Five years after the Iran deal, many of the policy minds from the Obama era are headed back into government as US President elect Joe Biden prepares to step into the White House.
They say they are ready to re-enter the Iran deal, but despite partisan polarization, they cannot be oblivious to failures of their old policy. Following the deal, as the US provided massive injections of US dollars to the regime – totaling over $150 billion, with $1.8 billion in pallets of cash – the regime’s sponsorship of the annihilation of the Syrian nation was put on overdrive; its global terror, imperial dominion, proxy wars, and killing of American soldiers expanded; and nothing of the financial windfall delivered to the mafia state reached the people. While the deal was still in place, Iranians saw their livelihood plummet, in fact, and risked their lives to rise in protest in over 100 cities throughout the country.
Four years of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against the regime, combined with an increasingly unified Israeli and Arab front, as well as an Iranian society mobilized against any prospect for government-led reform and instead for wholesale, democratic overthrow mean the incoming Biden team wields tremendous leverage on the Islamic Republic.
Patience and strategic use of this leverage can make for a much better deal. This better deal should be one that addresses the full scope of security concerns while investing in development of that ultimate guarantor of peace and security – a free Iran.
Sanctions on the regime have targeted not only Iran’s threat to American interests and international security, but also the violation of the people’s most basic liberties. These violations are intensifying as the regime is doubling down on its decades long practice of executing innocents and taking foreign nationals as hostages. Though the sanctions hurt average Iranians, they have been welcomed by Iran’s leading dissidents at great personal risk, and the Iranian people’s protests, strikes and other acts of civil disobedience have taken aim squarely at the regime, not the US or its sanctions policy. It is common for Iranians to speak about the pain of sanctions as the price they willingly pay to be rid of their tyrants.
If there is to be lifting of sanctions, it should be only gradual, as calibrated rewards for improvements in human rights. Modeled on the experience of the Helsinki Accords between the West and the Soviet Bloc, opportunities for economic and political openings for the regime should be conditioned on clear, independently verified fulfillment of human rights demands.
Additionally, there are concrete steps the Biden administration can take to ensure that its Iran policy maximizes America’s chances to secure its interests while giving the Iranian people every chance to secure theirs.
Even barring the effect of crippling sanctions, the regime’s own internal contradictions, its endemic corruption and ineptitude, severe repression, and gross negligence of the COVID crisis make a repeat of nationwide protests a near certainty.
Future protests can result in democratic change or more massacres; much depends on the reaction from the US government. The Biden administration must learn from former US President Barack Obama’s betrayal of Iranians during the Green Movement and be ready to stand with the people in words and deeds. The Trump administration provided rhetorical support to the democratic opposition, but practical, strategic planning is needed to take advantage of the openings that will invariably be afforded by new civic mobilization and to prevent violent repression. The Biden administration should engage with the democratic opposition on this planning and devote up-front the coordination and resources needed to help foster peaceful transition to democracy.
A democratic Iran will mean a Middle East region freed from the terror and corruption of an imperial Islamist state. Thousands of those who have courageously waged the struggle for this future are in Ayatollah Khamenei’s dungeon today. But countless more, with their welfare plummeting and no hope for life under the regime, continue to fight. They deserve America’s support. Just as the Solidarity movement in Poland was aided by the US because of its existential potential to bring down communism, Iranian worker unions and civic networks must be aided in their struggle for fundamental change away from Islamist backwardness and toward a free, peaceful Middle East. To facilitate this, the State Department’s grantmaking to groups and NGOs focused on helping Iranians should be realigned away from longer term, development-oriented programming to initiatives aimed at usurping opportunities for political change.
To provide nuts and bolts assistance during peak civic mobilization, the Biden team should provide what the Trump administration promised but did not deliver: Nationwide emergency internet access when the regime shuts down service. This will effectively be a lifeline to keep the people’s movement alive when it reaches its tipping point.
To ensure the Iranian people have access to quality news about their own movement and to ensure American values and support are conveyed directly, Voice of America Persian service must be rehabilitated. In its current state, with barely a sliver of audience, it is a waste of the American people’s tax dollars and discredited in the eyes of the very Iranians it is meant to honor and amplify – the country’s courageous dissidents. The Trump administration promised such change, but VOA Persian service remains as feckless as ever.
Another missed opportunity during maximum pressure was the immigration policy for Iranians. The Trump administration pledged to boot out from the US regime-affiliated individuals – but never did. The Biden administration should do so while lifting the Trump travel ban on ordinary Iranians who love America.
The Iranian democracy movement is fully deserving of American support. In its commitment to unity and bipartisanship, the Biden administration can put forth an Iran policy that melds the best of the Democratic and Republican foreign policy traditions to provide unambiguous backing to courageous Iranian women and men risking their lives for a free future.