It’s tempting to look at current events in Iran through partisan eyes with the hope of scoring points against either the previous administration or the current one. As for former president Barack Obama, Michael Singh writes, “Obama’s administration, unsure how to help the protesters and reluctant to scuttle its nascent engagement with Tehran, responded to the demonstrations with diffidence, prompting criticism from left and right alike.” However, Democrats argue that Iranians’ hopes for democracy weren’t crushed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as opponents of the Iran deal claimed. The influx of cash didn’t do anything to stabilize the regime or discredit opponents. Besides, they argue, President Donald Trump’s present inclination to speak out against the Iranian regime rings hollow given his Muslim travel ban (which includes Iran) and general contempt for human rights.
Nonsense, say pro-Trump apologists. Obama “failed” to turn Iran into a peaceful, more pliant regime. Trump’s approach of continual pressure on the regime creates uncertainty for business, thereby creating pressure for more liberalization, both economic and political, they argue.
In truth, opponents and proponents of the JCPOA should get on the same page, while exercising a degree of humility - and without overestimating the degree to which U.S. actions influence the domestic situation in Iran. Longtime Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller tells me, “We need to recognize a certain reality. We have limited leverage over the regime and the protesters.” “Less is more,” he cautions. When Trump’s tweets suggest regime change (“TIME FOR CHANGE!” he blasted on Monday), we risk looking weak and feckless when we are helpless to respond if the regime engages in a brutal crackdown. (Obama did just this when he continually called for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to leave power but did little to nothing to bring that about.)
That doesn’t mean the United States should be silent, and both Democrats and Republicans should acknowledge that Trump’s tweets in support of protesters generally hit the right note. At present, it is altogether unhelpful and unwise for JCPOA opponents and proponents to bicker back and forth about the past when an opportunity presents itself for domestic unity and international cooperation. Indeed, if anything, the current domestic unrest in Iran - not to mention Iran’s international aggression and missile testing - underscores the argument we’ve made that the JCPOA is a small part of our larger concern with Iran and shouldn’t distract from pressing issues, including the regime’s suppression of internal dissent, its support for terrorist groups and its international aggression in Syria and elsewhere.
Mark Dubowitz, a fierce critic of the JCPOA, and Daniel Shapiro, the Obama administration’s former ambassador to Israel, implore partisans to unite in support for Iranian human rights:
“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. . . .
“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.”
Dubowitz and Shapiro argue for rhetorical support for the protesters, including use of “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.” They also urge Congress to support the protesters with one voice, use of the Magnitsky Act to target those using violence against protesters and “sanctions against global entities that supply the Iranian regime with tools of repression and censorship.”
Ross praises the administration’s public support for the protesters. “It should begin to put out what the Iranians have actually been spending on Syria, Hezbollah, the Houthis and the other Shia militias,” he says. “There are economic grievances tied to corruption, cuts in subsidies, and increases in spending for the IRGC - and anger that the regime is wasting billions in Syria (and elsewhere) that should be spent on its citizens. So shine a spotlight on what the Iranians are spending not for Iran’s security but to de-stabilize the region.” He argues, “Reinforcing our sanctions on non-nuclear issues - on the entities tied to the Qods forces and the IRGC or the Basij are appropriate. But a walk-away from the JCPOA makes it easier for the Iranian regime to make us the issue - that is what they are trying to do.”
We agree that a campaign promise to “rip up the deal” has to give way to the current reality in which we find ourselves. While focusing on the rights of Iranians to peacefully protest, we should resist the urge to make this moment about the United States and the JCPOA. Former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross tells me that in considering our options, “The one thing we should not do is walk away from the JCPOA now. We want the Europeans to emphasize that peaceful protest is legitimate and an Iranian violent crackdown is not. We do not want to shift the focus onto the U.S. - Iran’s behavior internally and externally must remain the focus of attention.”
Former ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman, much in the vein of Dubowitz and Shapiro, advises via email that the administration should “1) make clear that the whole world is watching and will judge the regime by how it responds to peaceful protesters and 2) harness via overt and perhaps covert means print, radio, TV, and social media to highlight the costs of Iran’s cronyism, corruption, economic misrule and foreign adventurism - all the subject of protest slogans raised by the demonstrators, and 3) as part of this effort targeted sanctions against regime figures, particularly IRGC who profit at the people’s expense.” As to the last item, he explains, “The U.S. was very good at this kind of political warfare in the Cold War but we have shown much less ability to wage this kind of struggle since it ended. If ever there were a time to repair that deficiency - this is it.”
A few other items deserve consideration.
First, Congress and the administration should do everything in their power to nix Boeing’s $20 billion aircraft deal with Iran. The potential for military use of civilian airplanes should be sufficient to block the deal, without the full-scale reimposition of sanctions.
Second, the administration should nix its idiotic travel ban (which would ban Iranian protesters, students and others from coming to the United States), cease hugging dictators such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and drop the noxious America First rhetoric, which signals contempt for the welfare of other peoples and the fate of our allies. Consistency on human rights is hard, but in the case of Trump, the egregious hypocrisy - fawning over the Saudis, Russia and other repressive regimes - hobbles our credibility.
And finally, it’s time to stop sticking our fingers in the eye of European allies for the sake of juicing up the president’s base. Provoking our allies is easy - and entirely counterproductive. Operating in concert with allies is not capitulation or weakness; it’s the foundation of a sane foreign policy. Let’s hope we find one in the new year, beginning with development of an actual Iran policy and a rethink of our attitude toward human rights.