To help Iranians, Biden needs to pressure America’s allies
Brave Iranians have been calling for an end to the Islamic Republic of Iran for months now, yet the Biden administration has not been visibly leading its closest allies to deploy the measures necessary to shake the Iranian regime and sharpen Tehran’s choices. Efforts to isolate and punish the regime have been too slow, too weak and too disjointed to stop the carnage. It’s time for the United States to increase its pressure on Iran — and on American allies, too, to help them find the nerve and resolve to hold the regime accountable.
It is imperative that President Biden take control quickly. Iran is becoming increasingly brutal in its crackdown against protesters who are acting in self-defense. The regime reportedly has electrocuted and raped young boys, smashed the skulls of girls, blinded its young people, and aimed fire at the faces, breasts and genitals of women. The catalog of horrors also includes torture and executions, including recently of a British-Iranian dual-national. Without strong U.S. leadership, the regime likely will sidestep the threat from within to its continued rule and be emboldened in all aspects of its malign behavior. This is something the international community can ill afford.
Biden’s first agenda item should be to demand that European allies take the easiest and clearest of steps: designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. The IRGC is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and the shootdown of a civilian aircraft that killed 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents of Canada. It is guilty of murder-for-hire schemes against former U.S. officials, plotting assassinations on French soil and threatening journalists in Great Britain, and is responsible for crimes against humanity.
Washington should not be content to shrug its shoulders at European inaction with the excuse that a European court decision is required. The European Union has added IRGC officers such as Gholam Shakuri to its terrorism list before, in 2011, based on U.S. indictments. The Justice Department charged an IRGC member in a murder-for-hire plot against former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton in 2022. That can provide U.S. allies in Europe the legal rationale they require.
The U.S. also should direct the effort to harmonize human rights and terrorism sanctions, which would maximize their effect. There is urgency in doing so. Since September, for example, the EU and the UK have aggressively wielded restrictive measures against Iranian targets — rolling out multiple sets focused on human rights abuses. Ditto for Canada. But dozens of individuals and entities in Iran have escaped accountability in one jurisdiction or another. Likewise, the U.S. has at least 228 Iranian entities and individuals listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, while the EU has listed just 13 individuals and 21 entities under terrorism authorities globally — and not all are Iranian. It is time to speak with one voice.
To that end, the U.S. should impose sanctions against officials at all levels of the Iranian regime and call upon Europe to follow suit. It is past due to hold the highest authorities responsible for their crimes. If world powers can sanction the presidents of Russia, Syria and Belarus, surely they can sanction Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his son Mojtaba, and President Ebrahim Raisi, using Magnitsky Act authorities. This would be consistent with the Biden administration’s prioritizing of countering corruption as a core U.S. national security interest; Khamenei’s office sustains the structural corruption of the Iranian system.
But sanctions alone may prove to be insufficient. That’s why Biden should encourage allies to isolate the Iranian regime by downgrading diplomatic ties and blocking its representatives from enjoying the freedom of life in Europe and the potential to monitor dissident activists — some of whom Tehran is targeting and threatening. Organizers of major international conferences are already blacklisting official Iranian government representatives. After years of Iranian officials being offered a platform, this year the World Economic Forum at Davos instead invited Iranian dissidents and the upcoming Munich Security Conference also reportedly will not feature regime figures. It is time for European governments to similarly expel Iranian diplomats from their capitals.
There are many additional steps the president can take, such as supporting European invocation of the snapback sanctions mechanism, which would formally terminate the failed Iran nuclear deal, and calling for European governments to sanction Iran Air and deny it privileges from servicing European cities, especially after its reported involvement in ferrying drones to Russia for use against an EU candidate country, Ukraine. These measures would telegraph that it will not be “business as usual” with Tehran.
Last, and certainly not least, the U.S. should work with its allies and partners to crack down on Iranian elites and their families who use foreign jurisdictions to profit off illicit wealth. Canada and Europe have been permissive environments for far too long. Washington should consider forming an international task force, modeled after its Russian variant — an Iranian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs (IEPO) Task Force — to pursue regime oligarchs’ interests in the West. One Iranian study suggests that 3,000 to 4,000 children of Islamic Republic officials reside abroad.
This is an opportunity for Biden to lead the free world’s response to a deepening crisis in Iran with strength, clarity and resolve. Iranians and Americans need him to succeed.
Mark D. Wallace (@mark_d_wallace) is the CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for management and reform.
Jason M. Brodsky (@JasonMBrodsky) is the policy director of UANI.
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