Trump must challenge Iran's ongoing human rights abuses
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“The real war” with the West, Iran’s supreme leader declared in a recent speech, “is a cultural war.” It unfolds not on Middle East battlefields, but on the “many television and internet networks which are busy diverting the hearts and minds of our youth away from religion, our sacred beliefs, morality, modesty and the like.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would know. After all, thousands of Iranians languish in his regime’s notorious prisons for the high crime of opposing its radical Islamist ideology.

By contrast, notwithstanding his commendable insistence on deploying the phrase “radical Islamist terrorism,” President Trump has portrayed the Iranian threat largely in military terms, devoting little attention to the regime’s longstanding human rights abuses. Yet precisely because Tehran’s dogma guides the full range of its malign behavior in the Middle East, a robust effort to challenge Tehran’s domestic repression would advance America’s self-interest. The Trump organization should recognize that any U.S. strategy to counter Iran requires Washington to combat the regime’s authoritarian creed.

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First and foremost, the Islamic Republic regards its mission as a revolutionary struggle for the supremacy of Shiite Islam in a Middle East dominated by Sunni states and their U.S. patron. Like his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who saw the United States as the satanic “whisperer,” Khamenei may fear America’s military might much less than its soft power. Military threats, Khamenei contends, “make the people more motivated and it will make them clench their fists against … (the enemy) more firmly.” But a cultural attack “will weaken their willpower, it will take away the youth from the country and it will render valuable forces useless.”

 

Put differently, foreign armies threaten merely Iran’s people. Foreign values threaten their souls.

Thus, while Tehran’s human rights abuses have remained a constant since 1979, the regime has routinely escalated them when it believes that its Islamist doctrine faces a heightened threat. In the months after the July 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran conducted a wave of arrests that one advocacy group described as the “largest crackdown” on human rights since the 2009 Green Revolt. Keenly aware that President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWho is 'Anonymous' author Miles Taylor? Gallup poll shows historic gap between parties on president's approval rating On The Trail: The fallacy of a conclusive election night MORE saw the accord as an opportunity to bolster moderate voices within Iran, the regime deliberately augmented its domestic repression in order to show that the agreement would not lead to a broader rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.

The latest surge in Iran’s human rights abuses reflects a similar dynamic. In 2017, Tehran has already executed some 200 people. The regime has also increased its arrests of journalists, civil rights activists, ethnic and religious minorities, and social media users. Iran’s behavior likely aims to show that its coming presidential elections in May, contrary to the hopes of many Western observers, will not lead to a fundamental change in the character of the government.

The acute fear of cultural infiltration that drives Tehran’s domestic repression offers a strategic opportunity for the Trump administration. By raising the costs for Iran’s human rights abuses as part of a larger strategy to deter its regional aggression and nuclear ambitions, Washington can weaken Tehran’s resolve to challenge U.S. interests in other arenas. At the same time, the United States can embolden and strengthen moderate forces in the country, thereby eroding the regime’s power and legitimacy from within.

The Trump administration appears to have begun to grasp this prospect: On April 13, it imposed sanctions on two key Iranian human rights abusers, the first new human rights-related designations enacted by Washington since 2014. But if it wants to effect meaningful change on the ground, it must not stop there.

In the coming months, the administration should increase sanctions on other Iranian human rights abusers, provide robust funding to Iranian human rights organizations, and meet publicly with Iranian dissidents. It should caution international banks and companies about the reputational risks of conducting business with a theocratic dictatorship. It should work to isolate Iran at the United Nations and other international fora by highlighting not only its support for terrorism but also its grim human rights record.

And unlike President Obama, who remained largely silent when nationwide protests consumed Iran in 2009, President Trump should unabashedly employ the bully pulpit to denounce Tehran’s most recent human rights crackdown.

In his speech to the House of Commons in 1982, President Ronald Reagan asserted that the Cold War constitutes not a conflict of “bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.” The same principle holds true today regarding the U.S. battle with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. For America’s sake as well as Iran’s, President Trump should act accordingly.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.