Protests have erupted across Iran. From the country’s relatively modern cities to its more remote, fervently religious areas, Iranian citizens are challenging the despotic theocracy that rules over them. The protests began as dissatisfaction with a faltering economy bubbled over. They have since mushroomed into large-scale demonstrations for political freedom, demands for the removal of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s head of state, and even expressions of nostalgia for Reza Shah, the founder of the old secular Pahlavi dynasty.
The protests are different in origin from the Green Movement in 2009, which broke out when, after the systematic election-fixing the regime engages in proved insufficient, the mullahs took the added step of throwing the election to then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet they present the most significant challenge to the regime since — and just as it did then, the clerical tyranny is cracking down. At least 21 people have been killed, and hundreds more have been detained.
The United States government should zealously support the protests against the tyranny of this regime. That would be a pointed departure from the approach of Barack Obama, who remained shamefully inert at the beginning of his term, despite the regime’s brutal crackdown on its people and the subsequent discovery of its secret nuclear facilities. Thus far, President Trump’s remarks are a good start. He has publicly criticized the regime ever since the protests gained steam, and tweeted that “the US is watching.” The Left has chided Trump on the grounds that his supporting the protesters will undermine their cause by allowing the regime to claim that the hated United States is fomenting their movement. But Khamenei is viciously anti-American, and he will blame the protests on the U.S. no matter what.
Indeed, he already has. On Twitter, Khamenei accused “enemies of Iran” — a thinly veiled reference to the U.S. — of using “the various means they possess” to “infiltrate and strike the Iranian nation,” despite the fact that these protests are local in origin. Opposition to the United States is a first principle of the Iranian regime, and it uses it to justify their grip on power.
To be sure, the United States has a limited ability to influence the ultimate outcome of the protests. It is difficult to glean accurate information from within Iran, thanks in part to the regime’s long-standing practice of shielding itself from journalistic scrutiny. Many of the political reformers that were instrumental in the Green Movement have been killed, detained, or placed under house arrest, making it difficult to identify an organized faction that the U.S. could easily assist. To the extent that we can, however, we should work to tilt the scales against the regime. In this case, American foreign-policy interests are aligned with the interests of Iranian civilians: In addition to being an authoritarian menace that denies its citizens human rights, Iran’s regime has been sponsoring terrorism across the Middle East and killing Americans for decades. If the regime is swept away, Iran has a chance to be a normal country that tends to its own interests instead of exporting jihad. That would be a boon for U.S. and global security.
Accordingly, we should take robust diplomatic actions. Along with Trump’s initial comments, the State Department issued a statement denouncing the regime and noting our support for the protesters. United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley has called for meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Security Council in order to draw attention to the regime’s ongoing and brutal repression. We should also urge our allies in Europe to speak out, and given the economic origins of these protests, tighten sanctions on Iran. The regime is unpopular in part because Iranian president Hassan Rouhani isn’t delivering the economic benefits to citizens that he campaigned on. We should make it impossible for him to paper over his regime’s brutal nature with promises of prosperity; the need to withdraw from the ill-conceived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is as clear as ever. In keeping with Trump’s renunciation of Obama’s Iran deal, the White House and Congress should rebuild the sanctions regimen against Iran — and punish those that, by engaging in commerce with the regime, enable it to promote terror, arm up, and terrorize its people.
In 2009, the regime tried to jam radio stations such as Voice of America and Radio Farda, a Farsi iteration of Radio Free Europe. Radio Farda in particular has not lived up to its potential, and Trump should focus on making sure Iranians can listen to its broadcasts. We should also take actions to prevent the regime from blocking civilian access to the Internet. Social media proved instrumental in 2009, until the government placed constraints on Internet speeds. This time around, apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp are allowing protesters to coordinate, and the Trump administration should make every effort to ensure that the protesters can continue to use these services.
Just as we can help demonstrators today in visible ways, we should undertake covert actions that might help undermine the regime over the long term. The United States should identify viable factions and provide assistance to them. This will be a delicate task; some groups will not want our help. We should make a concerted effort to support the ones that do.
Dictatorships fall when the repressive apparatus of the ruling regime buckles, and there is no way to know when, or even whether, it will in Iran. Nonetheless, we commend these protesters who are risking their lives and hope the United States does everything it can to help them.