WASHINGTON -- Observers and rights groups say Iran's human rights record has taken a sharp turn for the worse in recent months, with the hard-line government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad seeking to stamp out the possibility of an Arab Spring-inspired uprising.
But while activists, journalists, bloggers, and students continue to face harassment, punishment, and even death, U.S. officials say the government in Tehran is "fighting a losing battle."
"I can't give you a timeline. I can't say [that] in six months, 'X' is going to happen. But I think all of these efforts collectively -- [the U.S.] efforts, the multilateral efforts -- empower and strengthen democracy [and] human rights activists," Michael Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.
"And then you sort of wait [and] all of a sudden something happens and there's a moment. And that moment represents the beginning of real change," Posner added. "We're not there yet, but I think if we hold our nerve and we maintain our principles and our commitment to universal human rights and democracy, in the long run we're going to prevail."
Testifying in Washington before lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, while Posner cautioned against being "Pollyannaish," he said that an "opportunity" had been provided by the wave of popular insurrection that has swept the Middle East and North Africa in recent months.
"For a government like the Iranian government, the lesson they're learning [from the Arab Spring uprisings] is, 'Oh my God, everybody here is looking around the neighborhood and saying, "Why not us?''' and I think that does provide us [with] an opportunity," Posner said.
The U. S. State Department, he said, would be spending part of its $28 million budget in combating Internet censorship in the Islamic republic to try and"quickly" counteract Tehran's increased digital crackdown. The training of digital activists in cybersecurity and efforts to secure mobile networks will also continue.
Posner cited the United Nation's recent appointment of a special rapporteur on human rights in Iran as another important tool that will hold the regime in Tehran accountable.
While the UN investigator, who is yet to be named, will likely not be granted easy access to Iran, Posner said that reports on human rights violations in Iran that come from a UN official would "open the door for a range of other conversations with other governments" who might not be as accepting of U.S.- or European-generated reports.
But U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Philo Dibble, who also testified at the hearing, said that that while Washington and its allies were continuing to put pressure on Tehran, he didn't see the regime falling as easily as those in Tunisia and Egypt did.
"None of the governments that were subject to the 'Arab Spring' were happy about what happened in their countries. They resisted. The Iranians have had practice," Dibble said. "They will resist even harder."
Dibble also acknowledged that Washington's economic sanctions on Iran, meant to convince the government to abandon its rogue nuclear program and halt support for terrorism, had yet to have the "decisive impact" that was intended.
"We haven't yet seen a change in Iran's strategic calculus as a result of the sanctions," Dibble said. "Nevertheless, evidence that we are getting suggests that the Iranian government has been forced to look for alternative ways, both to procure, to sell, [and] to engage in normal commerce in sensitive areas that it did not require before. So we do see the economic sanctions as having an impact -- not the decisive impact that we're looking for yet -- but we are looking at ways to intensify the pressure."
In June 2010, the U.S. Treasury Department announced an expanded set of sanctions against people, banks, and energy and shipping companies in Iran that are prohibited from doing business with the United States or holding U.S. assets.
The measures sought to build upon a fourth round of UN sanctions and at the time were described by President Barack Obama as "striking at the heart of the Iranian government's ability to fund and develop its nuclear programs."
Dibble also announced that the United States had started consultations with Iraq on relocating that country's controversial settlement of exiled Iranians at Camp Ashraf, for safety reasons.
The camp, located some 60 kilometers north of Baghdad, is the headquarters of the exiled Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (aka the People's Mujahedin of Iran) an organization opposed to the current government in Tehran.
According to the United Nations, 34 people were killed when the Iraqi military raided the camp on April 8.
Dibble said the United States is also working with the camp's leadership to help resettle the camp's 3,500 residents in other countries.
written by Richard Solash
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