National Security & Defense

How the West Can Use the Iran Deal to Foster Regime Change

Iranians protest for reform in Tehran in 2009. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty)

Since the comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program was reached, technical aspects of the agreement have been discussed, but a crucially unremarked-upon topic deserves significant attention: what the deal means for the Iranian people’s deep longing for a democratic future in their homeland.

One of the nuclear deal’s profound defects is its neglect of human rights. When the European Union’s High Representative says she hopes it will bring “a new chapter” in its relationship with Iran, the phrase can mean anything, from a serious commitment to defending human rights to dismissing abuses in favor of doing big business with the Islamic regime.

Here’s a road map for transforming words into actions and honoring the dignity of Iran’s civil-society movement. To date, the EU has placed 93 regime officials on a sanctions list because of human-rights violations. That’s a laughably short lineup in the face of an Iranian security apparatus with hundreds of thousands of officials. It leaves one with the impression that the Europeans were never serious about human rights in the country. It’s high time to change that: Put simply, the EU should increase the list to an ever-growing number to capture the vast number of Iranian officials involved in torturing, abusing, and killing their fellow countrymen. In the best of all worlds, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei should be on this sanctions list.

There is also a dire need for Iran’s human-rights defenders and dissidents to be freed from living under surveillance. They need room to organize their activities and, most important, to succeed in their pursuit of democratic goals. To all those who foolishly believe that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is a hero, here’s your chance to defend genuine champions of liberty. Selling surveillance technology to Iran should be strictly forbidden by law. It should be a top priority for the EU to make such business deals illegal, and if companies like Nokia and Siemens dare to violate such a law, European countries should drag them to court.

In 2008, the former joint venture Nokia Siemens Networks delivered sophisticated surveillance technology to Iran’s regime. The equipment was used a year later to monitor Iranian democrats who protested against a fraudulent presidential election. It helped stymie free-voice communication and censor the Internet. Sadly, in 2009, the Obama administration and the European Union stood on the sidelines as young Iranians hell-bent on fighting for democracy in their land asked: “Obama, are you with us or against us?” In sum, the international community abandoned Iranians in their nascent attempt to free their nation.

Now, the nuclear deal is a proliferation disaster, as well as a coup de grâce to any immediate hope for democracy. But here’s the silver lining: The deal may have just bought us ten years to get rid of this vile regime.

With this hope in mind, every single second of that time must be used efficiently and effectively. We owe this to Iran’s democrats after letting them down so many times. And we owe it to ourselves.

A starting point would be to replicate the U.S. posture toward ensuring the collapse of the Iron Curtain. A salient example is what happened in Poland in 1979–80. There, a working-class movement took hold and contributed to the demise of Communism in the country. The 1980 strike at the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet empire. By providing robust support, including work-stoppage money for Poland’s workers, the American labor movement played a key role in the Solidarity trade union’s freedom revolution.

Iran has a struggling independent trade-union movement. There have been labor strikes and unrest among teachers and bus drivers. While the parallels with Poland are not perfect, American trade unions shouldn’t hesitate to help their Iranian counterparts in similar ways.

The U.S. government can also help Iranian democrats in their efforts to champion freedom through media. Bolstering the funding for the U.S.-sponsored Radio Farda’s Farsi-language broadcasts is important. The programming can help Iranians learn how to reorganize their society along liberal, democratic lines.

#related#The European Parliament, along with national legislatures, can hold hearings on imprisoned political dissidents in Iran’s vast system of penal colonies. Ramping up the exposure of Tehran’s widespread human-rights violations increases the regime’s vulnerability to change. A sustained human-rights campaign, particularly in Europe, can create cracks in Iran’s regime. As a result of international pressure, there have already been small victories for persecuted Iranian women. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a courageous human-rights lawyer, stands as one of those small victories. Strong international pressure ultimately secured her release from Iran’s notorious Evin prison in September 2013.

The road to a democratic Iran will be a difficult one to navigate, but the deeply flawed nuclear agreement presents an amazing opportunity to focus on the democratization of the civilization that brought the first human-rights declaration into the world, the Charter of Cyrus the Great (539 b.c.). The coming years should be spent in pursuit of freeing Iran from the barbarians who have taken it hostage.


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