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U.S., Iran: So much to talk about

Upcoming discussions with Iran should address its nuclear program and its awful human rights record.

September 19, 2009

The Obama administration has agreed to direct talks with the government of Iran, along with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, at a meeting scheduled for Oct. 1. Now the question is: What will they talk about?

The United States and its allies want to discuss the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, of course; that's why they're meeting. Tehran has proposed a sweeping agenda of global affairs that seems to include everything but its uranium enrichment activities. Human rights activists, meanwhile, are pressing for the group to address Iranian political repression in the aftermath of the contested presidential election, presenting the Obama administration with a potential conflict between U.S. strategic goals of nonproliferation and regional stability, and its interest in promoting democracy and civil rights.

Iran's postelection human rights record is awful. The country's political opposition says 72 people were killed in violence following the June reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- twice the government's count. Of the approximately 4,000 people imprisoned for protests against alleged vote fraud, an estimated 300 to 400 opposition leaders, journalists and student activists remain in jail, accused of trying to launch a "velvet revolution" to topple the government. About 100 detainees have faced mass trials on myriad charges ranging from acting against national security to spreading propaganda and destroying public property. Some prisoners have been held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, and some were beaten, according to international human rights groups; opposition leaders maintain that they have documented a few cases of rape, although a government judicial committee has rejected the allegations. Freedom of speech has been quashed.

Although the central issue of the upcoming talks is and should be nuclear weapons, it is important that the world powers also register their concern about Iran's human rights record, as silence would amount to condoning it. The United States must reject torture and the denial of free speech, the right of assembly and due process -- ever more so after our own lapses in recent years.

There is often a conflict between realpolitik and idealist politics. In this case, the United States must carefully balance its overriding goal of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon with its moral imperative to speak out against human rights violations. But this has been made easier by the fact that, in seeking to divert talks from its nuclear program, Iran offered a five-page proposal for dialogue on security, economic and political issues, including "principles of democracy and the right of people to have free elections." Iran may hope to use that to bring up Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and even Bush vs. Gore, but to us, it seems to offer an opening to discuss Iran's elections in the framework of international justice and law. Just as the world looks to Iran to live up to its nonproliferation commitments, so it expects the Islamic Republic to honor international principles and signed conventions on civil rights. Both topics should be addressed.

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