With Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, proclaiming that he seeks not just greater nuclear transparency but also a more tolerant society, Washington is once more contemplating an overture to Iran. The critical question is what role Congress will play.
In recent years, the U.S. legislative branch has focused largely on sanctions, which have done much to undermine Iran's economy. Now Congress should complement its sanctions policy with more sustained attention to Iran's human rights transgressions and establish an Iran Human Rights Committee.
Congress would be smart to take a page out of its Cold War playbook and model such a committee on the Helsinki Commission, which helped empower dissident forces in the Soviet bloc. An Iran Human Rights Committee could highlight the Islamic republic's provocations as well as suggest benchmarks for improved behavior. The theocratic regime in Tehran violates not just universal norms of human rights — on torture, wrongful imprisonment and fair judicial processes — but also its own constitutional provisions promising civic freedom and the rule of law. Government censorship of the media and the prevention of peaceful assembly are similarly frowned upon. And it is a disgrace that Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a shadowy intelligence operator who was a pivotal figure in a 1988 massacre of Iranian prisoners, has become justice minister.
U.S. diplomats should include discussions of human rights in all of their encounters with Iranian officials. Persistent congressional pressure could offer important leverage in diplomatic dealings with Iran.