• 30 September 2009
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • Diplomacy, Human Rights in Iran, Sanctions, UN

A Human Rights Lever for Iran

Former NIAC Associate Ali Scotten and our friend and colleague Andrew Albertson have published this astute op-ed in today’s Washington Post:

A Human Rights Lever for Iran

By Andrew Albertson and Ali G. Scotten

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The situation has changed significantly since the Obama administration’s initial offer to talk with Tehran. The post-election protests this summer and the regime’s subsequent crackdown have undermined whatever merit the administration may have once seen in a realpolitik negotiations strategy. With the talks looming, the United States cannot pretend that the violence in the streets never happened, but neither can Washington be seen to fold. In fact, it should raise the stakes by broadening the agenda to include human rights.

The critics of diplomacy have a point: Tehran has nothing to lose, and much to gain, by drawing out talks and committing to little. However, beyond diplomacy, the administration’s policy options are limited and in all likelihood counterproductive. Broad sanctions of the kind Congress is considering won’t work; going after Iran’s ability to import gas is likely to simply frustrate ordinary Iranians. Nor would the U.S. negotiating position be bolstered by encouraging Israel to bomb Iran, as John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has suggested. Far from weakening the regime, these steps would strengthen it politically as Iranians rallied to support the hard-liners around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the perceived bullying of the United States.

So a better approach would be to broaden the agenda to include a focus on human rights. First, President Obama should reiterate in an address (offered on YouTube, so Iranians can view it unfiltered) the benefits for average Iranians if Tehran lives up to its obligations with regard to its nuclear program: the opportunity to emerge from isolation, to have full diplomatic relations with the United States (which would include student and other civic exchange programs), and to benefit from international trade and investment. Second, the administration should make clear its desire for the agenda to include “full compliance with international human rights regimes” — by Iran, the United States and any other parties to the talks. To further engage the Iranian people, the administration should call for Iranian and international civil society organizations to take part in the dialogue.

This approach would strengthen reformers in Iran and increase pressure on the Ahmadinejad government. Pro-democracy dissidents such as Akbar Ganji have asked the international community to play a more active role by holding the Iranian government to a higher standard on human rights, one that would be more commensurate with the regional role and modern image to which Iran aspires.

Years of sanctions and threats have not weakened the regime. Attacking Iran only unifies its citizens behind its hard-liners. But what did strengthen our position was Obama’s clear message to the Iranian people this spring that the United States is not a threat to Iran and that it wishes to see the country emerge from diplomatic isolation. That message shifted Iranians’ focus to domestic issues, which include corruption, inflation and economic mismanagement. Rather than rallying people against the United States, this tactic got America out of the way and allowed the Iranian people to confront their unresponsive government on their own terms. Taking a public stance that is respectful of Iranian nationalism while strongly supportive of human rights would further empower and embolden the Iranian people.

Americans, too, will be more approving of any deal that advances rather than dismisses human rights. And diplomatic strategies based on human rights have worked before: The Helsinki Process began as a dialogue that offered respect and recognition to the Soviet government while calling it into open dialogue about human rights that it purported to support.

There is reason to believe Tehran could be goaded into accepting this broader agenda. In his own impish way, Ahmadinejad has all but invited this conversation: In August, his government proposed a $20 million fund to examine the U.S. human rights record and expose its shortcomings. In addition, a letter from the Iranian government sent just before the opening of the U.N. General Assembly last week made countless references to Iran’s commitments to principles such as “human values and compassion.” Whatever Iran’s actual intent, the Obama administration should seize on these openings.

Obama has shown an admirable willingness to speak frankly about U.S. failings in the pursuit and interrogation of terrorist suspects as well as a determination to improve that conduct. That openness is a powerful weapon to wield against an Orwellian leader such as Ahmadinejad. The United States has a strong record on human rights. We should welcome an opportunity to discuss that record and, in doing so, to involve Iranians in a conversation about the rights all individuals deserve.

Washington has been unable to force concessions from the Iranian regime on its own. By broadening our support for the aspirations of ordinary Iranians, the Obama administration can continue to tilt the balance of power in its favor. Such an approach would add pressure on the Iranian regime, enhance domestic political support for talks and maximize the opportunity for successful negotiations.

Posted By Patrick Disney

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Sign the Petition


7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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