Trita Parsi

is president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C.

The Bush administration's apparent disregard for the expressed wishes of Iranian human-rights defenders has made a bad situation worse. When it comes to human rights in the Middle East, the Bush administration has claimed to walk the walk. But that walk clearly has a limp.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report that executions in Iran - including instances of stoning - have sharply increased under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In addition, using the Bush administration's Iran Democracy Fund as a pretext, Iranian authorities have clamped down on Iran's civil society with thousands of arrests.

The $75 million Iran Democracy Fund, first appropriated in 2006, was reappropriated in December despite loud protests by human rights and democracy champions. Human rights workers argue that this "regime change slush fund" has facilitated the Ahmadinejad government's latest wave of abuses.

Washington has dismissed these protests, putting Iranian human-rights defenders in a double bind. While they recognize that the absence of diplomacy between Washington and Tehran - and the ensuing tensions - enable the Iranian government to intensify human-rights abuses, activists also fear that U.S.-Iran talks might result in a relationship that mirrors America's relationship with Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Iran under the shah. That is, one in which geopolitical objectives trump concerns about human rights and democracy.

There is a solution to this dilemma.

Washington must restore its own standing on human rights, and put the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran on the table in its discussions with Tehran.

A foreign policy contingent on human rights will create a balance between America's relationship with the people of Iran and its relationship with Iran's unpopular government.

The value of this relationship will yield great strategic objectives for the United States. Namely, any resulting improvements in the U.S. relationship with Iran will be sustainable, rather than tied to the survival of the current regime.

By tying improved relations to Iranian respect for human rights, Washington will develop a stake in Iran's future and ultimate stability, but not a stake in the survival of the Iranian theocracy.

Past foreign policy efforts in the Middle East - namely with America's Arab allies - have failed in this regard. While Arab governments support the American order, Arab streets blame the United States for prolonging the reigns of the dictators who rule them. Unsurprisingly, this creates a dangerous breeding ground for anti-American sentiments and terrorism.

Making Iran's human rights record a condition of gradual improvement of U.S.-Iran relations would help reduce tensions between the two countries without alienating the Iranian people and undermining America's soft power in Iran.

The next president of the United States must recognize the necessity of reducing tensions with Tehran through diplomacy. Fortunately, this strategic goal can be achieved without getting stuck with the theocracy.

E-mail Trita Parsi, author of "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States," at