Behnam Ben Taleblu and Saeed Ghasseminejad/The National Interest: How Biden Can Stand With the Iranian People/بهنام بن طالبلو وسعيد قاسمي نجاد/ناشيونال إنترست: كيف يمكن لبايدن الوقوف مع الشعب الإيراني

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بهنام بن طالبلو وسعيد قاسمي نجاد/ ناشيونال إنترست: كيف يمكن لبايدن الوقوف مع الشعب الإيراني

How Biden Can Stand With the Iranian People
Behnam Ben Taleblu and Saeed Ghasseminejad/The National Interest/October 06/2022

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.

Concurrently, members of Congress can and should continue the string of letters, resolutions, tweets, and statements made in support of the Iranian people while also seeking to clarify or improve U.S. policy. Hearings about the administration’s human rights policy toward Iran, amongst others, can also be of assistance.

Sixth, the administration should support efforts to provide the Iranian people access to uncensored internet via satellite. As Iranians increasingly rely on the internet, social media applications, and mobile communications to organize and share the regime’s atrocities with the outside world, the Islamic Republic has improved its domestic cyber capabilities to censor and throttle or blackout the internet. With a reported 80 percent of Iranians already using virtual private networks (VPNs) and anti-filtering technologies prior to the start of the protests, measures to ensure connectivity are now a critical lynchpin.

Reports that Elon Musk is seeking to provide Iranians with Starlink is welcome news. To ramp up the production of Starlink terminals, an Iran Free Internet Fund (or similarly named entity) should be created under public-private auspices to offer Starlink financial support for an Iran-specific acquisition program. Washington can then create an interagency task force to oversee an operation to ensure that Iranians get access to the necessary hardware to make sure Starlink becomes operational, and sustain the costs of funneling this hardware into Iran over time.

In the meantime, the U.S. government task force can help identify and contest regime or pro-regime hacker-led disinformation and hacking efforts to mislead Iranians about the current operational status of Starlink.

Seventh, the latest round of Treasury Department designations against Tehran’s petrochemical and oil smuggling networks raises hopes that at a very minimum, Washington may move towards greater enforcement of the sanctions penalties it has inherited and, until recently, decided to let atrophy. Since May, the Treasury Department has issued these penalties against networks supporting illicit Iranian oil and petrochemical producers, financiers, and shippers to the tune of one sanctions package a month. While these measures have been insufficient to elicit Iranian nuclear concessions or foster a change in behavior, a greater focus on Iran’s petrochemical exports is critical given their importance to the regime.

The administration should make sure relevant agencies are tracking these shipments so that Washington can move to confiscate, wherever possible and within the full extent of the law, illicit Iranian shipments. The funds generated from these sales can not only fund the aforementioned Iran Free Internet Fund, but also underwrite a strike and protest fund akin to what was done for Poland’s Solidarity Movement during the Cold War.

Eighth, the United States and many of its international partners have significant cyber capabilities that can be used to help protesters. In addition to targeting Tehran’s command and control systems from abroad, Washington can help the protesters in their efforts to move from street power to strike power. At present, protesters are facing challenges in sustaining a pincer movement against the regime. Labor strikes are currently ongoing in educational institutions across Iran, but they are slowly moving towards the service sector. Laborers in strategic sectors, such as the energy sector, are now threatening to go on strike. Disrupting the operations of these key sectors could give a much-needed boost to laborers and threaten the regime. Oil strikes were a critical factor that multiplied street power in the 1978-1979 protests that took down the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran.

Ninth, as protesters combat a well-equipped machine of oppression, Washington and its partners are likely already in possession of intelligence through signals and imagery that could possibly be shared with protesters via the Iranian opposition. Specifically, should Basij, IRGC, and LEF bases and command outposts be the subject of monitoring, then information on force deployments from these positions could be useful for Iranian protesters. Tenth, as the Islamic Republic continues its crackdown on Iranians at home, it has been looking abroad to project strength. For the third time since protests began in September, Iran attacked Kurdish positions in northern Iraq.

But unlike the first two days of strikes, on the third day, IRGC ground forces escalated to launch a reported seventy-three ballistic missiles at several locations in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing a reported thirteen people. This marks Iran’s second ballistic missile operation against northern Iraq in 2022, the first being a barrage in March against the home of a Kurdish oil tycoon, which Tehran claimed was an Israeli outpost. The recent operation even took the life of an American citizen, but Tehran has thus far only received condemnation from Washington.

Despite domestic unrest, Tehran has not taken its eye off of the Middle East’s proxy wars. Neither should Washington. In addition to the need to counter Iran’s weapons proliferation and terror funding, a greater kinetic pushback on Iran and its proxies could lead to concurrent and even reinforcing foreign and domestic vectors of pressure on the regime. Over time, this could help elicit or widen fissures among the security establishment, as they may be forced to debate priorities and have to consider reallocating funding, time, political attention, and other resources to each contest.

Ultimately, sustained domestic and foreign cost-imposition to the Islamic Republic can shatter the image of invincibility that it has carefully cultivated among adversaries and allies. At the end of the day, the Iranian people are and will remain the stewards of their own destiny. But three weeks in, one thing is clear: the Iranian people deserve more support. This strategy offers Washington a way to get off the sidelines and show, in ways consistent with American national security interests, that it stands with the Iranian people in practice, not just principle.

*Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior adviser. Both contribute to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP), among others. The views expressed are their own.