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How America Should Deal with Iran’s New President

Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi attends a news conference in Tehran, Iran, June 21, 2021. (Majid Asgaripour/West Asia News Agency via Reuters )
Anti-regime protests show that Iranians want solidarity, not strategic silence, from the United States.

By adapting the Obama-era policy of “strategic silence” in the wake of the selection of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s enforcer Ebrahim Raisi as president of Iran, the Biden administration is tacitly endorsing his appointment, presumably in hopes of persuading him to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear deal, after his inauguration in August. The ballooning social protests across Iran, however, suggest that a return to “strategic silence” at this critical juncture could be as great a missed opportunity this summer as it was twelve years ago when the then Obama administration studiedly ignored the greatest threat to the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979. A more productive policy might be to revisit the successful Cold War precedent, summed up in the word “solidarity,” for forward-leaning engagement with the Iranian people.

In June 2009, as tens of thousands of brave Iranians took to the streets to protest the fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in the New York Times to caution “neoconservatives” to “think before you speak” about developments in Iran. Kerry cautioned that, while he was “inspired” by the protesters and “sympathized” with their aspirations, strongly supporting them would only empower the hardliners. President Obama, on the other hand, by keeping quiet and “offering negotiation and conciliation to Tehran,” had “put the extremists on the defensive.” The result of this remarkable discretion was the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal.

Following the corrupt and undemocratic selection of Raisi as president, the Biden administration has reprised the silent treatment, declining even to put out an anodyne statement on this theater-of-the-absurd form of democracy from the State Department let alone anything from President Biden himself. This glaring omission began to get so much attention that the State Department spokesman felt compelled to respond that comments in his daily briefing were the statement, a claim that is laughable given State’s routine practice of putting out statements on elections, great and small,  around the world. The decision not to condemn the elections is so obviously the price for the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna that it hardly requires articulation.

But for two reasons the Biden administration might want to reconsider its decision to not condemn the Iranian “elections.” First, Raisi is a particularly dangerous combination of thug and cleric. Second, the Iranian people may be waiting for just the sort of robust encouragement the Obama administration withheld in 2009.

One thing the election made clear is that the Supreme Leader no longer sees a benefit to paying lip service to useful-stooge “reformists” in the regime, such as outgoing president Hasan Rouhani and foreign minister Javed Zarif. Raisi’s background suggests that he has a very important — and potentially personal — role in maintaining the Khamenei family’s control of Iran.

The new president cut his authoritarian teeth in the 1979 Islamic revolution, and he quickly became prominent in the Iranian judiciary, a position he used to coordinate the brutal crackdowns on any dissent, including the 1988 wholesale massacre of political prisoners, which was part of the case the Trump administration built in 2019 to sanction him under Executive Order 13876 targeting the inner members of the Supreme Leader’s circle. Raisi also spent three years as the chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, an organization that is ostensibly a religious charity but is actually part of the shadowy network of slush funds making up the Khamenei family fortune.

Raisi therefore knows where the bodies are literally buried in the Supreme Leader’s support structure, as well as how to clamp down on any burgeoning opposition — making him the ideal candidate to oversee any unrest that might emerge around the time of Khamenei’s abdication or death. This is not to say there is any precise knowledge of when that might take place, but it would be logical to assume it might well be during the four or eight years of Raisi’s tenure. While the Supreme Leader’s ultimate goal is likely to ensure the elevation of his son, Mojtaba (also sanctioned under E.O. 13876), to the Supreme Leadership, Raisi would be an excellent caretaker to ensure that the succession takes place and that the family’s fortune is preserved.

While these developments are certainly in the best interests of Khamenei, they are not likely to be well received by the Iranian people, for whom regime corruption is a top concern. They know perfectly well that as they have suffered and starved under the international sanctions placed on Tehran, the top clerics and generals have grown enormously wealthy off profiteering and illicit oil sales while stifling what little (if any) opportunities exist for democratic change. Regime apologists explained the shockingly low participation in the June 18 presidential elections as voter “apathy,” but apathy does not appear to be the cause, as the second-place finisher, after Raisi, was a blank or deliberately voided ballot. While we cannot know the precise number, this organized campaign combining boycott and rejection of all the candidates may have gotten as much as 75 percent of the vote. The Iranian people may not be so apathetic after all.

In addition, protests have broken out across Iran in recent weeks, but, unlike the primarily political protests of 2009, these uprisings are being fueled as well by social issues, such as unrest among the labor unions over reduced wages and dangerous conditions, particularly in the petroleum sector. These demonstrations pose a significant challenge to the regime, as indiscriminate murders of these workers could provoke additional strikes and disruptions in production in this critical industry that the weakened Iranian economy could not sustain. In addition, protests in Khuzestan Province over a severe water shortage are spreading across the country, in a sort of collective cri de coeur against the systemic corruption and mismanagement by Tehran that has turned a wealthy, resourceful country into a barren desert.

When directly asked in press conferences, the State Department reports that it is “monitoring” the situation, but it took more than three weeks to issue any official statement, and then only from the press secretary, who “urged the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression and to freely access information, including via the Internet,” which is hardly a robust expression of support from senior officials in Washington.

As Raisi prepares for his inauguration this week, it has been revealed that Iran is responsible for the attack on the Mercer Street (a civilian commercial vessel tied to Israel) in the Arabian Gulf that killed two members of its crew, in a clear signal that Tehran is doubling down on its belligerent hostility toward the United States and our allies regardless of the conciliatory gestures and concessions from the Biden administration. But if the demonstrations continue to intensify, there could be one last opportunity — before the Iranian regime entrenches itself for another generation — for American political leadership to change course and speak up powerfully on behalf of the protesters and to galvanize international opposition to the regime that has oppressed Iranians for so long.

After all, such a tactic helped the United States win the Cold War: America successfully supported the Polish labor movement in the 1980s through mechanisms such as the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, and it encouraged U.S. unions to support their Polish counterparts. Potential Iranian regional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are at the cutting edge of water security, can publicly outline plans to reverse Iran’s catastrophic water shortage. Congress can finally move to provide free and uncensored satellite Internet access so the protesters can organize and get their story to the outside world. This show of solidarity might be just what the Iranian people need to reshape their destiny, but it won’t happen if President Biden and his administration continue to pursue a strategy of silence.

Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a principal member of Vi et Arte Solutions, LLC. She served as deputy national-security adviser for Middle Eastern and North African affairs in the Trump administration.

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