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Why do Democrats want to save Iran’s theocracy?

At a time when Iran’s oppressive totalitarian regime is coming under increasing pressure from within and its grip on power is being tested daily, Democrats are rushing in with sanctions relief plans that would shore up its control. Ignorance, naiveté and a warped sense of priorities explains much of their recent activity.

Since last fall, protests in Iran have become bold. Rather than “Death to America!,” the chants in Tehran increasingly are “Death to the Dictator!” and “We don’t want the Ayatollahs!” If Ali Khamenei loses control because of his regime’s inept response to Iran’s COVID-19 deaths, it might be the only good thing to come out of the pandemic. That is, unless the Democrats have their way.

On April 9, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote to President Trump, urging him not to block Iran’s request for a $5 billion humanitarian aid loan from the International Monetary Fund. On March 26, 11 senators wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting that the Trump administration suspend sanctions on Iran.

In their letter, Sens. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md. ), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Jeffrey Merkley (D-Ore.) argue that “U.S. sanctions are hindering the free flow of desperately needed medical and humanitarian supplies” not only to Iran but also Venezuela. They argue that sanctions have “exacerbated the failing medical responses” and are increasing “anti-Americanism that is at the heart of both regimes’ hold on power.”

This embarrassingly simplistic view ignores the fact that, in both countries, anti-regime sentiments are stronger among the populace than anti-American sentiments. Both regimes hold power in spite of their people’s beliefs, not because of them.

The senators further undercut their argument by calling attention to 2003, when an earthquake killed 26,000 people in Iran. They applaud the Bush administration for having “temporarily suspended sanctions to send 150,000 pounds of medical supplies and more than 200 aid workers on military aircraft to help the people of Iran recover.” Such actions “show… that above all else, America cares about the preservation of human life.” The senators perhaps forgot that in 2012 after another earthquake, President Obama’s Treasury Department temporarily lifted sanctions against Iran. 

But if American aid diminishes anti-Americanism, why does it persist among Iran’s clerics? Why didn’t it end in 2003 or 2012, after those displays of compassion? Why haven’t the mullahs realized that American philanthropy contradicts their “Great Satan” narrative?

The gullible Democrats seem ignorant of the well-documented fact that when relief money flows into Iran, it disappears. Pompeo revealed on March 23 that more than 1 billion euros designated for Iran’s fight against the coronavirus reportedly have gone missing, and personal protection equipment donated to Iranian hospitals has wound up for sale on the black market. Pompeo tweeted a video on March 28 showing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani acknowledging a “concerted effort to influence public opinion … aimed at bringing back our money seized in other countries.” Pompeo says Rouhani’s “concerted effort to lift U.S. sanctions isn’t about fighting the pandemic. It’s about cash for the regime’s leaders.”

Even Iran’s chief auditor, Abdel Azar, recognizes the problem. He published a report on April 14 charging that $4.8 billion has gone missing from the country’s budget and that some government employees are receiving “astronomical salaries.” For his work in exposing the apparent theft and corruption, he was denounced by Rouhani.

Another Democrat urging an Iranian bailout is former vice president Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee. On April 2, he released a statement on sanctions relief for Iran, bemoaning the Trump administration’s “failure [and] cruelty by inhibiting access to needed humanitarian assistance” in spite of the fact that Trump has offered both medical aid and the assistance of American physicians, both of which were rejected. Biden’s letter acknowledges Trump’s offer, but he worries that foreign governments and organizations fear retaliation from the U.S. His solution is for Trump to “issue comfort letters to reassure them that they will not be subject to U.S. sanctions.”

Biden calls for other extraordinary measures, such as “issuing broad licenses to pharmaceutical and medical device companies [and] creating a dedicated channel for international banks, transportation companies, insurers and other service firms to help Iranians.”

At a time when pharmaceutical and medical device companies are struggling to keep up with the needs of American patients and hospitals, and while banks, transportation companies and insurance firms are laboring to serve American customers, Joe Biden wants to add to the burden by redirecting their efforts in order to aid suffering Iranians.

Predictably, Obama’s former vice president complains that Trump’s “abandon[ing] the Iran nuclear deal in favor of a ‘maximum pressure’ strategy … has badly backfired, encouraging Iran to become even more aggressive.” Here Biden apparently has forgotten that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did nothing to curb Iran’s aggression. In January 2016, just months after the agreement was signed, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized 10 U.S. Navy sailors in international waters and held them hostage until then-Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated for their release and then issued a groveling statement expressing “gratitude to Iranian authorities for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter.” Expect more of the same if Joe Biden becomes president. He’ll probably make Kerry secretary of state again.

Biden’s defenders will say — as Democrats love to say of the JCPOA — that “at least Obama had a deal,” but they rarely acknowledge two important facts. One, through its sunset clauses, Obama’s deal only delayed Iran’s illegal nuclear program by 10-15 years, and then laundered it into a legal nuclear program. Two, Iran cheated on the deal from day one, with its hidden nuclear sites and research. Iran used the multibillion-dollar payout it scored on the front end of the JCPOA to sponsor more terrorism. It now seeks more cash, and Democrats appear all too willing to comply.

On what would Iran spend money that it gains through “sanctions relief”? It would pay Hezbollah salaries, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, the terrorist group attacking American forces in Iraq. It would supply missiles to its Shiite proxies worldwide, from Houthi rebels in Yemen to Hamas terrorists in Gaza. It would finance missile research and tests under the guise of a “space program.” It would continue sending gunboats to harass U.S. ships in international waters. It might even create more terrorist organizations, such as the new “League of Revolutionaries” currently threatening to bomb U.S. embassies and kidnap American forces throughout the Middle East.

Iran’s theocracy may not fall to a coronavirus coup — but, then again, it may. The government’s continued abilities to suppress protestors and pay its henchmen are crucial to its control of power. Easing the maximum-pressure sanctions would be like throwing a life preserver to the regime as it treads water and struggles to survive.

Go ahead Democrats, make Iran’s day.

A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.