With Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, proclaiming that he seeks not just greater nuclear transparency but also a more tolerant society, Washington is once more contemplating an overture to Iran. The critical question is what role Congress will play.

In recent years, the U.S. legislative branch has focused largely on sanctions, which have done much to undermine Iran’s economy. Now Congress should complement its sanctions policy with more sustained attention to Iran’s human rights transgressions and establish an Iran Human Rights Committee.

Congress would be smart to take a page out of its Cold War playbook and model such a committee on the Helsinki Commission, which helped empower dissident forces in the Soviet bloc. An Iran Human Rights Committee could highlight the Islamic republic’s provocations as well as suggest benchmarks for improved behavior. The theocratic regime in Tehran violates not just universal norms of human rights — on torture, wrongful imprisonment and fair judicial processes — but also its own constitutional provisions promising civic freedom and the rule of law. Government censorship of the media and the prevention of peaceful assembly are similarly frowned upon. And it is a disgrace that Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a shadowy intelligence operator who was a pivotal figure in a 1988 massacre of Iranian prisoners, has become justice minister.

U.S. diplomats should include discussions of human rights in all of their encounters with Iranian officials. Persistent congressional pressure could offer important leverage in diplomatic dealings with Iran. In essence, the task is to convince Tehran that more humane treatment of its citizens is in its national interest. U.S. officials consistently pointing to congressional concerns could go a long way toward convincing the Iranians that their international ostracism and economic distress cannot be fully mitigated unless Iran improves its human rights record.

There are a number of views of the relationship between arms control and human rights. Some suggest that, given the advances of Iran’s nuclear program, it is important to focus on that issue and not complicate the negotiating process. Some veterans of the Reagan administration say that it is possible to pursue both an expansive arms-control agenda and a deliberate human rights campaign. In their telling, the Reagan experience demonstrates that the two tracks need not contradict each other.

For many reasons, pursuing a human rights agenda would be the best means of ensuring that Iran complies with its arms-control obligations.

The experience of dealing with the Soviet Union can prove constructive. Washington pursued an arms-control agenda for decades but achieved a realistic breakthrough only after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. That’s when the Soviet Union proved a reliable negotiating partner, reducing its nuclear arsenal and scrupulously adhering to its agreements. In retrospect, the Helsinki process, launched in the 1970s, was instrumental in conditioning a segment of the Soviet elite about what was required to be a respected global actor. Gorbachev and his close aides seem to have been affected by the Helsinki critique of the Soviet Union and appreciated that their country could never truly join the international community unless it stopped abusing its citizens. More so than the arms race, it was the steady drumbeat of human rights advocates that subverted the entrenched Soviet officialdom and sensitized a new generation of Russian leaders to prevailing global conventions.

By ignoring Iran’s atrocious human rights record, Western diplomats are subtly conveying the impression that it is permissible for Iran to violate certain international norms if it adheres to its proliferation commitments.

If Iran’s clerical leaders are told that a selective reading of international law is acceptable, they will feel free to violate their arms-control obligations when they become inconvenient. Sanctions-induced economic duress may compel Tehran to sign a nuclear agreement, but given the perspective of its elite, it can be counted on to violate that accord when its financial plight eases.

In a perverse manner, the Western diplomats who avoid the issue of human rights are contributing to the Iranian mentality that views international norms as a menu of options to be rejected or accepted at one’s discretion.

Rouhani needs new thinking on a spectrum of issues, not just a different nuclear policy. By emphasizing human rights, Congress could take an important step toward convincing yet another recalcitrant elite that the price of full admission to the international community is not merely restraining its nuclear ambitions but also mending its ways at home.

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