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10 ways the US government could help Iranians win back their country
The Iranian regime has responded to widespread protests in Iran with its usual violence and repression, and is once more calling protesters agents of foreign powers.
Hardliners and so-called "reformists" warn Iranians, and the world, that the motivation of the protesters is to destabilize and destroy Iran. Some in the diaspora - influenced by organizations that claim to be nonpartisan but in fact amplify official regime talking points - are fearful that protests will be a precursor to mayhem and war. Despite many having supported the 2009 Green Movement, they are distancing themselves now from this more radical uprising that seeks a complete end to rule by mullahs.
Those who are reluctant to support protesters for fear of destabilizing Iran are, in fact, choosing to muffle their severe grievances and calls for justice, and are willfully dishonest about how their demands can be met. Incremental reform long has proven futile; hence, the protesters' slogans against both reformists and hardliners.
No matter what the United States says or does with regards to Iranian protesters now, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the regime will label them "American stooges," as they are already doing and always have done. We must not let our preoccupation with President Trump-the-person get in the way of supporting sound foreign policymaking that benefits the people of Iran and American national security. Such support would be no different from American support for Solidarity in Poland or for anti-apartheid activists in South Africa.
Expressions of rhetorical support from U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and from other parts of the U.S. government, including members of Congress ranging from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have been wise and impactful. Here are practical measures the U.S. government should take immediately to help Iranians peacefully win back their country and their rights:
- The U.S. government should publicly disclose more information about the billions of dollars the Islamic Republic has stolen from the Iranian people to funnel towards Khamenei and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the national wealth it has squandered in an attempt to export its revolution abroad. Through documentaries on satellite TV and posts on social media, this data would add credence to the Iranian people's charges of mismanagement and deceit by those who rule in the name of God.
- Sanctions placed on regime conglomerates and oligarchic enterprises by the Obama administration prior to the nuclear deal should be snapped back because of the regime's repression.
- Assets of the Supreme Leader and other Iranian officials and government-owned entities should be targeted using the Global Magnitsky Act.
- The U.S. government should work closely with social media companies to ensure that civic activists and human rights initiatives can operate freely. Our Tavaana project, focused on support to civil society, was taken down on Instagram for over 10 hours at the height of protests while Iranian state media continued to use social media platforms unfettered, including to ask users to identify peaceful protesters for arrest.
- Protesters have been using the hashtag #banIRIB to call on the United States and the international community to ban all Iranian media. We should heed this call for a ban on the regime's broadcasting and see its TV, radio and use of (American) social media platforms for what they are: tools for repression. It is through its state media outlets that the regime broadcasts messages of fear and intimidation, forced confessions by activists, sham trials, disinformation about protestors, lies about what is happening in Iran and around the world, and propaganda against the United States.
- Voice of America Persian service should be resuscitated from its deplorable state. During the Obama administration, the network lost the large and loyal audience it had because popular, politically sharp programming was canceled and replaced with watered-down messaging to accompany appeasement and rapprochement with the Iranian regime. The outlet is poorly managed, with low morale among staff. If the Iranian people are to make a transition to democracy, they will need daily news and analysis from VOA that is robust and encouraging.
- The millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer funds designated for programs to promote democracy and human rights in Iran should be spent on initiatives with such a focus. Under the Obama administration, the democracy program launched by President George W. Bush had its force and purpose altered with mild, apolitical programming focused more on socio-economic development, rather than democratic change.
- The Trump administration's ban on travel to the United States by Iranians should be replaced with a program to kick out regime leaders and their families from the United States. Under the Obama administration, visas were granted to top regime leaders and their children, while visas were denied for family members of Iranian-Americans who have been proud U.S. citizens for decades. Such a move would correct the impression - promulgated happily by the Iranian regime and its echo chamber abroad to take attention away from the violence against protesters - that the U.S. government holds disdain for Iranian immigrants.
- Women leaders in the U.S. government should express solidarity with Iranian women fighting for their most basic human rights. Bipartisan shows of support would be all the more powerful.
- The U.S. government should work with Europe to jointly develop a target set for human rights sanctions. The United States should pressure Europe to act quickly and practically on behalf of the universal human rights norms they espouse.
Mariam Memarsadeghi is co-founder and co-director of Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, a virtual institute offering secure democracy and human rights educational opportunities. A 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholar, she is an outspoken advocate for the principles of liberalism, women's rights, civic education and internet freedom, particularly in Islamic contexts.
Akbar Atri, Tavaana's co-founder and co-director, is a veteran human rights activist and former Iranian student leader. He was one of the original drafters of the Referendum Movement on the Iranian Constitution and has been sentenced in absentia to a minimum of seven years in prison for his human rights activism.