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How US leaders can best support protesters in Iran

Protesters gather in Sulaimaniyah on Sept. 28, 2022, protest the killing of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman after she was arrested in Tehran by morality police for wearing her headscarf improperly.
(AP Photo/Hawre Khalid, Metrography)
Protesters gather in Sulaimaniyah on Sept. 28, 2022, protest the killing of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman after she was arrested in Tehran by morality police for wearing her headscarf improperly. Iran has accused Kurdish opposition groups in exile of orchestrating the wave of protests across the country over the past two weeks. But Kurdish activists say the government is just trying to scapegoat them to distract from the domestic anger fueling the unrest. (AP Photo/Hawre Khalid, Metrography)

Democracies tend to be more effective in speaking to their own people than in communicating with foreign audiences. Part of the reason is that public diplomacy, the practice of engaging and informing the people of other nations, is still considered an elite practice confined to the marble halls of the State Department and foreign ministries.

But public diplomacy — because it is so people-centric — can make the difference between long-term peace and global upheaval.

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for wearing an “inappropriate hijab” has sparked mass protests from the people of Iran. It is unknown whether this growing fire of unrest will be extinguished or if it will erupt into a conflagration. Regardless, this is the time for world leaders to speak directly to the Iranian people through a variety of means that align with their needs and resonate with their concerns. With President Biden, we now have a leader whose Iran policy appears to be non-dogmatic. This is a potential gift to the people of Iran that could also benefit the world. 

Public diplomacy presents a variety of steps that U.S. and global leaders can take to fulfill this opportunity in Amini’s memory, so that some good may come from this tragedy: 

  • Speak to the Iranian people directly through the media. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has been clear and articulate when appearing on the Sunday news shows. He and other administration officials need to do likewise on Voice of America (VOA), BBC Persian and Radio Farda. VOA reaches almost 16 percent of the Iranian population; BBC has 13 million weekly listeners while 25 million Iranians listen monthly to Radio Farda’s live stream radio programs and podcasts. The important news shared then gets amplified by the people themselves. Nor is there any downside, as political negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program will not be sidetracked by this type of communication. The same is true when Iranian presidents speak directly to the American public through U.S. media when they visit the United Nations.  
  • Ensure that Iranian domestic social media consistently remains accessible. For example, the timely decision to license SpaceX’s Starlink satellite to operate in Iran means that all of these voices can be multiplied. Vigilance, however, is critical as the Iranian government keeps seeking ways to quell open communications.  
  • Communicate with and leverage empathy to speak to the Iranian people about their concerns and their future. Be truthful and authentic to counter the Iranian government’s effectiveness in using propaganda to influence public opinion. Sullivan was refreshingly open in admitting that the Obama administration decided to remain quiet during the 2009 demonstrations so as not to tinge the protestors as being driven by the U.S. It was a policy that did not serve the Iranian people well.
  • The concerns to address about Iran’s future include fears of becoming a dysfunctional society like Syria or Iraq if the Islamic Republic falls from power and worries about the nation disintegrating into ethnicities vying for independence. Anecdotal evidence shows that even ethnic minorities are not fond of the latter possibility.  
  • Bring together Iranian Americans who have served in the current or previous administrations to share their experience with democracy — and promote such discussions widely in Iran. 
  • Include the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy in all Iran policy discussions occurring at the White House, the office of the Special Envoy for Iran and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department. 
  • Energize the Council of Women World Leaders, composed of former and current leaders such as the prime ministers of New Zealand, Ethiopia, Lithuania and Greece, to call a special session and issue an emergency communique in support of the women of Iran. Current and former U.S. first ladies could also issue their own statements of support and speak widely on the plight of the women in Iran.  
  • Urge U.S. labor groups to throw their support to their fellow unions in Iran. The Iranian oil workers have warned of a strike if the crackdowns don’t stop, and such support could embolden other unions. 

The above strategies can all be employed without feeding baseless conspiracy theories, bolstered by the government in Iran about foreign puppeteers. It is high time for public diplomacy to take its rightful place in all global diplomatic efforts. This is the time for its unequivocal integration in Iran-related foreign policy. 

Goli Ameri, the CEO of Startitup, is the former U.S. assistant secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, serving under the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy. She also serves on the advisory board of the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy. Jay Wang is the director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Tags Biden Iran nuclear deal Iran protests Jake Sullivan Politics of the United States US-Iran diplomacy Voice of America

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