The West must step up now to help Iran transition to democracy

The West must step up now to help Iran transition to democracy
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Iran is on a precipice. Crippling sanctions, the novel coronavirus, systemic corruption, violent repression and deep social distrust could make for an explosion of society, an implosion of the state, or both. The result is difficult to predict. Will the Iranian people finally break free from the Islamist totalitarian state that suffocates them to build a peaceful, democratic nation, or will they only plunge deeper into crisis? 

America has interest in preventing Iran from becoming unstable and an even more serious threat to global security. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign has helped to significantly weaken the regime, but the long-term political effect of this weakening is far from certain. 

The linchpin of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure against the Islamic Republic of Iran is its list of 12 demands that, if met, would provide the regime relief from sanctions. These demands make for a fundamental shift away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) singular focus on nuclear compliance to more holistic treatment of ways the regime threatens U.S. national security: its nuclear program, but also its regional wars and terror, its ballistic missile program and its taking of citizens of the U.S. and U.S. allies as hostages. The demands do not include respect for the rights of the Iranian people, or their mounting demand for democracy, but the administration’s sanctions do specifically target rights abusers and its public diplomacy strategy has broken the Obama administration’s decided reticence on the regime’s repression to routinely scrutinize rights violations and amplify demands for freedom and justice.


A backdrop to maximum pressure and the Obama-era appeasement that preceded it is a program launched in 2004 by the George W. Bush administration to fund initiatives to promote a democratic Iran. Rejected by those closely associated with the regime, the program is now well-established and has been a constant through the Bush, Obama and Trump years, funding Iranian activists, human rights defenders, accountability efforts and civil society campaigns. 

In large part as a function of this democracy promotion program conceived by President Bush, Iranian civil society is today significantly more capable and demanding, aided also by improved connectivity, particularly via social media on smartphones.  Still, the regime did not hesitate to kill with impunity over 1,500 protestors in November 2019 or to shoot down a civilian airliner and deflect all attempts at a credible investigation of its wrongdoing, and has been far from responsive to the people’s inability to put food on the table. In fact, Iran already exhibits features of a failed state, with the regime still entrenched. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak and the regime’s grossly negligent response, protests, labor strikes and individual acts of civil disobedience had become all but ubiquitous, the anger and desperation more palpable than ever since the revolution. Collapse of the Islamic Republic or its overthrow are ready possibilities; even some of those closest to ruling elites now question the regime’s legitimacy.  

The lack of viable political alternatives to the status quo is felt, however, as is typical for totalitarian systems, even when in sharp decay. The democratic opposition has great latent support, but has yet to come together to not just assert vision but to build the practical components of transition to democracy. If Iran in its post-Islamic Republic life is to be stable, peaceful and democratic, the free world must come together with Iranian civic and political leaders now to build the future. Heavy sanctions and diplomatic rhetoric about the regime’s nefarious actions are not enough. Likewise, a democracy promotion program that holds back from bringing together leading voices of the democratic opposition, and refrains from consolidating the many disparate laborers striking and civic sectors protesting, is one that does not believe a fundamental breakthrough is close. America has provided such robust but discrete practical support to other struggles for democracy, such as the Solidarity movement in Poland.  Iranians are just as willing and capable to leverage such assistance.  

The collapse of other repressive regimes have caught the free world by surprise. Not surprisingly, it is when these regimes have been weakest that their lobbies and propaganda satellites in the West have been most active to convince about their strength, stability and legitimacy. This may be why we see more than ever before in the English language-media glowing commentary about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, even as resentment — from the Iranian people and people throughout the region — is most vocal about the evil cabal that has killed hundreds of thousands of innocents. 

The West must see disinformation from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and other regime officials about their power — and about American weakness — as signs of their growing desperation, and must act concertedly now to strategize Iran’s impending transition so that it is one toward human dignity and peace with the world, not chaos and instability. 

Mariam Memarsadeghi is a leading proponent for a democratic Iran. She previously was co-director of  the Washington-based Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, which she co-founded. Follow her on Twitter @memarsadeghi.