Human rights issues may be becoming less of a sore subject for Iran. Sadeq Larijani, the head of the country's judiciary, said in August that Tehran would be open to discussing human rights concerns with the European Union, so long as the bloc were amenable to talking about its own issues as well. Then on Oct. 24, the spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said the deputy foreign ministers of Iran and the European Union would hold negotiations in December to discuss a wide array of subjects, including human rights. These announcements may signal a shift for Iran — which has historically avoided discussing its human rights record with outside powers — and for its future relations with the West.
The negotiations over Iran's human rights policies will probably not lead to any immediate breakthroughs. Tehran will make it clear that it will only discuss the issue on its terms, while resisting the European Union's attempts to evaluate its human rights policies according to Western mores. Nonetheless, the talks set an important precedent. Iran is in the midst of a generational transition. Over the next decade, many of its ageing leaders will die, and younger leaders such as Larijani — a leading candidate to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — will assume power in their stead. The initial talks on human rights will lay the groundwork for the next cohort of leaders to engage in more substantive discussions of the issue as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) continues.
Since most of the United States' remaining sanctions against Iran — and many of the European Union's — concern human rights violations and international terrorism, the talks mark an important development for the decadelong agreement. Iran will probably use its discussions with the European Union to expand the scope of its negotiations with the United States in the long term. In the meantime, if the initial talks between Brussels and Tehran go well, the next administration in Washington could have a tougher time rolling back the sanctions relief it implemented as part of the JCPOA. Under the agreement, the United States suspended secondary sanctions against foreign companies and individuals — including European firms — doing business with Iran. Reinstating those measures will be difficult if Washington and Brussels are not on the same page over Tehran.