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Americans cannot look away from what’s happening in Iran

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
Iranian women conduct their business without wearing their mandatory Islamic headscarves in a commercial district in northern Tehran on Nov. 14, 2022. Anti-government protests have swept Iran over the past two months, after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been arrested by the morality police in Tehran for allegedly not observing the mandatory Islamic hijab.

For nearly 10 months, the American media have kept front and center the Ukrainian people’s plight and desire to be free of Vladimir Putin’s aggression. It is a credit to them that they have kept their focus on an issue that has profound security implications for America and the world.

However, an equally compelling quest for freedom is happening in the Islamic Republic of Iran against a brutal dictatorship that has terrorized its people for over 40 years but has not received nearly enough attention. A case can be made that the destabilization of the Iranian regime by its people, with the potential for it to fall, is also a significant American national security interest.

Can Americans support the Ukrainian and the Iranian people at the same time?

Some of the issues are related, so connecting the dots is easy. “Iran Is now at war with Ukraine; Tehran has taken its fight against the West to Europe,” says an article in Foreign Policy by two experts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. When Russian troops use Iranian drones to kill Ukrainian civilians, while the Iranian regime simultaneously kills its people, it is incumbent on American leaders to understand that these are not unrelated events. They are part of a long-running war against the West, freedom and American values. 

Many Americans are not fully aware that during the recent protests in Iran, hundreds of innocent people have been killed, thousands arrested, and many tortured by a regime that is one of the world’s most notorious and long-term human rights abusers. American administrations have looked the other way on Iran’s human rights record in the name of realpolitik and, for part of the time, the quest for a nuclear deal with Iran. 

Iranian activist Nazanin Boniadi, speaking at the United Nations Security Council Arria-Formula meeting on Iran this month, tried to get the international body to understand that Iran’s actions against its citizens are a crime against humanity. In a misogynistic society, women lead the protests and risk their lives. Iran ranks 140 out of 144 nations in gender inequality, as ranked by the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap. Women in Iran are arrested, raped, sent to “re-education centers,” tortured and killed — yet, they persevere.  

When was it ever good for America — or any nation in the free world — to ignore its values to placate an authoritarian tyrant? The Iranian regime will not change; it is unreformable. The Iranian people are not asking for weapons but for international vocal support to acknowledge their right to protest, speak freely, and determine their destiny. They are a nonviolent movement, and the support they desire is the megaphone of the free world.

The current protests are unique in their size, compared to previous demonstrations, bringing together nearly every ethnicity in Iranian society. In the 2019 protests, the grievance was economic; in 2009, it was triggered by a rigged election of a thuggish hardliner as president. Today it is against the very legitimacy of the regime and its suffocating theocracy.

According to the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, “Iranians of all ages, ethnicities and genders have joined in the demonstrations, but it is mainly younger generations that have taken to the streets. Women started this wave of protest. But everyone else joined. Women and men are shoulder-to-shoulder. All of Iran is united.”  

A ruthless authoritarian nation that is boxed into a corner with limited options will do anything to survive. The regime’s response to an accelerating uprising will test the Iranian people’s will and that of America and its Middle East allies. One of the regime’s strategies may be to deflect attention with provocations against America and its regional partners, hoping to elicit a kinetic response. The strategy would bank on the proud Iranian people to rally around their flag and even support the hated regime against foreign aggressors.

Retired Adm. James Stavridis said, “Hatred of America has long proven a galvanizing force in Iran. The regime, out of desperation, could precipitate a crisis with the United States. A simple way to do this would be to assassinate a U.S. official. Our retaliation, if clumsily handled, could allow the regime to rally the Iranian people around a besieged flag.” In August, the Justice Department charged an Iranian with planning to assassinate former National Security Agency adviser John Bolton.  

The best thing America could do is to have President Biden use his pulpit as the leader of the free world to support the Iranian people’s nonviolent movement to decide their destiny. During a campaign stop this month,  Biden made an off-the-cuff remark: “Don’t worry, we’re gonna free Iran and they’re gonna free themselves pretty soon.” Unfortunately, the follow-up has been minimal.

Too many in the Biden administration evidently still hope for a return to the Iran nuclear agreement. That would undermine long-term U.S. security interests for a stable Middle East, increasing the chance of a regional war with an economically enriched authoritarian regime. And it would condemn the Iranian people to more decades of violence, torture and suppression.

That is not the side of history America should be on, for the sake of our values and long-term interests. As Ronald Reagan said, “We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, but when they are weak. It is then that tyrants are tempted.” 7

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

Tags Human rights abuses Iran protests Islamic Republic of Iran Russo-Ukrainian War

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