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Will the US miss the moment again in Iran?

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
In this picture released by the Iranian government, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with a group of Basij paramilitary force in Tehran on Nov. 26, 2022.

Among the nations that could take advantage of the United States during this unprecedented period of congressional dysfunction is Iran

Iranian athletes, chess players, celebrity chefs and members of the general public are caught up in crackdowns by Iran’s theocratic regime. Executions are taking place on a near daily basis.

On the streets Tehran and other cities, protests have grown since mid-September, when thousands of ordinary citizens protested the death of an innocent 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, whose detention and death became a symbol of the regime’s brutality and the growing desire of women to shed their headscarves.

Now Iran is doubling down on its brutality by imposing a tougher set of rules on hijabs and ordering officials to “act decisively” against women who do not follow them.

The U.S. and Europe must sound the alarm and signal support for these citizens who are risking their lives for change.

Too often over the last few decades, the U.S. has missed the moment on protests in Iran, as we did in 2009 when the Green Movement built steam.

When the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, departed his country for the final time on Jan. 16, 1979, he left behind a nation in perpetual discontent. A country ruled by monarchs for 2,500 years suddenly found itself governed by Shia clerics, beginning with Ayatollah Khomeini, and continuing to the present-day theocracy. And the U.S. has not managed to influence Iran in a positive way despite the Iranian people’s desire to change.

Bubbling beneath the surface of religious rule has been a quiet, steady protest movement that refuses to be extinguished even in the face of imprisonment and death.

What comes next in this country of 85 million could have aftershocks that impact everything from the price of oil to nuclear conflagration to the war in Ukraine.

Nuclear weapons

On the top of the minds of global diplomats is growing evidence that Iran is enriching uranium at its highest level ever, positioning it to become a nuclear bomb-making nation. Any hopes of a joint agreement (the JCPOA) to freeze Iranian enrichment is all but dead as even the United States, one the biggest backers of a nuclear deal, is now bent on imposing costly sanctions on Iran to devastate its already declining economy.

2023 will mark the official expiration of the old nuclear deal as its so-called “sunset clauses” set in. And tensions between Israel and Iran over nuclear nightmares are high following the assassination of a top Iranian official in Tehran, a series of other mysterious deaths of security personnel inside Iran, airstrikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria, threatening rhetoric from Iranian leaders and Iran’s increasing violation of nuclear agreements. Last week Iran launched an explosive-laden drone at a simulated Israeli Naval base.


One of the greatest threats from Iran remains its ability to carry out terrorist attacks around the world. Last weekend, German authorities detained an Iranian suspected of planning a terrorist attack after a tip from the U.S. And the U.S. Navy confirms it seized over 2,100 assault rifles destined for Yemen and believed to have originated in Iran.

Complicating political matters inside Iran has been the fragility of the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, whose death could destabilize or even lead to the collapse of the state. Iran says it has closed a Tehran-based French institute over “sacrilegious” cartoons of its supreme leader in a French satirical magazine. If desperate, the religious regime will lash out not only at home but through proxies abroad.

Russian drones

At a time when war between Russia and Ukraine is occupying the lion’s share of attention and resources, Iran is very much on the minds of America and Europe as a key supplier of drones for Moscow’s continuing attack on Ukraine’s infrastructure.

The U.S. is trying to crack down on Iranian drone shipments as Russia keeps pounding away at Ukraine’s electricity grid. Most fear-inspiring is the thought of Russia sending nuclear-related hardware to Iran for its global use.

Frustrating the U.S. government are reports showing that explosive drones and other guided munitions provided from Iran are built mainly with parts from the United States, shipped despite sanctions. 

With Iran in the global spotlight, including a United Nations investigation of violations committed against protestors, the West has a window of opportunity to tighten the screws on the Iranian regime with more sanctions, and to galvanize the Iranian public with open and consistent support for civil society.

The U.S. government should increase assistance to protestors with advanced telecommunications tools and help ordinary Iranians get continued access to virtual private networks (VPNs) to allow protestors to avoid internet detection and security crackdowns. Ironically, that means lessening sanctions on private firms in certain sectors. Additional sanctions on Iran’s aviation and defense sector have been levied by the U.S. government in recent days, but more pressure is needed.

We have a historic chance to help Iran redefine itself and move away from religious restrictions, morality police and domestic surveillance of innocent citizens while safeguarding the world from a nuclear Iran eager to do damage at home and abroad. It is paramount that Congress acts with one voice.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary for public diplomacy and currently the Edward R. Murrow professor of practice at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Iran iran nuclear deal Iran Nuclear Deal Iran protests Iranian protests Iran–United States relations Mahsa Amini Tehran

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