One year after sweeping protests, the US and EU must do more to help Iranians

One year after sweeping protests, the US and EU must do more to help Iranians
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One year ago, Iranians of all stripes took to the streets en masse to express their grievances with the regime. While Tehran suppressed those demonstrations, protesters were undeterred, continuing such public gatherings throughout 2018. But while the Iranian people continue to risk their lives to publicly demand a better and freer future, the United States and Europe must do more to have their backs.

Different sectors have taken to the streets: a “middle-class poor” seeking economic prosperity instead of subsistence living; merchants hurt by Iran’s economic spiral; women opposing mandatory head-covering; Sufi Muslims protesting their persecution; truckers, teachers, and other workers seeking higher wages and the right to organize; and many other Iranians tired of the regime’s human rights violations, economic mismanagement, and corruption.

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The regime responded to their calls for reform by cracking down, detaining thousands, torturing untold numbers, and killing dozens. Logic dictates that Tehran’s oppression of the Iranian people will continue unless and until the costs of its misbehavior become too high. That’s why responsible nations like the U.S. and our European allies need to increase pressure on Iran, stat.

Unfortunately, with respect to human rights, they’ve applied little such coercion.

The European Union has harmed the Iranian people more than it’s helped them. It has not designated even one new Iranian official for human rights abuses since the finalization of the 2015 nuclear deal — even after the imprisonment of European-Iranian dual-nationals like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali.

Instead, the EU is banging away to preserve its business dealings with Iran, allowing the regime to fund its malign activities, including human rights abuses. While the EU recently sanctioned Iran for attempting to carry out terrorist attacks on European soil, they are ultimately punishing the regime with one hand while rewarding it with the other through continued investments. Until the Europeans stop doing business with Iran and start sanctioning it for all its dangerous behavior, including its human rights abuses, they will be part of the problem, not the solution.

Nor is the U.S. doing much better. While the Trump administration claims it’s applying a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, it hasn’t sanctioned numerous regime human rights abusers — including more than 60 regime officials sanctioned years ago by the EU.

The president missed an opportunity to highlight Tehran’s abysmal human rights record when he chaired a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in September. He should have seized the moment to roll out new sanctions designations and put the EU, as well as council permanent member states Russia and China, on the defensive by forcing them to explain their indefensible inaction.

Instead, President TrumpDonald John TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview MORE issued forgettable, quickly ignored warnings about the Iranian weapons-proliferation threat. Worse still, the president actually thanked Iran and its Russian and Syrian allies for “slowing down” their assault on the city of Idlib in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. President Trump even encouraged these bad actors to “get the terrorists,” legitimizing the lie that these rogue regimes were primarily fighting ISIS, rather than wiping out opposition to Assad’s rule.

Fortunately, the Trump administration has another high-profile opportunity to target Tehran’s regime’s repression: a U.S.-hosted global summit in February on “Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security” in the region, focusing on Iran.

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The administration should engage the Europeans and other allies at the highest levels to agree on joint sanctions on additional Iranian human rights abusers, to be rolled out at the gathering. New targets should include Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran’s largest charitable foundation, Astan Quds Razavi, and the supreme leader’s pick to next head the judiciary; Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri and his office for, among other things, prosecution and threats of prosecution of activists; and Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, whose department has taken a leading role in both persecuting dissidents and detaining Western hostages like Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Dr. Djalali.

But if our friends refuse to join us, we should nonetheless use the meeting to unilaterally impose crushing new human rights sanctions on these and other regime human rights abusers. America must stand with the Iranian people, even if it means standing alone. 

Alan Goldsmith covers policy and Washington outreach for United Against Nuclear Iran and the Counter Extremism Project. He formerly served as a professional staff member for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @AlanGoldsmith.