Imagine a free, democratic, independent and wealthy Iran giving full expression to the beauty of Persian culture and the brains and spirit of its people. Imagine a political, clerical and military elite that doesn’t steal its country’s patrimony while brutally repressing its own people and terrorizing its neighbors. We are long-time friends who have disagreed vehemently on the wisdom of President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; Dan is Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, and Mark is one of that agreement’s most persistent critics. But we agree with equal passion that Americans, regardless of party or position on the nuclear deal, should be supporting the aspirations of Iranians to be free from their brutal and corrupt rulers. That’s the dream of the tens of thousands of Iranians who have taken to the streets this past weekend in dozens of cities across the country.
Iranians are on the streets voicing fury about corruption, inflation and unemployment—but they are also directing their ire against the regime’s foreign adventurism in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza and against the billions of dollars provided to terrorist proxies like Hezbollah. The Iranian clerical regime is a cruel, human-rights abusing, terrorism-sponsoring menace that is destabilizing the Middle East, developing and proliferating missiles and seeking nuclear weapons. It runs an economy so far incapable of capitalizing on the relief of sanctions for the good of its people because it is regime-controlled, socialist, centrally planned and stifling to private entrepreneurship. Companies controlled by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his Islamic Revolutionary Guards and the clerical establishment provide billions to grease their corrupt patronage networks. They have permeated key sectors of the economy, creating legal and reputational risks that have sidelined both foreign and private Iranian investors.
One clear takeaway from these protests is that, as outsiders, we don’t know enough. The causes of the protests are not monolithic, their scale is significant but not necessarily determinative, the trajectory is uncertain, the leadership unclear and the regime’s response is likely to be repressive. We must approach these protests with humility in understanding their ultimate meaning and impact. They are big, bold, widespread, impressive and heartfelt—but we have no idea if these protests will mushroom into a genuine threat to the regime. We hope so; any prospect of shortening this Iranian regime’s lease on life should be welcomed. If this movement could lead to the end of Khamenei’s regime, it would be a boon mostly for Iranians but also for Lebanese, Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis, Emiratis—and for Americans.
There is no reason for anyone who worked in the Obama administration or supported the nuclear deal to not embrace these arguments. The rationale for the deal was to roll back this odious regime from the precipice of a nuclear weapon so that the United States could confront other pressing Iranian threats. The Obama administration’s belief that this was, and remains, the best (or least bad) strategic call, given the nuclear threat, need not lessen our antipathy for this thuggish regime nor our hope for its demise. Deal supporters should also be open to dialogue with deal opponents, whose concerns over nuclear restrictions that sunset, inspection rights of military sites that might prove insufficient and a missile program that is expanding has led them to raise valid concerns. Chief among these: the need for measures to augment and extend the deal’s provisions to prevent the eventual development of an industrial-size, advanced centrifuge-powered, near-zero nuclear weapons breakout capability and intercontinental ballistic missile program in the hands of this regime.
Nuclear deal supporters and opponents should resist the urge to make this a “gotcha moment” for people with whom they have tussled on Iran policy. This undermines the cause of ensuring broad, bipartisan support for peaceful protests, and hopefully real political change. Let’s focus on the Iranian people and what the United States and our European allies can do to advance their aspirations, not our own political squabbles. We can all agree that hundreds of thousands of people protesting massive regime corruption and repression should worry autocrats all over the world, from Iran’s Khamenei to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
What is to be done? Americans of both parties should speak up. Iranians, like dissidents everywhere, are looking for support from abroad. The Trump administration’s early statements have been important—as have statements from Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Bernie Sanders, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers. More attention to their cause, and more media coverage, may help stay the security forces’ hand and encourage governments to isolate the Iranian regime.
But more is required. First, officials both current and former should be flooding the airwaves on Persian-language television and radio to express their support for the Iranian people’s human rights and aspirations. Let’s provide details on the stolen assets held by regime and IRGC officials, and the vast sums spent on Iran’s destabilizing regional interventions. U.S. taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Voice of America’s Persian Service and Radio Farda. Let’s use them. Keep politics out of it. Condemn the regime’s human rights abuses and corruption; don’t re-litigate the Iran deal.
Second, Congress should pass a joint bipartisan resolution modeled on the language it passed overwhelmingly in 2012 in the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act in support of the “efforts made by the people of Iran to promote the establishment of basic freedoms that build the foundation for the emergence of a freely elected, open, and democratic political system.” It again should condemn the government of Iran’s “massive, systematic, and extraordinary violations of the human rights of its citizens.” Update the language and get 535 members of Congress to endorse it.
Third, the White House, with an assist from the Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress, should use authorities in bipartisan statutes to target the regime for corruption through the Global Magnitsky Act and for human rights abuses through the many executive orders and statutes on the books. The ongoing crackdown on the peaceful protests will provide additional targets for designation. Make no mistake: Iranian regime officials don’t like being the target of travel bans, the loss of access to the global financial system or the infamy that comes with being named and shamed. In this regard, our European allies are particularly well positioned to support us given their impressive track record in calling out Iranian government repression, and their countries’ more extensive business ties in Iran. To increase the impact on those designated, they should deny the access to Europe that many representatives of the regime desire.
Finally, the Trump administration, with bipartisan backing, should use sections 402 and 403 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, passed with overwhelming support in 2012, to threaten sanctions against global entities that supply the Iranian regime with tools of repression and censorship. The White House should seek to ensure that companies like Telegram, Twitter and Instagram are not complying with Iranian regime requests to block channels used by protesters to organize and communicate. These companies can be on the right side of history by doing all they can to give Iranians the access they need to evade regime surveillance.
No matter what we say and do, the regime will seek to blame the United States for the protests. It is already happening. That is a reason for being smart by keeping the Iranian people at the forefront to avoid inadvertently weakening their initiative, but not for doing nothing. As a further measure to debunk the regime’s claims and proving our support for the people, the Trump administration should consider ending the blanket travel ban on Iranian citizens.
This is an important moment. The Iranian protests could contribute, one day, to a peaceful Iran leveraging the initiative of its remarkable people to build a free and prosperous society, at peace with its neighbors and the United States. That goal—even as we still argue about the nuclear deal—should unite our fractious political elites, at least on one issue.
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Mark on Twitter @mdubowitz.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.