Iran Discussing Human Rights Could Signal Deeper Thaw With West

  • Broader regional cooperation expected by top Swiss diplomat
  • Iran oil and financial sanctions seen lifited in first quarter

Discussions over human rights in Iran are set to resume for the first time since 2008 in the latest sign that the Persian Gulf nation may be seeking broader reconciliation with the West following July’s landmark nuclear accord.

Swiss State Secretary Yves Rossier said in an interview he’ll return to Tehran later this year in order to make plans for the talks. Oil and financial sanctions against Iran should be lifted by March 2016, setting the stage for broader cooperation on issues of regional security and human rights, Rossier, 54, said on Monday in Bern.

“There is social change going on in Iran that not everybody is aware of,” Rossier said. “It won’t happen overnight but what was clear was the will on the Iranian side to restart dialog.”

While Iran and world powers have agreed a negotiated solution over the Persian Gulf country’s nuclear program, other contentious issues remain. Even after the nuclear agreement is implemented, the nation of 77 million will remain under sanctions for its support of Western adversaries -- some designated as terrorist groups by the U.S. and European Union -- in the Middle East, as well as human rights violations against its own citizens.

“The impact of this agreement on Iran’s attitude to the world won’t entirely be felt for one or two years,” said Rossier, who visited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran days after the July 14 nuclear deal was signed. “While there are encouraging signs, we are still at the beginning.”

During his last visit, Rossier also held talks with Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran’s judiciary council on human rights. The country’s parliament may consider legislation eliminating the death penalty for people convicted of drug-related crimes, which could cut executions by half, Rossier said.

“Iran expressed an interest in resuming a human rights dialog and so now we’re going to enter that dialog,” Rossier said. “We want to see progress.”

Drugs Executions

Official Iranian statistics show 289 executions in 2014 and 246 people put to death in the first half of 2015, according to Amnesty International, which noted that the real number is likely to be higher. The Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Edward Royce of California, wrote to President Barack Obama on Monday requesting additional human rights-related sanctions to be placed on Iran.

Oil and banking sanctions against Iran may be lifted as early as January, according to Iran’s central bank. The pace of relief depends on how soon international monitors verify that Iran has eliminated or mothballed its nuclear infrastructure. Once that happens, Rossier expects Iranian demand for international services to pick up.

“The Iranians told us they needed a lot of expertise,” Rossier said. “For the last 20 years they’ve been cut off.” 

Technical assistance in the areas of bank and environmental regulation were among the areas where Iranians said they could use help, Rossier said. Others included nuclear safety and improved electrical grids, he said.

Regional Wars

More broadly, developments in Iraq and Syria over the next year will show how far Iran is willing to go in helping to resolve regional security issues. The U.S. opened the door to working with Iran on ending the four-year Syrian civil war this week at the United Nations, a policy shift in line with Switzerland’s approach to diplomacy.

“We are not supporters of no-contact policies,” said Rossier, who oversees the U.S. interests section of Switzerland’s embassy in Tehran. “You have to talk especially with people you don’t like -- peace is made between enemies.”

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