Rights and Realities: The Middle East Today

Friday, September 29, 2023

President, Freedom House; CFR Member

Iranian-born Human Rights Advocate; Actor; 2023 Sydney Peace Prize Laureate; CFR Member

Former Deputy Director for Research, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)


Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; @robinsonL100

Panelists assess the current state of human rights in the Middle East, along with the impact of U.S foreign policy on human rights, regional partnerships, and geopolitical dynamics.

ROBINSON: (In process)—titled “Rights and Realities: The Middle East Today.” I’m Linda Robinson, senior fellow for women in foreign policy here at the Council, and I will be presiding over today’s discussion. We have over 180 Council members registered for today’s meeting with three excellent speakers that I’ll briefly introduce.

Michael Abramowitz is president of Freedom House. Following a distinguished career in the Washington Post, he served as director of the Holocaust Museum’s Levine Institute for Holocaust Education and also led the museum’s genocide prevention efforts.

Nazanin Boniadi is an award-winning actor and human rights advocate, who most recently received the Sydney Peace Prize in June for her support of Iranian women and girls and their Woman, Life, Freedom Movement. She was also recognized by Freedom House with its Raising Awareness Award in 2020 and is an ambassador for Amnesty International U.K.

And third, Amy Hawthorne is a longtime Middle East researcher who most recently served as the deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy from 2015 until this summer. She was also senior advisor and Egypt coordinator at the U.S. Department of State during and following the 2011 Arab Spring in the Middle East.

So for the first round of questions with our panelists, I’d like to start with Michael and ask: How does Freedom House assess the current state of rights in the Middle East? And which countries have suffered the sharpest degradation? I’ll just note your March report found globally the erosion of democratic rights has slowed, with thirty-three countries improving, thirty-five declining. But I believe that picture is somewhat different in the Middle East.

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, thank you very much, Linda. And it’s great to be with Nazanin and Amy.

You’re right. It’s a pretty grim picture, from our perspective, the situation concerning democracy and rights in the Middle East. There was so much hope after 2011, after the Arab Spring. But pretty much in every country, those hopes have been brutally dashed and repression, abuse of human rights has really become the norm in the region. And things are—I think, in general have gotten worse. And I think the kind of autocratic model has become kind of accepted as democracy has been challenged as an operating model around the world.

Let me just quickly, around the region, I think one thing that’s very sad to me is the decline of democracy in Tunisia. I mean, that was the one country that sort of emerged from the Arab Spring as a country that seemed to be developing a democracy. And that’s been—you know, there’s been the autocoup by the president there. And we’re quite concerned about that. We had the protests—the amazing women-led protests in Iran a year ago. They were brutally repressed. Egypt is very—is a very repressive situation. And Saudi Arabia, for all the talk about the opening by MBS, is still one of the least-free countries in the world.

And what’s—if I just make two final points—what’s interesting is that a number of these countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, have exercised what we call transnational repression. So they are not only content to repress their own citizens but they have, as in the case of Jamal Khashoggi—and it’s the fifth anniversary of his death coming up—they are increasingly willing to hunt down and target their critics who are living in the diaspora.

I want to always close on a note of hope, because I do think there’s hope. I think one thing that’s quite interesting is that there have been real citizen-led movements in the region. Obviously in Iran, but also in countries like Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq over the last number of years. So to me, that says that the demand for democracy, and human rights, dignity is still very strong. It’s that the governments are not—are not adequately responding to those demands.

ROBINSON: Thank you, Michael. That’s terrific. You’ve started us off, and I think hit on key countries we want to dig into.

I’ll turn next to Nazanin. And given that you so closely watch Iran, and have done so much to champion the movement there, I’d like to ask you how you view the trajectory of the Woman, Life, Freedom Movement. We’re now just past the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death. Do you think the arrests, repression, and executions are threatening to snuff out the protests? Or do you see this movement is going to be able to survive and perhaps even prevail?

BONIADI: Thank you for having us, Linda. It’s great to be with you all.

You know, I think Iranians are no strangers to mass uprisings. They’ve happened nearly once every decade since the inception of the Islamic Republic—the student protests of ’99, the Green Movement of 2009, the bloody November protests of 2019. And every time, of course, they’ve been brutally crushed. But what we may not maybe pay attention to is in late 2017 was sort of the precursor to the Woman, Life, Freedom in the girls of revolution street movement, when Vida Movahed had stood atop a utility box peacefully waving her white headscarf from an end of a stick, and her courage was contagious and other women joined. And again, it got cracked down.

But really, the protests continued from 2017 to 2018. There were more protests. And really culminated in the big 2019 protest. What started off as economic protests quickly turned political. And, of course, more than 1,500 people—protesters were killed in less than two weeks. But in the past year, something different has happened. And that is that this—a lot of people have been calling it the first female-led revolution of our time. And what I think that means—of course, there have been female-led movements. But this has been the spark and the engine have been women. And but it quickly galvanized into broad-based, pro-democracy uprising, because I think Iranian society at large understands now that, you know, the rights of women and girls is inextricably bound with the inclusive democracy they all seek.

And really for the first time, I think there’s no turning back. Yes, they’ve been—these protests have been brutally cracked down on. But I think the revolutionary fire is very much ablaze in the hearts and minds of these embattled protesters. And there’s no turning back. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian women continue to flout the compulsory hijab in major Iranian cities as we speak, despite a harsher hijab and chastity bill that’s just been passed by the parliament and, you know, various other repressive measures. So I don’t think there’s any turning back. I do think this is the twilight of the regime. The question is, how long will this twilight take?

ROBINSON: Thank you so much.

Amy, I’d like to turn to Egypt, given your expertise there, and ask you to describe the current human rights situation, and in combination with a very dire economic situation, a limited, perhaps cosmetic national dialogue the regime has opened, and the impending elections. Just from what I’ve read over the summer, in reporting it suggests that things could be coming to a head. How do you see it?

HAWTHORNE: Thank you so much, Linda. Good morning. And thank you to the Council for inviting us to speak on this topic.

So, Egypt has one of the worst human rights records in the Middle East and North Africa region, and indeed in the world. And, as you referenced, in the past year, the country has been going through one of the most acute economic crises in decades. People are really suffering in Egypt and discontent with the regime is very evident. And this economic crisis that the country is going through is closely related to President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s authoritarian system of rule. He basically governs through a system in which a brutal, predatory, and unaccountable military dominates both economic and political power, and rules primarily through fear—through instilling fear in the population.

So while popular discontent with the political stagnation and suffocation under President Sisi, and especially with the economic crisis—while discontent is palpable, the costs of opposing the regime, especially in any kind of a collective action, is very high. So in December, as you mentioned, President El-Sisi is running for reelection. And there will be, it looks like, some token opposition candidates. But I don’t believe any real competition will be permitted. And the regime will use, I believe, a variety of human rights abusing tools and methods to punish any Egyptian who steps outside its very narrow rules for playing its political game. So I’m not sure that things are yet reaching a boiling point in terms of political change, although discontent is quite widespread, mainly because of the economy, as I said.

ROBINSON: Thank you both. Thank you all.

I’d like to go now to U.S. policy and elicit your thoughts on ways to induce or compel better human rights observance among these chronically repressive regimes of the region, and acknowledge, of course, the U.S. has competing economic and geopolitical interests around issues like oil prices, support for Ukraine, countering Chinese influence. And so I would like to start—Amy, since we just—you were just teeing-up Egypt and the fact that you don’t see things really moving forward with the current situation, the U.S. last year, if I’m correct, held up 10 percent of the 1.3 billion (dollars) in aid. And that doesn’t seem to have had any effect. Some in Congress, of course, would like to do a lot more to apply the leverage of the massive U.S. aid.

Now, I’d like to just get your thoughts about what the U.S. should be doing on Egypt. And wrap into this a second big partner we haven’t talked about yet, Saudi Arabia, which is moving out increasingly with its own foreign policy—reaching out to China, starting its own Iran relationship, and this very complicated deal perhaps going on with Israel. So if you could tackle both of those in just a few minutes, I’d be grateful.

HAWTHORNE: Sure. Thank you, Linda.

Well, with regard to the United States’ policy toward Egypt, there is, of course, a lot more that the U.S. government could be doing to support human rights in Egypt. And these are really just the bread and butter of human rights support work. They’re nothing that unusual or exciting, but things like speaking out publicly in a consistent manner about the human rights abuses carried out by the Egyptian regime, echoing the analysis and the demands of Egyptian human rights defenders. There is still a small human rights community inside Egypt. It’s quite besieged, but it is resilient. Raising specific human rights concerns regularly and at very high levels with the Egyptian government. Providing more support to human rights defenders inside and outside the country.

So these are all things that the U.S. could be doing. The Biden administration is not doing most of these things. And I believe that the calculation that they’ve made is that keeping President Sisi and his regime on side in the great power competition that this administration envisions is being fought in the Middle East between the U.S. and Russia and China—that keeping President Sisi on side is more important than pressing for human rights demands that may cause tension and friction, you know, with his regime. That’s the calculation that I believe that they’ve made.

With regard to Saudi Arabia, you know, the Biden administration has a huge opportunity here. If they are going to go ahead with this sort of trilateral deal brokering normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and providing the kingdom with, you know, defense guarantees. And this would be a very unprecedented move for the United States in the region. We’ve never had a, you know, treaty alliance with any country in the region. So in this—as this deal is negotiated, it seems to me that the Biden administration could seize a real opportunity to put some human rights demands into the discussions with the Saudis.

For the reason that—not just because it speaks to and sort of shores up U.S. values, which the Biden administration is constantly talking about, but also because in the long term, a less brutal, less, less repressive Saudi government is in the U.S. interests as a strong partner. So that would be my recommendation to the Biden administration with regard to Saudi Arabia, is get human rights issues into these negotiations and use this moment of leverage that the U.S. has to demand that the kingdom’s leadership come into conformity with international norms on human rights and freedoms.

ROBINSON: Thank you, Amy.

I’ll go next to Nazanin, and ask if you could share your thoughts on what the U.S. should be doing that it is not, with regard to Iran. And also, if you would like to discuss what other countries—I know you are internationally involved. What other initiatives would you like to highlight?

BONIADI: Thank you for the question. You know, for forty-four years I think that the biggest problem across any administration has been the United States has dealt with the symptoms of the problem, vis-à-vis Iran, and not the cause. And the symptoms being, of course, the nuclear issue, hostage taking, terrorism, regional, and domestic oppression and regression, repression, and abuse. And so I just—what we need to be focused on is the actual your cause. And the cause is the regime itself. And when you see the people rising up and demanding democracy, I think it’s incumbent upon us and our moral principles to tip the balance of power in favor of the protesters, disempower the regime, and empower freedom fighters—the brave freedom fighters.

And that doesn’t need to be an interventionist approach. That can be a very proactive approach, and not a reactive approach. It needs to be a multinational approach. We’ve failed on that front. I mean, we are so disconnected. You can take the hostage situation as an example. We do deals unfreeze $6 billion in assets, leave to U.S. nationals at home. But not only that, not having the conversation with our German counterparts to say that if somebody is U.S. nationals are also German citizen, how do we work together to get that person home and freed? There just hasn’t been an internationally coordinated effort with regards to Iran on any front.

And, you know, sanctions are only good if they’re enforced. But what we’re seeing is that in 2022, Iran’s oil revenue has gone up $15 billion compared to the first year of implementation of the JCPOA. So we’re failing there. We have had some unprecedented, you know, accomplishments in the past—in the past year, because of our unity. And unity is key on this, again, multinational bipartisan support for the people of Iran. We got the Islamic Republic ousted from the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Again, that’s very symbolic. It doesn’t really do much for the Iranian people. But it was a great step. And we also had a landmark factfinding mission at the U.N.

But then we took ten steps back, and the Islamic Republic became vice president of the General Assembly, and we’ve platformed, unfortunately, recently on many fronts, including at the Council—and, of course, the Council, I’m very grateful to be here, but I have been critical of that invitation—and U.S. media. And I think that the thing is that as long as we give a platform and a voice to these dictators, and we don’t do the same for the dissidents, we’re not winning.

I’ll close with this, and that is that Anne Applebaum said it best: Democracies are failing to unite. Autocracies are being very coordinated in reaching their objectives. And as long as that’s continuing, then these dictatorships will achieve their goals and we won’t.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

Michael, take on any of these specific countries you would like. But I also would like to ask you perhaps to start with your overall sense of the Biden administration’s prioritization. Do you think they’re putting enough priority on rights? And are they applying carrots and sticks in the way that might be most effective?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, thank you for that question. And the short answer is no. Let me just say, first of all, I think we have to approach this with some spirit of humility. I think one thing that we’ve noticed about authoritarian powers over the last, you know, ten to fifteen years, they’ve gotten stronger internally. You know, the tools of technology and other tools have made it—you know, really entrenched the Islamic Republic, have really entrenched Putin, even though by all measures you would think that he’d be on his last legs. And so I think we have to be very humble about our ability to influence matters.

That said, I definitely agree with my co panelists that there’s more the United States can do. I think, one, when President Biden launched his administration with his inaugural address, he really cast, you know, his foreign policy as a struggle between democracy and autocracy. Now, whether that’s, like, the best framing for this, I mean, he said it. And I don’t—and I think, you know, the reality is much less than that struggle. They’ve not waged that struggle in the way that I think we had hoped. I think—I don’t want to single out the Biden administration—this is, like, par for the course for U.S. foreign policy, where other priorities, you know, get a higher attention to the senior policymakers.

But the reality is, is that on Saudi Arabia, as Amy indicated, we’ve oscillated from calling him them a pariah state, to fist bumps with MBS, and a pretty realistic policy, which hasn’t really paid results yet, with respect to, for instance, the Saudis spitting in our eye with respect to oil prices and managing the oil markets. I don’t think—Amy’s the expert on this—but I don’t think with respect to Egypt, we’ve put a lot of attention and leverage on Sisi to reform. And I think the same could be said of many of the other states in the region.

I think we need to look at this more in a long-term point of view. There are citizen movements. There is a demand for democracy. We have to figure out how to support those citizen movements. We have to be speaking out more forcefully on these issues. We have to make clear in our bilateral relations that political—the fate of political prisoners, the fate of imprisoned bloggers, the fate of—that’s important to us. Every president and secretary of state, I know they do that to some extent. But I think that can be—I think that could be even more elevated. I think in the mix between realism and human rights, you know, human rights is consistently losing out.

I think that—I mean, the other point that I would make is that we have to stop looking at human rights as something that is separate from national security interests. So one of you sort of alluded to that. If we are increasingly surrounded in the world, if the United States is increasingly surrounded by authoritarian countries that really don’t share our fundamental values, it’s going to be really hard for us to do business, and we’re going to become less safe and less prosperous. I really believe that.

ROBINSON: Thank you so much for that. And I’d like to now go back to Naz, and ask if you think—and it will pick up on this issue of the power of technology—both to repress but also some tech companies have tried to make VPNs more available to people in Iran. This has also been an effort, I would mention, in Afghanistan, to try to empower people directly to communicate and share word of the atrocities. And, of course, women journalists had a big role in spreading details of what was going on there. Do you have a window into what technology can do, or is doing, for these people that are trying to assert themselves?

BONIADI: Thanks for the question. I do think technology is really a double-edged sword when it comes to both empowering the protesters but also surveillance is now a huge issue. And, you know, what, has worked in the favor of the protesters is with the advent of smartphones with cameras and social media, for example, the Islamic Republic can’t continue killing in the dark. Citizen journalism and documenting everything really has opened up the world to what’s happening on the ground in Iran.

But that’s exactly why the internet blackouts happen every time there’s a mass protest. And that’s why it’s so urgent—you know, it’s so important and urgent that we are proactive on this. If every time there’s an uprising we suddenly realize that we have to figure out this technological problem for the Iranian people, a communication problem that’s hindering them from organizing internally and also communicating with the outside world, then we’re ten steps behind. We have had the opportunity to be prepared for this now at the very least since 2009, since the Green Movement. And we just haven’t been. Every time there’s a mass uprising, there’s an internet blackout, and we’re trying to scramble to figure out a solution.

While this time around I do think there have been more proactive steps taken and a real urgency to the issue, and actually members of the Iranian diaspora have been—like, Metiyaya Najed (ph) and others have been very just innovative in the way they’ve been trying to help the Iranian people circumvent censorship and internet blackouts. But we need help. This really requires an international effort because I think if we can crack that, I think we really empower the protest. And that’s what I talk about when I say tipping the balance in favor of the protesters. That is a real, tangible example of how it can be done. And I hope it will be.

ROBINSON: Yeah. Good. And I would like to just note that this is a worthy further stream for our dialogue when we open up in a few minutes, is the idea that human rights is often treated as a niche issue rather than one that is integrally related to economic development as well. The human capital of the region is just not being employed. And in the repressive countries, it’s just something that their long-term interests are being sacrificed, is a report I coauthored at RAND did. So that’s a big overarching issue.

I’d like to finish my round of questioning with Amy, and ask you, there are many other countries. And I have so many questions. But I think given what’s happening with Sudan, we should talk a minute about that. And if you—I know you cover North Africa more generally. But I think if you’ve got thoughts about the current situation there. The U.N. special representative who just stepped down, he called out both the army for bombing civilians and the rapid support forces for sexual assaults on civilians. It’s one of many brewing problems in the region, but it’s threatening to cause really a regional and humanitarian crisis. Could you comment on that?

HAWTHORNE: Absolutely. The situation in Sudan is horrific. And I fear that there’s even more atrocities happening inside the country that haven’t yet come to light. So the situation may be even worse than what’s being reported. You know, like in most conflicts such as this, there’s an internal political dynamic in Sudan which has created this—contributed to this conflict. But also, in the case of Sudan, there’s the role of external powers. And this is an example of where the Biden administration is really facing a dilemma. I don’t know if many of our viewers saw this morning the really bombshell reporting in the New York Times alleging the specific ways in which the United Arab Emirates, one of the United States’, you know, very closest partners in the region, is alleged to be supporting RSF and Hemedti to carry out their—you know, their war of atrocities against Sudanese civilians.

So this is an example of where there’s a very complicated internal dynamic in Sudan, external powers are making the situation much worse, and among those external powers that is contributing to this terrible, terrible mass suffering is one of the United States’ closest security partners in the Middle East. So this just gives an illustration of how complicated the situation is and how the Biden administration, for example, faces this challenge in figuring out how to pursue its interests with respect to the UAE while also looking for ways, I would hope, to rein in the UAE’s very destructive role in this conflict. And of course, there’s allegations that other regional powers are also playing a destructive role. It’s not just the UAE. So it’s a very complicated situation.

But you’re absolutely right that the longer that this goes on in Sudan, the more effect it’s going to have on neighboring countries. It’s not going to stay within Sudan, It could have a potential for destabilizing other parts of the Sahel and North Africa. So it’s really, really a very dangerous and worrying situation in Sudan right now.

ROBINSON: Thank you, Amy.

ABRAMOWITZ: Can I make a point about Sudan, because I—if I may.


ABRAMOWITZ: It’s something—you know, I talked earlier about the power of people. I think Sudan is a very interesting case study because, you know, for thirty years it was ruled by one of the most brutal dictators in Africa, someone who had been accused of genocide in Darfur, and really should be at the International Criminal Court facing justice. But several years ago, there was this amazing revolution in Sudan that was really led by people on the ground—doctors, lawyers, professionals, you know, the Sudanese people—who basically overthrew the government. And there was a—you know, there was a sort of a government of convenience or a transitional government. And I think at that point there should have been much more support from outside actors to really make that a success.

And, you know, sometimes we don’t focus enough on those—on those countries that are sort of promising stories. I mean, Tunisia will be another example. You want to hold on to what you have. It’s sometimes hard to overthrow a dictator, but, you know, they’re these transitional stories where more U.S. assistance can be really helpful. And I think, by the way, the USAID administrator Samantha Power has put some focus on what she calls these bright spots. You know, what can the United States Development Agency do to support these countries that are not quite the worst but, you know, need help. And I think that’s—you know, that’s one initiative that I think, you know, should be applauded.

ROBINSON: Yes, thank you. And, Michael, thank you also for highlighting at the beginning Tunisia’s backsliding and, unfortunately, the one country with a woman prime minister. And it’s really spiraling down, despite what I would say is some U.S. assistance. But, as you point out, perhaps not enough. And we haven’t even touched Libya, with its continuing civil war and heavy outside involvement.

I’m going to restrain myself though and turn it over to our members because we have many people on the line. And I’d like them now—to invite their questions. And I’ll go to the operator to call on those that have their raised hand. So over to you, Dinah (sp).

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Aaron David Miller.

Q: This is a phenomenal discussion. And I commend all of you.

But it’s also a very frustrating discussion. We’re approaching, I guess, the fifth-year anniversary not just John McCain’s passing but Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. And McCain argued in a very compelling way that our values should be our interests and our interests should be our value. I mean, I can just attest from personal experience, having worked for Republicans and Democrats over a twenty-five-year period, no administration has really ever taken John McCain’s very important lesson to heart.

And you even seen in the Biden administration, which is hardly an outlier in this pattern. The President is valiantly defending human rights and democracy in Ukraine, and yet we’re throwing state dinners for Modi. We’re about to conclude, I suspect, within the next six months, a mega deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, even while MBS continues to repress and, as Mike pointed out, engaging transnational repression. The list goes on—Turkey, North Vietnam, where the president had visited, the UAE, our ally.

My final point is, with adversaries of the United States it’s easy to take tough lines. The real question is, what do you do with our partners, allies—and I use the term very loosely? We are not very good, and never have been good, at using the leverage that we actually have to impose costs and consequences on serial human rights abusers. I just think it’s a very disturbing pattern and I wish I had an answer. But again, I commend all of you. It’s been a fascinating discussion. Thanks so much.

ROBINSON: I think everyone would probably like to weigh in on this. So do we want to start this time with Michael, and then we’ll go to Nazanin and Amy?

ABRAMOWITZ: Sure. Well, Aaron, that—I mean, you put your finger on it. When I think about this, there’s not a silver bullet. But, you know, one fact that kind of weighs on me is that—is the United States has a very important position, the assistant secretary of state for democracy and labor and human rights. That position has been unfilled by a permanent Senate-confirmed replacement—or Senate-confirmed candidate for almost three years. Now, that’s not all the Biden administration’s fault. There was a very qualified candidate who could not make it through the nomination process. But there’s not been another nomination.

Now, this is not just bureaucracy. Why is that important? Because the really effective assistant secretaries, and they’ve been many, you know, make sure that these issues of human rights and democracy get elevated in the internal, you know, fights in their building. So when the president or the secretary of state goes to see, you know, Modi, or goes to see MBs, you know, you can be sure that, you know, the effective assistant secretaries will be—will be on the ball and making sure that political prisoners are raised, that arm sales are raised. You know, it’s a bureaucratic knife fight. And right now, the forces of supporting democracy, human rights are not there. And, again, it’s not purely the Biden administration’s fault, but I think we’re—you know, human rights is a casualty of the dysfunction on the Hill that is preventing Senate confirmed positions to be filled.

ROBINSON: Nazanin, would you like to weigh in?

BONIADI: Yeah. This might be slightly tangential, but I wanted to add to—I agreed with what Mike says. And, Linda, you mentioned earlier that, you know, human rights really is a foreign policy soft topic that isn’t taken as seriously as it needs to be. And I think one thing that I’ve come across in my activism over—in the fifteen years of my human rights activism, is that members of the human rights community have often advised me that I shouldn’t conflate democracy and human rights activism. And I fundamentally disagree with that, because if the pillars of a system ensure that its wrongs cannot be made right, the pillars of the system need to be replaced. And I know I’ve had these conversations with Mike before. And so if we really understand that democracy activism and human rights activism, go hand in glove. And we can elevate this in the U.S. government to a priority, understanding that and understanding how that mechanism works, I think it’ll behoove every nation that we need to help achieve democracy.

HAWTHORNE: Thank you. And I very much agree with what my fellow panelists have said. I would just add a couple of points. One is that, you know, in my view, the Biden administration when it comes to human rights and democracy support in the Middle East and North Africa—the Biden administration has been far more disappointing than the Trump administration. And that’s because the Trump administration made no claims to care about these issues, at least with our authoritarian Arab allies. Whereas the Biden administration, as has been mentioned, came into office claiming that it would be centering human rights in its foreign policy. And that’s quite a—that’s quite a bold claim, to center human rights—not include, but to center. So I think that rhetoric, understandably, created expectations in the U.S., and especially in the region, that the Biden administration would really be prioritizing issues of human rights, in contrast to its predecessor, the Trump administration. And yet, we’ve seen that a few small moves here and there, and some statements. When it comes to at least the Arab world, the Biden administration’s policies have really been very much in continuity with the Trump administration’s policies.

So this leads me to my second point, which is I would speculate that the Biden administration has assessed that when it comes at least to the Arab countries, that human rights are—they’re not an urgent priority compared to what they perceive as other urgent priorities in the region. And that, therefore, I would assess that they don’t believe that it’s worth creating tension or ruffling feathers with our authoritarian and autocratic partners in the region pushing them on human rights, raising human rights, criticizing their atrocious human rights records. I think the Biden administration doesn’t believe that this sort of pressure and criticism will have much influence on the ground, and that it will only sort of antagonize partnerships that they are trying to shore up in, you know, the struggle against Russia and China.

But the challenge here is that at some point—(laughs)—there is another wave of change that’s going to be coming to this region. And, of course, Iran has its own separate dynamics, change is already happening there. But what happens in Iran—people in the Arab world do pay close attention. And they are closely watching that. And they’re inspired by what the people of Iran, and especially the women of Iran, are doing. At some point, there is going to be another wave of change. And I wonder, at that point, how many allies will the United States have among the people of the region? How many people in this region, 350 million or so of them, will see the United States as their partner of choice, will see the United States as the most valuable ally, will see themselves as aligned with U.S.-proclaimed values and interests?

So to me, I look at this as kind of a time horizon problem. Maybe right now, today, these regimes are—many of them appear to be stable. But at a certain point, all these pressures from human rights abuses and denial of just basic dignity to the citizens of this region, it’s going to erupt again. And then, at some point, the United States will find itself basically with very few allies among the publics, I believe.

ROBINSON: Thank you so much.

We’ll go to the next question. And I just would like to encourage those members to indicate which of our speakers you would like to address it, so we can get all of these questions in. Thank you.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Robert Jordan.

Q: Yes, this is Bob Jordan, with SMU in Dallas. This has been a fantastic presentation. And I really commend all of our panelists.

One topic, though, that hasn’t been addressed from a human rights standpoint is Israel. And I’m a little surprised that that hasn’t come up. We’ve talked about a lot of countries here, but we haven’t talked about it perhaps because it doesn’t fit into the typology of authoritarian regimes or Arab regimes. But I’d be interested, maybe Michael, if you could address the Israel situation, and particularly what Human Rights Watch is doing in that regard?

ABRAMOWITZ: Sure. Well, thank you for that question, Bob. We’re definitely focused on Israel. I mean, I would say, from a human rights perspective, I think—or a democracy perspective, I think there are two issues that are particularly salient. One, obviously, is the treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and in Gaza and the West Bank. And it’s clearly, you know, a terrible human rights situation, and it’s getting worse. And the current government appears bent on even worse human rights violations. So I think that’s one piece of it. I think the other piece of it is what’s happening in—you know, in the Israeli politics now with the controversy over the supreme court and over the effort by the Netanyahu government to kind of change the way that the judicial system works in Israel.

I think the—I think what you’re seeing is reflective of some broader trends around the world, which is an effort by certain government leaders to limit kind of checks and balances. I mean, I think you’re seeing this all over the world. I think you’re seeing this in authoritarian countries. You’re seeing that to some extent in democratic countries as well. You know, one of the real signs of concern is, you know, attacks on the judicial system, because traditionally in strong democracies the judicial system courts are a check on untrammeled executive power. And it’s not surprising, for instance, that in—you know, in Russia, you know, one of the first efforts, you know, by Putin was to, you know, limit the power of courts. And you see that also in other countries.

I’m not saying that Israel is like Russia or what’s happening there, but I think it’s part of a larger trend. And it’s being kind of rammed through on, you know, very—you know, in an Israeli context-, a very partisan basis. So, you know, we’re still waiting for the decision by the Israeli Supreme Court on whether this effort by the government will succeed, but I think we’re watching it very closely. So that would be the other issue from a kind of a democracy and human rights perspective that we’re watching very closely.

ROBINSON: Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Craig Charney.

Q: Hello. And I run Charney Research, have done a lot of work in the region and, in fact, have come across some of the panelists before, like Amy.

My question—my question is based on this: It seems that one of the lessons of the Arab Spring is that there’s no liberal democracy without liberal democrats. The regimes and movements that emerged from that, by and large, focused on majority rule, but not on minority rights, rule of law, with the spirit of compromise. Not even in Tunisia, ultimately. Likewise, on economic policy, the rhetoric that came out was a confused mixture of anti-imperialism and anticapitalism. So my two questions for the panelists. One is, do you think the situation has changed? Do you think that there actually is now much more of a demand for liberal democracy in the fullest sense in the region? And second, in terms of U.S. policy, shouldn’t one of the things we be doing is strengthening the voices in these societies that are arguing for liberal democracy, much as we did with South Africa and in Eastern Europe?

BONIADI: I’d love to jump in, if that’s OK, and just speak on Iran very briefly. Thank you for the question. It’s an important one. In the Iran context, I think, you know, in ’79, we saw very anti-imperialist anti-U.S., anti-Israel movement. It was a—you know, death to America was very much at the heart of the protests. And the liberal Iranian of today is definitely not an anti-imperialist. All the protests chants are squarely targeted at the regime, at the Islamic Republic.

You’re not hearing, for example, death to the U.S. for the sanctions. You’re not hearing any of that. In fact, one of the popular slogans is, our enemy is right here. You lied that it’s America. So, you know, when they’re saying—it’s such a 180 from ’79. This generation, this Gen Z currently in Iran, it’s just—they’ve thoroughly been disabused of this idea of reform. They don’t want an Islamic Republic. Of course, the yearning for secularism is the natural backlash to almost half a century of fundamentalist rule. And with that comes, you know, better communications over the past decades with the world and through the internet.

And so their eyes are open to really what’s beyond their borders and really truth. This propaganda, this attempt by the Islamic Republic to replace Iranian national identity with an Islamist one, has created and strengthened a deep-seated patriotism, I think, among Iranians. And I think that is in stark contrast to ’79. And so this anti-imperialist attitude is completely gone. Well, I wouldn’t say completely gone but, you know, among this generation, it’s not at all prominent or prevalent. So I think it’s a—it’s a very different Iran that we’re seeing.

Q: All good points, but that’s why I asked about the Arab world.

HAWTHORNE: I’m happy to jump in on that. So Craig has pointed to something really important. And in my assessment, there is not any significant trend of liberal democrats in the Arab world. I think this is a—this is an ideology and a movement that is incredibly weak. And what we saw in Tunisia is actually very instructive in this regard. The Tunisian democratic transition, democratic experiment that lasted a decade, actually did make very significant progress in creating a liberal democratic political system, in fact. (Laughs.)

They actually made a lot—they achieved a lot, both in their constitution and other laws in terms of protecting minority rights, advancing women’s rights. Of course, we know there was a spirit of political compromise and concessions that allowed that experiment to keep going. So it really was a very interesting decade for the Arab world, that there was this one country that was going on this trajectory. But where Tunisia really causes us, I believe, to pause and think, is that those elected democratic leaders absolutely failed to do anything to improve the daily economic and social living standards of the public. And those were governments that were led by the Islamist party, Ennahda. Those were governments that were led by secular parties. They all failed.

And it turned out that at the end of the day, a wide swath of the Tunisian public looked at this liberal democracy that had been set up and said: Well, we really appreciate having free speech and the right to vote in free elections, but when are our daily lives going to improve? When are there going to be more jobs, better jobs, more opportunities, so that growing numbers of Tunisians, both young people and middle-aged people, aren’t planning—spending their days planning how to escape the country and get the Europe for a better life?

So it seems to me that while there’s a lot that the United States needs to do with regard to promoting human rights and democratic values in this part of the world, there’s also a lot that that people in this region need to do and reflect on how they can actually better articulate to their own publics the connection between liberal democracy, political rights, civic freedoms, and economic improvement. I think in the United States, because we have experienced a high economic standard of living under democracy, most Americans think that the two automatically go hand in hand. But with regard to the Arab world, I think there’s both a challenge and an opening for those who—in the region who want to advance the cause of human rights, but also want to make a compelling argument to their fellow citizens about why democracy and human rights will actually improve people’s daily lives.

ROBINSON: I think we’ll go on to the next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Christopher Isham.

Q: Hi, folks, sorry about that. Good to see you all for an interesting discussion.

As a follow up on Nazanin’s point that when it comes to Iran, all of the problems—whether it’s human rights and internal repression, the nuclear program, hostage taking, support for terrorism—all flow from one core issue, which is, of course, the nature of the Islamic Republic. The approach by U.S. policymakers and policymakers in the West has been to try to chip away at some of the symptoms, whether it’s the nuclear issue or hostage issue or whatever it is. But they’ve not addressed the core problem. My question is, how should U.S. policy or policy in the West take a more active effort to address the core problem, which is the regime?

BONIADI: That’s a great question. Thank you for that. Look, if I had the magic bullet to know how to solve this, then I think the policy prescriptions would be there and we would solve it. But I think in general, this idea of empowering civil society inside Iran, particularly when it’s become abundantly clear that these protesters want this regime gone. And we have to assume if hundreds of thousands are on the streets willing to risk their lives to protest against the regime, the actual numbers who don’t want this regime in power are much, much higher. And that is exactly what I’m hearing from dissidents on the ground.

And so what—how do we solve that? I mean, we have to have a campaign that doesn’t only sort of strangle the regime but empowers civil society. You know, there was talk of strike funds, for example, because the economy is in shambles. And there’s no denial that the sanctions have strangled the country economically. But how do we find a way to empower the protesters and also establish people, you know, in a way that they can strike for a long enough time to really disempower the regime? That’s one way. I think, ensuring that there’s internet access is another way.

But if we look at the various elements, according to Jack Goldstone, of what’s necessary for revolution to happen, we’ve seen mass of, you know, people inside Iran standing up against oppression and being—you know, opposing the regime on a grassroots level. We’re also seeing economic dire straits. And so that’s another factor. But the other factors is—the three other factors he talks about, international support for an opposition and, you know, basically, withdrawing support from the regime doesn’t exist. Fractures and fissures among the elite in the regime haven’t really materialized in any meaningful way. And really, there needs to be a united opposition. And those three things need to happen. But one of those elements is the international community coming together and saying: We will no longer platform, we will no longer deal with, we will no longer release billions of dollars to the Islamic Republic.

ROBINSON: Either if you, Michael or Amy, want to chime in quickly on further measures, or shall I go ahead?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, I think Nazanin outlined a really good agenda. I think we got to be humble about this. You know, the—you know, the Western democracies don’t always have a good track record in in the region, and more broadly, in effecting democratic change. But I think—I think the answer is empowering the people in Iran the best we can. You know, as Nazanin said, trying to distance—you know, trying to deplatform the regime. I liked that phrase. And I think the other thing that she didn’t mention, I think, you know, with respect to sanctions, you know, the country has been obviously sanctions heavily. But, you know, are there more targeted sanctions? Are there a way to, you know, not allow the leadership of Iran to, you know, park ill-gotten gains outside the country? Are there a way to prevent funds from flowing to the Revolutionary Guards? I think—I think there needs to be a new round of thinking about how to affect that. I think that has to be a piece of the puzzle. And as Nazanin said, I think, you know, Western Europe and the other democracies have to be united on this. It can’t just be the U.S. alone.

ROBINSON: And let’s go ahead then with the next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Pouya Lavian.

Q: Good morning, all. And really honored to be sitting with such an august panel on something very important.

It seems to a lot of us who’s followed things, especially in Iran and the region, if you take a stack ranking of opportunities for things to actually change, and, you know, the worst actors that are out there, you know, we’ve gone through a maximum pressure with Iran. European countries have felt the need to, you know, still throw out lifelines. And the U.S. has as well. I was wondering, from the panel’s perspective, especially Naz and Michael, if there is this Israel-Saudi deal that comes into fruition that the Biden administration is being pulled into doing, because it looks like everything is there for it, what does that mean for Iran? What does that mean for the opposition within Iran? And do you think this is something that will make a difference, to kind of have some outside forces who, though, Mr. Jordan and Michael’s conversation about, you know, Israel and possibly human rights violations there—you know, Iran seems to be the major malignant actor. So we just want to see your thoughts, any prognostication about, you know, what that might mean for Iran?

ROBINSON: Michael.

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, I can just say—if I may say one quick point, it’s—I hardly have a good crystal ball here, so I’m reluctant to kind of predict the future. I think the one thing that I would be worried about is whether—I mean, Saudi Arabia and Israel have to want to have peace because it’s in their interest. And I think it is in their interest to have peace. What I’d be cautious about is whether the U.S. administration, you know, blesses that with—you know, by turning a blind eye in some way to some of the, you know, serious problems that have been surfaced about human rights within Saudi Arabia and also, you know, the question that Ambassador Jordan mentioned about Israel. So I think that’s what I think we need to be looking out for. And what exactly is the consequence of that, I don’t know. But I think in general, peace is good in the region. But what’s the price going to be is what I think we all need to be looking for.

BONIADI: Yeah, I mean, I agree. And I think that the—I think, on a grassroots level inside Iran, I think after forty-four years, the Iranian people—what I hear from dissidents is, no one’s going to save us. That, you know, whatever happens externally—you know, they feel let down, frankly. Because every country, and some of this is understandable, is after their own interests. But what we’ve failed, maybe, as activists and advocates for the Iranian people to maybe shine a light on enough for these Western countries to understand, is it’s really to their benefit to have a free and democratic and secular Iran.

And, you know, I don’t think that countries around the world, and Western countries, really understand the significance of that, and what that could do for not only the region, but for global stability. So really, that’s the only answer I have, is the Iranian people understand fully that they have to bring this about themselves. What they’re saying is, can you please—we don’t need you to save us. Just stop saving our regime.

HAWTHORNE: Could I just—excuse me—could I just jump in with one sentence on that? When it comes to the potential Saudi-Israel normalization deal, you know, if this deal comes to fruition, it may achieve and accomplish many things that are in U.S. interests. But one thing that I feel pretty confident about predicting is that such a deal is going to strengthen authoritarianism in the region. It’s going to strengthen Saudi Arabia, which is one of the major repressive and authoritarian actors in the region, and indeed, often its authoritarian actions reach beyond its borders.

And this deal would possibly strengthen a rapidly illiberalizing Israel, an Israel where democracy is being eroded and where human rights violations by the Israeli government against the Palestinians are really beyond belief. So I think, at least in the short and medium term, such a deal will make it harder for advocates of rights and freedoms in this region, at least in the Arab world, to make their case and gain support. So in that regard, I think we need to be asking a lot more questions about this possible deal. Thanks.

ROBINSON: We are just at our time. And I want to thank all three of you, wonderful comments, and to our members for the questions. And just a reminder, we will have this session posted on the Council on Foreign Relations website, And thank you again for your time. And we will continue to follow all of this. Have a great day.

ABRAMOWITZ: Thank you.

BONIADI: Thank you.

HAWTHORNE: Thank you.


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