While the United States has chastised both Iran and North Korea for their human rights abuses, it has typically kept the issue separate from denuclearization talks. Yet some experts recommend integrating human rights into broader discussions, as opposed to pursuing single-variable negotiations, in order to create valuable synergies within the diplomatic process.
At an event hosted by the National Iranian American Council on November 4, Ambassador Thomas Pickering emphasized the value of integrating human rights into current U.S. outreach to Iran. In his view, introducing more items for discussion broadens the range of diplomatic possibilities and increases chances for success. As opposed to a “grand bargain” with a rigid a priori formula, Pickering proposed a “grand agenda” with the goal of squeezing as many goodies as possible into the final package.
Ambassador John Limbert expounded upon this point, recommending a “firm but polite” approach with Iran. He explained that while “chest-bumping” moralistic statements by the West have proven unsuccessful, a calculated play of the human rights card could create a dilemma for the Iranian regime, which would run the risk of discrediting itself if it did not respond positively to ostensibly well-intentioned concern for its population. Nonproliferation and human rights might be simultaneously strengthened in this type of approach.
Similar reasoning has been applied to the standoff with North Korea. In a New York Times op-ed, Andrei Lankov recommended cultural and informational exchanges to plant seeds for the eventual emergence of North Korean civil society. Another recent report also recommended outreach, including academic and economic exchanges, in order to “spur better behavior by Pyongyang while helping its impoverished citizens.” Of course, the United States would have to reassure North Korea that these exchanges were not a backhanded attempt at regime change. Providing full transparency of all activities would help.
Lankov makes a strong case for the people-to-people strategy: “This is a well-tested approach: It is, essentially, the one that allowed liberal democracies to win the Cold War…it was the West’s economic prosperity and political freedom that irrevocably undermined popular support for Communism.” That may be true, but it is unclear whether or not sociopolitical reform will lead regular Iranians and North Koreans, let alone the ruling regimes, to support denuclearization or other policies more amenable to U.S. interests.
While the human rights-denuclearization link is compelling and policymakers should hope for its effectiveness, there are a few assumptions that are difficult to swallow. The first is that the American government and public will be patient enough to await the positive effects of the approach. The second is that the two regimes will be open to American engagement with their economies and populations. The latter assumption can more reasonably be made vis-à-vis Iran, which has, despite heinous crackdowns, shown concern about sustaining domestic popular support since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In contrast, North Korea is a totalitarian state with a constitution based on a “military first” (songun) ideology and a public both barred from electing their leaders and isolated from the outside world.