Human Rights Activists Must Work To Halt Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program, Too

This piece, originally published on the Huffington Post, is by Iranian-born international human rights activist Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a featured speaker at the CIC's conference Democracy in Action: Crisis in Iran.

In the middle of the unrelenting news coverage of Iranian President Ahmadinejad's provocative visits to Lebanon this week and to the United Nations last month, a highly significant announcement in Washington that signaled a major shift in American policy toward Iran has garnered very little attention.

For the "[first] time the United States has imposed sanctions against Iran based on human rights abuses," declared Secretary of State Clinton when she and Treasury Secretary Geithner announced (between Ahmadinejad's two overseas trips) that the Obama administration put eight Iranian officials on a blacklist for their role in the brutal suppression of anti-government protests following Ahmadinejad's fraudulent re-election last year.

This is very welcome news. I have been among the many former Iranian residents now living in the West who have long been calling on Western leaders to also focus on Iran's flagrant human rights abuses, and not look at Iran only through a nuclear lens.

We human rights activists, by the same token, have to speak out against the Iranian regime's nuclear weapons program, in addition to its oppression of its own people. We must join our cause with the cause of preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Upholding human rights is not "meddling" in another country's internal affairs. It is a universal responsibility, especially when the Iranian people have been demanding it themselves, sacrificing their freedom and their lives for it.

Since Iran's bogus election in June 2009, the deaths, detentions, disappearances and other grave human rights abuses have increased dramatically. Over the same period Iran has increased its uranium enrichment, so that, according to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report of September 6, 2010, Iran now has 2800 kilos of low-enriched uranium, enough for at least two nuclear bombs.

Commentators noted that Ahmadinejad's speech before the UN General Assembly, predictably filled with unfounded, offensive accusations, inflammatory rhetoric and vile slurs, was meant to obscure Iran's nuclear weapons program and non-compliance with the IAEA. But he also seeks to deflect the world's attention from Iran's many egregious, ongoing human rights violations.

Just in the last few days, for example, Iranian officials sentenced a prominent reformist journalist, Isa Saharkhiz, to three years in prison for insulting the supreme leader and issuing propaganda against the government. An Iranian-Canadian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, was sentenced to 19 years for "cooperating with hostile governments," setting up "vulgar and obscene" web sites and "insulting sanctities."

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer, offers another chilling example. She has defended many of the 160 children on death row and has always worked within the confines of Iranian law. The mother of two young children, she was arrested last month on charges of "activities against national security and propaganda against the regime," and is on her 13th day of a hunger strike. She was not even allowed to attend the funeral of her father who died while she was in prison.

Both Tehran's abuse of its own people and its drive to acquire nuclear weapons are troubling and critically important issues. They are interconnected. Both must be addressed by the international community and human rights activists with equal determination. The dangers both present are escalating. Both must be discussed if and when negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) resume, which reportedly will take place next month.

Human rights must be taken into serious consideration at any negotiating table at which Tehran officials sit, not only for the sake of Iranians, but also for Middle East stability and world security.

The world community finally got a glimpse last year of the oppressive nature of the Iranian regime against its very own people. The world finally saw the clear division between the hardliners in power and the majority of Iranian people, who yearn for freedom and democracy.

Those of us pressing for human rights for the Iranian people and others must also emphasize the danger that this regime would pose to the world if Iran's leaders acquired nuclear weapons. They would be emboldened in their abuses against their own people and in their support of Islamist terrorists and world instability.

Like all nations, Iran should have the right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but not under unstable, apocalyptic leaders who deny, deceive and lie. Ahmadinejad's belief system sanctions lying (tagiyeh) if done to advance Islam. He has denied that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was sentenced to stoning for adultery. He claims women in Iran are the freest in the world, that homosexuals do not exist in Iran and that Iran's economy is flourishing.

The truth is Ashtiani could be executed any day (her lawyer is now reported missing); women's value is half that of a man under the law; homosexuals exist but are being executed, and the economy is suffering.

The regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not to be trusted. What's more, it is neither "Islamic" in its behaviour, nor is it a republic. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad do not represent the Iranian people.

Imagine nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran's messianic president and supreme leader, both extremist Shi'a Muslims who believe the 12th Imam will come out of hiding at a time of great chaos to bring salvation to the people. This must be prevented. Human rights activists can – and must – help.