The Honorable Joseph R. Biden
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Biden,

We, the undersigned organizations, write to urge you to prioritize human rights as you shape your administration’s foreign policy toward Iran. As the United States works to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, we hope that you will make good on your pledge to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Efforts to seek improvements in Iran’s egregious human rights record should take place parallel to negotiations on security matters, recognizing fully that U.S. national security interests cannot be met if the human security of the Iranian people is left unaddressed.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2020 annual human rights report, “The government [of Iran] severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems.” A myriad of vaguely defined laws criminalize any speech deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam” and other national security statutes are commonly used to target and jail dissidents. Elections fail to protect Iranians’ right to participate in the conduct of public affairs as the Guardian Council disqualifies candidates on broad religious and political grounds. In November 2019, Amnesty International estimated that at least 304 people were killed and thousands more arrested during widespread anti-government demonstrations (other reports indicate that the number may be much higher). As of December 2020, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran was holding at least 15 journalists in prison and had targeted journalists working abroad and harassed their families at home.

In 2020, PEN America found that Iran imprisoned the fourth-highest number of writers and public intellectuals in the world—with 19 jailed across the country. Creative professionals, such as writers, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and even fashion models have been targeted for their expression. Women and LGBTQIA+ individuals face heightened persecution because of their identity. A movement led by women’s rights activists against compulsory hijab laws has been brutally suppressed, with those leading the effort facing sentences of more than a decade. Iran continues to harass, intimidate, and even detain family members of political dissidents and journalists outside the country. In recent years, Iranian authorities have announced that they have arrested several exiled dissidents. There are strong indications that these people have been detained and abducted outside the country, including dissident activist and journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was detained on a visit to Iraq and was later executed. The government is also responsible for the shameful practice of arresting U.S. citizens, most often dual nationals, and using them as bargaining chips in negotiations.

Iran performed the world’s highest number of executions per capita last year at 267. Trials fall grossly short of international standards, and due process is routinely denied. In March 2020, Iran’s judiciary chief announced that prisons would temporarily release approximately 70,000 people in response to the coronavirus pandemic—a measure that excluded many of the country’s imprisoned dissidents. In Iran’s criminal justice system, indefinite detentions; deplorable prison conditions; denial of legal counsel; short, closed trials; torture; and forced confessions are commonplace. Scores of human rights defenders remain behind bars. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a writer and human rights lawyer who was re-arrested in 2018, is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for her peaceful activism. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, a writer and human rights advocate, has been convicted twice for her writing, and while in custody has been physically assaulted and denied communication with her family.

While we commend the administration’s efforts to end the disgraceful practice of detaining dual nationals, we hope that diplomatic efforts will also prioritize the human rights concerns of the larger Iranian population. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to batter Iranian society, it is essential that the Iranian people have unrestricted access to essential humanitarian items, especially medical supplies and medicine.

The U.S. should make clear that focused, persistent attention to human rights will be a key component of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. Improvements in freedom of expression and other human rights are fundamental to strengthening the Iranian government’s accountability to its citizens and at the international level. As high-level talks are resurrected with Iran, a strong human rights pillar with concrete demands and a strategy to achieve them should be developed and advanced. This pillar should include the following elements:

  • The establishment of concrete human rights goals and benchmarks to be pursued in parallel discussions to the JCPOA and other matters of concern with Iran;
  • Maintaining a robust high-level U.S. public voice on rights abuses inside Iran, including calling for the immediate and unconditional release of imprisoned writers, journalists, and other unlawfully detained prisoners; bringing attention to Iran’s undemocratic electoral system; and calling for legal and judicial reforms that allow for freedom of expression, assembly, and due process;
  • Strengthening the multilateral agenda on Iran at the United Nations Human Rights Council, including support for an independent investigation into the November 2019 protests and subsequent violence;
  • Securing Iran’s cooperation with UN special procedures and the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, including entry to the country by UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, and working toward the establishment of a UN office for human rights in the country; and
  • Imposing targeted sanctions on Iranian human rights violators until verifiable human rights conditions are met. Our organizations have different views about the use of broad sectoral sanctions, but we agree that any U.S. sanctions must not hamper access by the Iranian people to humanitarian goods and services.

We are heartened by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s words reiterating your administration’s pledge to “stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners.” We hope you will uphold this commitment as you shape your administration’s policy toward Iran.


PEN America
Center for Human Rights in Iran
Freedom House
Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran
Human Rights First
Iran Human Rights Documentation Center
Project on Middle East Democracy
Siamak Pourzand Foundation
United for Iran