The idea that the Iranian regime is capable of being reformed is a “myth,” Iranian-born Hollywood actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi said on Thursday, adding that the Iranian people expect greater support from the West amid ongoing anti-government protests in the country.
What the Iranian people want from the West is “solidarity and to stop turning a blind eye to their suffering in order to fulfil our own political objectives,” Boniadi told a panel at London’s Policy Exchange.
“For 43 years, we’ve only responded to the symptoms of the Islamic Republic’s malign activities, with a focus on countering Iran’s nuclear ambition and regional aggression,” she said. “But in order to address the cause, which is the regime itself, we must commit ourselves to intelligently supporting the Iranian people’s aspirations for representative government.”
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Boniadi said the West’s policies should not be set up to empower reformists in Iran but must rather “focus on empowering Iranian democrats.”
Protests broke out across Iran after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, died in the custody of the morality police after they detained her for allegedly not complying with the regime’s strict hijab rules in Tehran.
Since Amini’s death, protests have quickly escalated and turned political with demonstrations taking place across the country. Protesters have been chanting against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the country’s highest authority, and calling for the downfall of the regime.
General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, the former commander of US Central Command, said he believed the Iranian regime will go as far as imposing “genocidal measures” against its own people to protect itself.
“They’ll do that without blinking an eye,” he said.
“We kid ourselves if we think we can apply half-hearted measures externally and not have lots of people die inside Iran. And the very act of giving succour to [protesters] in Iran will tend to mobilize elements of the Iranian population against us and will give leverage to the Iranian regime to mobilize against the outside enemy which has always been a very important part of Iranian politics,” McKenzie said.
“So, I think we just need to be very open-eyed and very realistic about what the Iranian regime will do because their number one priority will be regime self-protection.”
The idea that the Iranian regime is composed of “reformists” and “hardliners” is a “problematic” one, Mohammed Alyahya, fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior non-resident fellow at the Hudson Institute, said.
“The proliferation of proxies across the region happened under the so-called reformists. It happened under [former President Hassan] Rouhani and [former Foreign Minister Mohammad] Javad Zarif,” Alyahya noted.
“So, the idea that there is a reformist wing and a hardline wing in the Iranian government and that by crafty policy making one can manipulate the situation in order to create or to bring about a safer or a less hostile Iran is a problematic idea.”
Alyahya said one reason regional states are critical of Iran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Join Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is because it excludes the countries affected the most by Iran’s destabilizing activities.
“Regional actors tend to criticize the nuclear deal or be uneasy about it because they see that they are the actors that are within range of Iran’s ballistic missiles, within range of Iran’s proxies, while the P5+1 (the US, the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) is comprised of a set of countries none of whom are within range of Iran’s conventional capabilities,” he said.
“The worry today is that if there is a return to the JCPOA, there will be a situation where Iran will have a direct path to a nuclear weapon within the next nine years as the JCPOA’s sunset clauses expire and then dozens upon dozens of billions of dollars that will allow it to grow its regional proxy network across the region,” added Alyahya.
Former US President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the deal in 2018, saying it was too soft on Iran, and reimposed sweeping sanctions on Tehran.
The Biden administration considers restoring the deal a top foreign policy objective and has been holding indirect talks with Iran aimed at reviving the deal since April 2021, but the two sides have yet to reach an agreement.
Former UK Defense Secretary Liam Fox described the lack of western support for protests in Iran in 2009, known as the Green Movement, as the “lowest moral point in recent western politics.”
“We had an opportunity in 2009 to actually come out and support the people of Iran. At the time of the Green Movement, we didn’t even give them moral support,” he said.
Fox said the west has an opportunity today to “make amends” by giving “much greater support” to protesters in Iran.
He added that the UK “should join the US in proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.”
French diplomat Jacques Audibert, a former foreign policy adviser to the Elysee and lead negotiator on the 2015 deal, said women protesting in Iran “deserve our deep respect … because they are fighting for all the values we fight for.”
Today, Tehran wants the capability to make a nuclear weapon “more than ever because they see what’s happening to the Ukrainians who renounced their nuclear capability in 1994” in exchange for security assurances.
General Mark Carleton-Smith, who served as Chief of the UK General Staff from June 2018 to June 2022, said Iran appears less deterred by the US today.
“Iran today seems less deterred by American conventional capabilities than it once was, and as a result, it’s hard to find among the spawning range of crises across the broader Middle East one that does not have Iranian fingerprints on it,” he said.
“Even if you can picture a world where the regime is in full compliance with a deal,” Carleton-Smith said, “Tehran is still guilty of a range of wider destabilizing activity … it is a state sponsor of terrorism and it has an active program of destabilization with respect to its surrogates and proxies.”
“None of those are covered by the protocols of any JCPOA deal and all of those become more acute without a deal and more acute if in the end Iran achieves a nuclear capability,” he added.
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