum displaying these tools of oppression with the logos of the companies that abetted the regime’s crimes. Until then, this legislation will help name and shame those companies that still care about their reputation and punish those that don’t.”

The legislation appears to be closely modeled on a speech by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) last September. In that address Lieberman called for beefed-up efforts to thwart the Iranian nuclear weapons program, urging that we “target the fissures that already exist both within the Iranian regime itself and between the regime and Iranian society. This should include much more robust engagement and support for opposition forces inside Iran, both by the United States and like-minded democratic nations around the world. The Obama administration missed an important opportunity in the wake of last year’s election in Iran. But it is certainly not too late to give strong support to the people in Iran who are courageously standing up against their repressive government.”

A Senate aide (not employed by either co-sponsor) welcomed the proposal on human rights. He told me via e-mail: “While the president has extremely capable point-people responsible for negotiations with Iran and sanctions against the regime, there is still no one in the Obama administration — as far as I can tell — who wakes up every day ‘owning’ the mission of helping the Iranian people overcome their government’s electronic monitoring and censorship, share information, and secure the universal human rights with which all of us have been endowed by our Creator. The president needs to find his ‘Stuart Levey’ for the Green Movement.” In fact, there are many proposals floating around, and today’s proposal provides important impetus for a comprehensive bill.

Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has been working on Iran sanctions for some time, explained to me, “If the bill is passed, it will be more difficult for the administration to avoid the Iran human rights issue. Congress will be asking the tough and necessary questions about why we have neglected the millions of Iranians who want an end to this regime.” The idea here is to force the administration to “to investigate abusers and companies facilitating the abuse.” That entails, Dubowitz told me, “mandatory investigations.” He explained:

If the administration doesn’t investigate, it will have to explain why. It also targets companies providing tools of oppression to the Iranian regime whether or not the company has entered into an agreement to do so. Sellers need to know their buyers and if you sell to Iran, don’t be surprised if your motorcycles, surveillance equipment, riot gear or cranes are being used to target dissidents. It also creates a special representative on human rights and democracy in Iran which has symbolic importance as well as practical consequences. It gives authority and budget to promote the issue and an opportunity to hold the administration accountable when it doesn’t. It also requires the special representative to encourage the human rights community to end its neglect of the Iran human rights issue.

Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy thinks this is a positive step. He told me this afternoon, ” Morally and strategically, supporting human rights and democracy in Iran is the right thing to do. The more we can call attention to the Iranian regime’s repressive practices and put tools in the hands of those pushing back, the better. This should be not just a bipartisan effort, but a public-private effort, with technology companies and other firms doing their part as well.” He adds that “the Administration has seemed hesitant in the past to support democracy activists, but with the changes sweeping the region I hope they would now be firmly behind these sorts of efforts and work in partnership with Congress and rally international support as well.”

That remains to be seen. But perhaps with Obama’s newfound affection for tough, unilateral action, he and his advisers will look favorably on the human rights legislation.