How Biden Can Stand With the Iranian People
With the prospect of reform non-existent, the Iranian protests offer Washington a chance to do well by doing good.
“These men have not slept for nights.” That’s what Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, the chief of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, said about Iran’s security forces in a recently leaked video. Despite seeking a quick end to protests rocking the country, the Islamic Republic’s repressive apparatus is yet to win the war of wills against its own people. In another clip, Brig. Gen. Hossein Ashtari, the commander of Iran’s Law-Enforcement Forces (LEF), is seen attempting to boost the morale of his officers by saying that they should “not have a shred of doubt” about the task that lies ahead of them. Already, 133 Iranians have been reportedly killed and over 3,000 have been arrested in demonstrations that have mushroomed across the entire country. But protests continue.
Triggered by the morality police’s brutal killing of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly violating mandatory veiling laws, the latest iteration of Iran’s street protests both borrows from, and breaks with, the recent past. Unlike the 2009 Green Movement protests, which followed an election being stolen from a reformist candidate, the past half-decade of increasing Iranian protest activity is not tied to any faction or element of the regime. This is made clear in the slogans chanted at the protests, such as “reformists, principlists, the jig is up!”
Instead, these protests build on the critical evolution of demonstrations and labor strikes since 2009 away from reform and toward revolution. Starting in late 2017, Iranians began to take every available opportunity to move from “passive resistance” to active resistance. This was and continues to be done by using economic, environmental, social, and even security issues as a way to contest the Islamic Republic and, in doing so, make a larger political point about Iranians’ desire for a representative government in line with their values and interests.
In November 2019, Iranians poured onto the streets in response to high gas prices, but their slogans and aims were not about macroeconomics. While some in the West failed to comprehend this, Iran’s rulers faced no such analysis paralysis. Hiding behind an internet blackout, security forces reportedly killed 1,500 protesters in a matter of days. Yet Iranians turned out to protest less than two months later when the Islamic Republic downed a civilian airliner, killing 176 passengers. Fast forward to 2022, and the anti-regime protests that began this September actually picked up where protests sparked by high food prices this May had left off.
Yet, the increasing frequency, scale, and scope of Iranian political protests, the violence employed against protesters by authorities, and the population’s willingness to push back and continue transgressing redlines are missed in Washington’s nuclear-deal-centric framing of Iran policy.
Success for Iran’s protest movement or even the erosion of the Islamic Republic’s power could have profound consequences for stability in the Middle East and redound to America’s strategic advantage if supported correctly and carefully. After all, the Islamic Republic has never been shy about hiding its enmity for America—“the Great Satan”—and its desire to frustrate U.S. policy. This is especially true in the counterterrorism context, given Iran’s material support to terror proxies—styled by Tehran as “the Axis of Resistance”—in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza, as well as through the increasingly relevant paradigm of great power competition, where Tehran is busy tightening economic and military ties with China and Russia.
With the prospect of reform non-existent, the Iranian protests offer Washington a chance to do well by doing good. Here’s a ten-point plan to do exactly that.
First, the Biden administration should push away from nuclear negotiations, however indirect, with Tehran centered on resurrecting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). So long as the JCPOA remains on the table, Tehran will know that international pressure will ultimately fade. A nuclear deal that fails to fully and permanently block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon is, on its best day, a Faustian bargain for American national security. But having that same deal provide a regime like the Islamic Republic with a financial windfall of an estimated one trillion U.S. dollars by 2030 is sheer folly. Enabling the flow of such funding in exchange for limited and reversible concessions on select elements of Iran’s atomic infrastructure will oil the repressive apparatus that killed Mahsa Amini and her protesting compatriots. It will also permit Tehran to better back its foreign legion, thereby underwriting more, not less, bloodshed in Iran and across the Middle East.
Second, Washington should move to politically isolate the Islamic Republic by pushing for its removal from, or censure in, international organizations while also pressuring allies to sever or downgrade their bilateral diplomatic relations. Lest we forget, there have been a handful of times over the past four decades when European nations recalled their ambassadors from Tehran. The recent string of demarches, statements, and more by American allies is therefore welcome, but more can be done. There is no reason why, in the aftermath of the brutal killing of Mahsa Amini (as well as many other brave young women in protests), Iran should be permitted to retain its seat cost-free on the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN. Elected to the commission this spring, a regime that treats women as the Islamic Republic does not deserve to be anywhere near such a body.
Moreover, Washington could work with partners to support the establishment, as recommended by Amnesty International’s Secretary General, of an investigative body “by the UN Human Rights Council for the most serious crimes under international law committed by the Iranian authorities.” National governments with evidence of rights violations should be encouraged to submit information to such a body with the aim of developing a baseline international consensus as to what accountability for Iranian rights violators must look like.
Third, following its recent designation of Iran’s morality police and select military commanders for enabling the Islamic Republic’s crackdown, the Biden administration should initiate a mass designations campaign. Aimed at naming, shaming, and penalizing the Iranian people’s oppressors, these penalties can target vigilante, LEF, Basij paramilitary, or even Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders at the regional and local levels. Elsewhere, penalties can be scaled-up to explore the applicability of sanctions against politicians and officials supportive of the crackdown at the regional and national levels. Most of this culpability can be determined through open sources.
Specifically, sanctions can be ratcheted-up to target Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi, both of whom are currently on the Treasury Department’s blacklist, but not for human rights-related offenses. Sanctions can also be extended to other pillars of the regime where there may be a financial or institutional nexus of support to Iran’s apparatus of repression. For example, Iran’s current Minister of Information and Communications Technology is not sanctioned despite his ministry’s involvement in internet restrictions and blackouts during protests. Yet in 2019, his predecessor was sanctioned for exactly that. The administration should also investigate the applicability of sanctions against select telecommunications and information technology firms and their leadership structures, be they government subsidiaries or government-supported “start-ups.” Doing so can help protect against nefarious actors using cut-outs to take advantage of new licenses and loosening communications restrictions by Washington.
As a corollary, Washington should share targeting information about these entities with its international partners who possess or are developing autonomous sanctions authorities. The mass designation and accountability campaign can then be “multilateralized” against the IRGC, LEF, regime officials, sanctions busters, censors, and others aiding the Islamic Republic’s repression machine. Canada’s recent sanctions against Iran’s morality police are a good example of this, but they must be expanded to include America’s trans-Atlantic partners. Conversely, when there are instances of entities subject to EU penalties that are yet to be targeted using State Department and Treasury Department authorities, Washington should rapidly move to bridge the trans-Atlantic gap.
Fourth, building on the mass designations campaign, the administration should use existing State Department authorities under a 2021 appropriations act to prevent the entry into the United States of Iranian human rights violators and their families. Far from any blanket visa ban that existed under the previous administration, this penalty can first be applied to individuals on the Treasury Department’s blacklist where an evidentiary basis for human rights penalties may already exist. It can then be broadened against new targets. After that, Washington can commence a dialogue with international partners where it has had success in sharing sanctions targeting information to get them to also consider a visa ban against the same persons and their families. The net result would be a widening web or “no-go zone” for Iranian human rights violators and their families. Lastly, should the political appetite and commensurate legal interpretations exist, the administration or Congress could inquire about, within the full extent of the law, revoking visas for family members of the regime elite already in the United States.
Fifth, with international politics and domestic news cycles not slowing down anytime soon, the Biden administration should work to increase its rhetorical support for Iranian protesters and keep the spotlight on the Islamic Republic’s crackdown. Drawing on the playbook employed by his predecessor during protests in 2018 and 2019, Biden and other high-ranking officials can vigorously embrace traditional and social media to amplify their support for the Iranian people and remind demonstrators that Washington stands with them. The more U.S. officials mention the names of the victims of the regime’s repression, the more the Iranian people will know their plight has not been overlooked and forgotten.