It might have something to do with Iran.
The Trump administration is reportedly starting an effort to end the criminalization of homosexuality around the world — but the campaign may be a way to highlight Iran’s human rights abuses.
NBC News’s Josh Lederman broke the news of the possible campaign on Tuesday, citing US officials who were familiar with the matter. The new initiative is still in its planning stages, but will reportedly push countries that still criminalize homosexuality to change their laws. Gay people are still at risk of prosecution or punishment in dozens of countries, including parts of Africa and the Middle East.
But the US’s desire to isolate Iran may have helped inspire this global initiative. The Trump administration has made getting tough on Iran the centerpiece of its foreign policy, and it has often called out the oppression of the regime. This reported campaign appears to have been inspired, at least in part, by a report of a gay man who was publicly hanged in Iran in January.
US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell publicly condemned the man’s hanging earlier this month — and he is expected to lead the new project, NBC News reports.
Grenell and his staff at the US Embassy in Berlin hosted a meeting with 11 activists from across Europe to discuss the issue of decriminalization, a State Department spokesperson confirmed to Vox in an emailed statement. “The meeting was an opportunity to listen to and discuss ideas on how the US can advance decriminalization of LGBTI status and conduct around the world,” the State Department spokesperson said.
Grenell is the administration’s highest-ranking, openly gay official, and he’s been a reliable — though at times, controversial — cheerleader for President Donald Trump’s administration and its policies.
Grenell recently penned an op-ed in a German news outlet, Bild, about an alleged public hanging in Iran, referring to it as a “wake-up call.”
“In Iran, where children as young as nine can be sentenced to death, gay teenagers are publically hanged in order to terrify and intimidate others from coming out,” Grenell wrote. “Iran’s horrific actions are on par with the brutality and savagery regularly demonstrated by ISIS.”
Grenell concluded his op-ed by saying government officials should “work harder to demand that UN members decriminalize homosexuality,” which is apparently what the new initiative will attempt to do. NBC reports that he plans to work with allies and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and European Union, to push the new initiative forward.
An attempt to pressure Iran on its treatment of gay people might also target US allies
More than 70 countries around the world still criminalized homosexuality, according to 2017 statistics from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. LGBTQ rights globally have seen progress in recent years — India, for example, struck down its law banning gay sex last year— but crackdowns and criminalization against gay people continue worldwide.
This initiative may seem a bit odd coming from the Trump administration, which hasn’t exactly prioritized protecting LGBTQ rights. The Trump administration has instead instituted such policies as the transgender troop ban, and has made attempts to scale back LGBTQ protections in the workplace and in schools.
The administration also doesn’t have a great record of advocating for LGBTQ rights in the international arena. The State Department’s special envoy for LGBTI persons, a position created in 2015 to advocate for gay rights abroad, remains vacant. In 2017, the US voted against a historic UN Human Rights Council resolution that condemned the use of the death penalty for same-sex relations. (The Trump administration justified its vote by saying the resolution implied the lawful use of the death penalty was problematic.)
But the US may be embracing this new effort because allies, specifically those in Europe, are likely to support it. And it could be a way to get them to ramp up their criticism of Iran over the regime’s human rights record.
The US has tried to pressure its European allies to join the US in its renewed pressure campaign against Iran. During a speech at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Vice President Mike Pence called on Europe to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. But Europe has been reluctant to do so, citing Iran’s compliance with the agreement. That’s caused some tension between the US and its closest allies, but this type of human rights initiative might offer some common ground between when it comes to Iran.
The death penalty is a “legally prescribed punishment for homosexuality related offenses” in Iran, according to the United Nations. But it’s not the only country on the list. Countries that the US wants to retain friendly relations with, most notably Saudi Arabia, also use the death penalty against gay people.
This means that the US, if it moves forward with this initiative, it might struggle to balance any pressure campaign on Iran while also trying to avoid upsetting partners like Saudi Arabia by calling out their human rights abuses.
Grenell’s meeting on Tuesday appears to be a first step toward any action, but it’s still unclear how aggressive, broad or sustained this campaign might be, either in Iran or the rest of the world.