The last few weeks in Iran arguably have been as tumultuous as the final days before the fall of the Shah. And they could be just as consequential — if the West and regional powers respond appropriately. While Iran is undeniably at the center of this escalating conflict, what external actors do matters.
Back in 1979, despite living through one of the most promising periods of prosperity and progress in Iran, masses of people came out to march in the streets, calling for greater class equality and more freedom of expression. They were students and clerics, academics and laborers, intellectuals and the uneducated. They sought a better future for their children and threw their lot in with the new “Islamic Republic,” the implications of which they probably didn’t even understand at the time.
Western governments struggled to respond, as the purported experts in Washington and London were bewildered by events on the ground. They were unsure how to handle the massive protests, particularly because the Shah’s position had seemed impregnable just a few months earlier.
There is no excuse for such uncertainty now.
Indeed, the brutal murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for the absurd offense of wearing her hijab incorrectly is as preposterous as it sounds. And yet the tensions in Iran have been building for decades. We have seen a series of massive convulsions over the past 23 years — the Green Revolution after the disputed presidential election of 2009; the democracy protests of 2017 and 2018; the bloody November riots of 2019; the uprising following the January 2020 downing of a Ukrainian airliner, which resulted in the death of all 176 innocent passengers and crew; angry rallies after the deadly collapse of Abadan’s Metropol office building on May 31, 2022; as well as the unrest across the country this past summer over the lack of clean water and the drying up of many Iranian lakes and rivers.
Instead of offering realistic solutions, the Iranian regime quelled these spasms of popular unrest by issuing religious edicts and making promises, pledging to provide greater freedom, institute a more moderate government, introduce reforms, and negotiate with international counterparts on a nuclear deal that could lift sanctions. But today, the regime has no more promises left to make, and Iranians see no hope on the horizon. This hopelessness and lack of viable solutions within the system are the reason why the current protests are different and why they need an urgent, comprehensive response.
Beyond sermons and promises, the Iranian regime unsurprisingly has responded to these latest non-violent demonstrations with what has now become its signature approach.
First, they shut down the internet and silenced independent media. Then they carried out a violent campaign to disperse the crowds in the streets, including the use of lethal force and mass arrests. Finally, the regime imported armed proxies from countries like Lebanon and Iraq to quell the rallies. Unlike their Iranian counterparts in the police and military, these foreign soldiers are disconnected from the plight of ordinary Iranians. They depend on the regime for their legitimacy and have no qualms about murdering Iranian civilians. They apply maximum force, ruthlessly assaulting protesters in broad daylight. Fully aware of this risk, the courage and fortitude of the ordinary Iranians marching in the street cannot be overstated.
And so, beyond the sanctions policies that should continue in an effort to impose costs on the regime in Iran, the West owes it to the Iranian people to respond differently and decisively to this latest display of brutality.
This would start by U.S. President Joe Biden immediately making a public statement from the White House in support of the protesters. They need to see the leader of the Free World, at a podium with the presidential seal, staring directly into the camera and hear his voice telling them what his predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, failed to clearly articulate in 2009 and 2019 — you are on the side of liberty, and America stands with you. And President Biden needs to offer a more multi-dimensional approach than the “maximum pressure” campaign championed by President Trump that abjectly failed in its objective of preventing Iran from advancing in its nuclear program.
Here is a simple plan that, if articulated, could give ordinary Iranians the hope that they so desperately need in this moment of despair.
First, President Biden should announce the creation of a new special advisor on Iran to counsel him and the administration in this perilous moment. As it seeks out someone for this post, it is crucial that the White House ignore the numerous regime apologists and echo chambers inside the Beltway and instead choose individuals without ties to Tehran but who understand the complexity of the country and can help the U.S. government build a people-centric Iran policy. The special advisor should engage with reputable members of the Iranian opposition abroad, such as Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, whose family’s name has been chanted by protesters across the country.
Second, Secretary of State Antony Blinken should shut down the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, even as a temporary symbolic statement. The risk of a nuclear Iran is terrifying on all levels. However, President Biden simply cannot offer the prospect of sanctions relief and de facto legitimize a regime that is ruthlessly gunning down its own citizens in the street. There should be no dialogue with dictators, especially when they have willingly sacrificed any moral standing.
The U.S. government should also enforce the immediate closure of the Iranian Interests Section at the Embassy of Pakistan, in Washington, DC. This would be a dramatic step and ruffle diplomatic feathers, but the Biden administration cannot pretend this is business as usual. America must respond to the boldness and bravery of the Iranian people with boldness and bravery of our own. The main purpose of this office is to issue visas to potential visitors to the Islamic Republic, which is presently under a Level 4 State Department travel advisory. While the Interests Section could have been perceived as an access point for leverage for the U.S. government, it has become clear in recent years that this office has neither benefited U.S. interests nor increased its diplomatic leverage. Even as a symbolic gesture, this move could send a message to the world that the United States stands with the Iranian people.
Third, the administration immediately should convene the top brass of leading media and tech companies for a public forum to evaluate the progress of efforts to ensure connectivity for the Iranian people and their ability to bypass government censorship. The United States has the most sophisticated companies on the planet, and their ingenuity should be leveraged to support the bravery of the Iranian people. The Department of the Treasury recently announced a rollback of sanctions to allow U.S. tech companies to boost internet services in Iran. But the merits of a public forum on this larger topic cannot be overstated. Not only could such a discussion solicit feedback from allies who work firsthand with dissidents and have knowledge of the challenges they face, but ultimately news of these high-level conversations may provide additional hope for Iranians in the streets.
Fourth, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen should engage U.S. allies and regional partners on reaffirming our shared commitment to maintain the current sanctions regime but also introduce new penalties against any Iranians involved in this ruthless repression. Following the murder of Mahsa Amini, the Department of the Treasury applied new sanctions on the so-called morality police. This is a welcome step that should be emulated by regional partners, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as they contemplate a thaw in diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. The morality police, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leadership, and all others in positions of authority who have subjugated their own people must be condemned and penalized for their actions. Simply put, they should know that there will be economic and diplomatic costs for this crackdown. Those who inflict pain need to feel financial pain, immediately.
Fifth, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona should engage his European counterparts and immediately send the children of Iranian oligarchs and government officials back to Tehran. The powerful elite in or affiliated with the government have access to significant funds that they have spent abroad on luxury goods, properties, and Western education. In a country where more than half of the population lives below the poverty line, this privilege of the elite, obtained through corruption and financial mismanagement, is an affront to the masses who cannot afford food, let alone a plane ticket abroad.
According to the Tehran Times, as many as 95,000 Iranian students are studying in foreign countries, with the largest number in the U.S., Germany, and Italy. Open Doors reports that, in the 2020-2021 academic year, at least 9,400 students of Iranian origin were studying in American universities — the largest representation of foreign students from the Middle East.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, certain members of Congress proposed revoking student visas for the children of Russian oligarchs who were enrolled in American academic institutions. The idea was controversial, and some defended the presence of Russian students in the U.S. as a positive step toward Westernization and friendship between the countries. Yet just as with Russians close to the corridors of power, despite years of access to Western education, scant evidence exists that the attitudes of Iranian elites toward the U.S. have particularly improved.
Access to an American education is not a right, it’s a privilege — one that Iranian elites forfeit when they wage wars against their own people. Why are we allowing these kleptocrats to receive the gift of a Western university degree, especially when it is paid in rials stolen from the Iranian people? No diplomas for despots and their families.
Moreover, academics at universities who act as mouthpieces for the regime should be asked to leave their posts. There are numerous well-known cases of individuals who came to America and Europe, where they then worked to launder the reputation of the regime under the cover of so-called scholarship. It is galling to see such people use their freedom in the West to defend tyrants who brutalize Iranians seeking to enjoy a similar measure of freedom in their homeland.
Sixth and finally, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should announce that if Iran imports foreign forces like the Afghan Fatemiyoun, Pakistani Zeinabyoun, Lebanese Hezbollah, or Yemeni Houthis to enforce its despotism, this will be regarded as an international act of war against the Iranian people. Such action should prompt the U.S. and its regional allies to expand their military footprint in the Strait of Hormuz by deploying additional assets, including aerial surveillance capable of looking into Iran. This would enable the U.S. and its allies to ramp up pressure quickly, including temporarily closing the strait to Iranian traffic if needed. This would be a drastic step, likely creating challenges for the global economy and possibly causing a spike in oil prices. But the current situation requires an assessment of universal moral and humanitarian values when, before our very eyes, the Iranian regime is deploying foreign troops to wage war against its own people. In addition to the dozens of civilians struck down across the country since the beginning of the protests, on the last day of the month, Sept. 30, Sunni worshipers ending a Friday prayer service in the city of Zahedan, in Sistan and Baluchestan Province, were attacked by regime affiliates, who killed at least 55. Eyewitnesses on the ground report that Fatemiyoun and Zeinabyoun forces, from Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively, have been deployed, likely in preparation to suppress retaliatory protests and actions by the local residents. Further bloodshed is likely, and the world cannot stand by and allow such atrocities to take place.
Too many innocents have already been martyred by the Islamic Republic and its enforcers. But it will again become clear, whether in the days, weeks, months, or years ahead, that the extraordinary will of the Iranian people to live freely in their country is destined to prevail. America needs to honor its fundamental principles of democracy and freedom by standing with the people of Iran.
Marjan Keypour Greenblatt is the Founder and Director of the Alliance for Rights of all Minorities (ARAM), a network of activists which promotes human rights in Iran, and a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Iran Program. Follow Marjan on Twitter at @MarjanKG.
Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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