May 10, 2021 — Today PEN America and the Center for Human Rights in Iran, along with a coalition of human rights organizations, sent a joint letter to President Biden urging his administration to ensure that human rights concerns are at the center of U.S. foreign policy towards Iran.
“Efforts to seek improvements in Iran’s egregious human rights record should take place parallel to negotiations on security matters, recognizing fully that U.S. national security interests cannot be met if the human security of the Iranian people is left unaddressed,” the letter reads. “The U.S. should make clear that focused, persistent attention to human rights will be a key component of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. Improvements in freedom of expression and other human rights are fundamental to strengthening the Iranian government’s accountability to its citizens and at the international level. As high-level talks are resurrected with Iran, a strong human rights pillar with concrete demands and a strategy to achieve them should be developed and advanced.”
The organizations call on the Biden-Harris administration to take concrete steps that would demonstrate the U.S.’s commitment to supporting free expression and human rights as a key component of diplomatic engagement with Iran.
“Focused, high-level attention to human rights should be a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, especially as the Biden-Harris administration works to reshape engagement toward the country,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “We are concerned by reports that, as part of its effort to return to the JCPOA, the administration may be open to paring back human rights sanctions that currently target individuals responsible for grave abuses. While the pursuit of nuclear security is an essential objective, it must not come at the expense of human rights. As the world has sought to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, Tehran has continued to violate the rights of its citizens, imprisoning writers, dissenters, and human rights advocates, including Iranians who have fled to what they hoped would be safety beyond the country’s borders. As the Biden-Harris Administration pursues new policy directions, it should use its tools and influence to press for tangible commitments that safeguard the rights of the Iranian people.”
While the human rights situation in Iran has been dire for decades, the state of freedom of expression and respect for fundamental rights in the country has deteriorated in the last several years. Iran is the world’s fourth highest jailer of writers and public intellectuals, according to PEN America’s 2020 Freedom to Write Index. Fifteen journalists were detained or imprisoned as of December 2020, and protesters are regularly met with imprisonment and violence, including in November 2019 when at least 304 people were killed and thousands more arrested during widespread anti-government demonstrations. Hundreds of political prisoners are languishing behind bars during the COVID-19 pandemic as authorities withhold critical care and medical attention, putting their lives in great danger and sometimes leading to death. The Iranian government has also been engaged in the targeting and transnational kidnapping of dissidents and journalists outside the country, and the harassment of family members inside the country.
“The Iranian government is ramping up repression on all fronts. President Biden’s policy towards Iran can impact domestic developments, and his administration needs a comprehensive policy that makes clear to the Iranian government that the international community will not turn a blind eye to rights violations,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “None of the president’s policy goals towards Iran will bear fruit if his administration relegates human rights to the bottom of its priorities.”
In the letter, the organizations call for “maintaining a robust, high-level U.S. public voice on rights abuses inside Iran, including calling for the immediate and unconditional release of imprisoned writers, journalists, and other unlawfully detained prisoners; bringing attention to Iran’s undemocratic electoral system; and calling for legal and judicial reforms that allow for freedom of expression, assembly, and due process,” among other key recommendations.
“Freedom and democracy in Iran cannot be realized, and international security concerns cannot be resolved, as long as the Iranian government continues to flagrantly violate the human rights of its citizens,” said Freedom House president Michael J. Abramowitz. “We urge the Biden administration to prioritize human rights in its discussions with the Iranian government for the sake of both the Iranian and American people.”
Signatories to the letter are PEN America, Center for Human Rights in Iran, Freedom House, Human Rights First, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, Project on Middle East Democracy, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Siamak Pourzand Foundation, and United for Iran.