While the world has focused on discussions over Tehran's nuclear capability, human rights in Iran have suffered severe setbacks.

By, in effect, "de-linking" advances in this area from the economic incentives aimed at ensuring Tehran suspends uranium enrichment, the European Union has sacrificed the Iranian people's rights in order to secure a nuclear deal. This moral failure makes it even more important for Washington to join the talks and put human rights at the top of the agenda. US involvement in the talks will provide the international community with the security guarantees it needs, while ensuring no deal is struck that would be detrimental to Iran's faltering democratisation.

With the rest of the world distracted by the nuclear issue, anti-democratic forces in Iran have clamped down on the Iranian democracy movement. Since much of the country's reformist print media was shut down in April 2000, many pro-democracy activists have turned to the internet to disseminate their message. In recent months, hard-liners in the regime have blocked hundreds of political websites and web logs and arrested those running them.

Europe has maintained a cynical silence as Tehran has resumed policies outlawed under earlier EU-Iran trade agreements, which were contingent on improvements in Iran's human rights record. For instance, since Europe uncoupled the nuclear issue from advances in human rights, the stoning of women - banned by a trade deal struck in the late 1990s - has restarted.

The voice and influence of America will be sorely needed when the nuclear talks resume later this month. Both Washington and Brussels recognise that the Europeans lack the clout to win durable compromises from Iran on uranium enrichment. This is unsurprising: the Europeans cannot offer Iran the security guarantees it seeks in return for compromising on its access to nuclear technology.

For Tehran, a nuclear arsenal is only really useful as a deterrent against possible US aggression. Iran does not need a nuclear deterrent against any other Middle Eastern country. Its security has improved significantly following the fall of the Taliban and the defeat of Saddam Hussein. It already possesses an effective deterrent against Israel in the form of its close links to Hizbollah forces in southern Lebanon. Only security guarantees from the US, as part of a broader political arrangement, can convince Iran to agree to lasting compromises in the nuclear area.

But if the US continues to follow the negotiations from the sidelines, the EU-Iran talks will fail to halt Iran's nuclear progress and contribute to the dismantling of its pro-democracy forces. Without a clear link between the nuclear and human rights issues, the public sphere of the pro-democracy activists will continue to contract and Iran will deprived of the infrastructure to support a smooth, non-violent transition to democracy. Washington's non-participation in the current talks could leave it facing a more authoritarian, nuclear Iran.

Officials and observers in Washington who favour confrontation may be eagerly awaiting a collapse of the EU-Iran talks in order to bring the issue to the United Nations Security Council. But involving the UN is unlikely to end either Iranian uranium enrichment or human rights violations. Sanctions on Iran will hardly be approved by a Security Council where its key trading partners - France, Russia and energy-starved China - hold vetoes. Confrontationists' insistence that a military option exists is a sign of desperation rather than a strategy.

A political dialogue with Tehran in which human rights take centre-stage remains Washington's best option, yet it is the one policy that no US administration has seriously pursued. The increasingly unavoidable nuclear dialogue between Iran and the US provides an opportunity to turn Washington's democracy slogans of the last four years into policy.

Through the multilateral framework of the nuclear negotiations, Washington can compel Tehran to co-operate. Linking progress on the nuclear front with improvements in Iran's human rights record and advances in democratisation will strengthen the international community's leverage by enlisting the support of global public opinion for a nuclear deal that is secure, sustainable and morally acceptable.

The EU has de-linked progress on human rights from the nuclear deal; only the US can reconnect them.

The writer is a Middle East specialist at Johns Hopkins University SAIS in Washington DC

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