The Obama administration put new emphasis on human rights abuses in Iran on Monday after months of a “delicate balancing act” aimed at seeking a nuclear deal and not jeopardizing activists affected by a government crackdown after disputed presidential elections.
In what aides described as the “most detailed and comprehensive” speech on human rights by a senior official since President Obama took office, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also said the administration will use different approaches to address violations in different countries.
“We acknowledge that one size does not fit all. When old approaches aren’t working, we won’t be afraid to attempt new ones, as we have this year by ending the stalemate of isolation and instead pursuing measured engagement with Burma,” Mrs. Clinton said.
“In Iran, we have offered to negotiate directly with the government on nuclear issues, but have at the same time expressed solidarity with those inside struggling for democratic change,” she said, recalling Mr. Obama’s words in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech last week that Iranian activists “have us on their side.”
Speaking at Georgetown University, Mrs. Clinton also said that trying to craft a policy that supports democracy advocates and does not detract from the authenticity of their movement is “one of those very good examples of a hard call.”
“It’s been a delicate walk,” she said, “but the most important balancing act is to make sure that our very strong opposition to what is going on inside Iran doesn’t in any way undermine the legitimacy of the protest movement that has taken hold.”
Responding to critics who fault the administration for not paying enough attention to human rights while focusing mostly on Iran’s nuclear program, Mrs. Clinton said that “pursuing an agenda of nonproliferation is a human rights issue.”
“We do not want to be in an either/or position: Are we going to pursue nonproliferation with Iran, or are we going to support the demonstrators inside Iran? We are going to do both, to the best of our ability, to get a result that will further the cause we are seeking to support,” she said.
Mrs. Clinton disappointed some rights activists in February when she said on her way to Beijing that human rights should not “interfere” with other issues on the U.S.-China agenda, such as trade and North Korea’s nuclear program. Mr. Obama aroused opposition from the rights community when he declined to meet the Dalai Lama before his first trip to China as president.
Her speech Monday won praise.
“The emphasis on universal human rights in Secretary Clintons speech sends an important message of her personal commitment at a time when the world is witnessing continuing global declines in fundamental rights,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. “We look forward to seeing this passion integrated into U.S. policy around the globe.”
Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, called the criticism that the administration was neglecting human rights “a false dichotomy,” adding, “It’s not like we can do only one thing at a time.”
He told The Washington Times it had taken time to complete a “process of distilling and pulling together all the thoughts that have been developed in the [administration’s] first year.”
In Iran’s case, analysts said that Washington’s resolve to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon played a role in the administration’s relatively cautious approach to speaking publicly about human rights.
Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department official now at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, said the Obama administration is now moving ahead on economic sanctions because engagement appears to have failed.
“People are trying to figure out a way to plug human rights in” to sanctions, he added.
Last week, Amnesty International published a report documenting unlawful killings, mass executions, torture, rape and sexual abuse of men and women, arbitrary arrests and harsh sentences imposed after “flawed show trials” after Iran’s June 12 elections.
“The authorities have resorted to exceptionally high levels of violence and arbitrary measures to stifle protest and dissent,” the report said. “At least 4,000 people were arrested while over 200 remain in detention.”
Among them is Iranian-American Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planner. He has been sentenced to 15 years in prison on espionage charges, which he and his family have denied.
According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Mr. Tajbakhsh’s attorney, Masoud Shafie, has not been allowed to visit him. Mr. Shafie has reviewed the entire file and has found no evidence justifying the charge or the sentence, he told the organization.
Mr. Tajbakhsh’s mother, Farideh Gerami, said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Friday that she visited her son in prison on Thursday, along with his wife and daughter.
“Spending five months in solitary confinement is extremely difficult. Psychologically, he is strong because he is innocent and he hasn’t done anything wrong …, but physically, he’s lost weight, and as a mother I can see that he’s been broken,” she said.