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Towards A Bipartisan Iran Protest Policy Playbook

People protest against increased gas price, on a highway in Tehran, Iran November 16, 2019.

By Behnam Ben Taleblu and Saeed Ghasseminejad

Once again, Iranians have taken to the streets. Spurred initially by cuts in gas subsidies and an increase in petrol prices, up to 100 cities experienced protests, and over 100 people have been killed. Like demonstrations in 2017 –‘18, the outpouring began with an economic spark, but quickly morphed into a full-bore venting of political grievances. What makes these most recent protests different, however, is that they come one year into the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against the clerical regime. Despite the increase in sanctions, the Iranian people are pointing a finger, as they have in the past, at their own leadership and not at the U.S., for their predicament.

This is a golden opportunity for Washington to cast aside certain assumptions about Iran and develop a bipartisan protest-playbook for the future.

The recent demonstrations disprove the thesis that foreign pressure creates a “rally-round-the-flag” effect in Iran. If anything, the Iranian people are taking every opportunity – even crises – to aggressively and publicly separate themselves from the regime. Indeed, Iran’s post-2009 protests feature everything from anti-mandatory hijab activism, challenges to the Supreme Leader’s authority, a chastising of Iran’s revolutionary foreign policy, and even contesting state-sponsored anti-Americanism.

If the regime is for it, then in all likelihood, the Iranian people will be against it, and vice-versa.

Standing with (but not leading) the Iranian people under such conditions is not akin to a “kiss of death”—the often-voiced fear that American support of protestors damns them in the eyes of their compatriots or overlords. This is an opportunity to root American foreign policy in both values and interests; ours and those of the Iranian people. The first thing any administration ought to do is to offer full-throated support for those protesting theocracy and reiterate it often through a chorus of voices from official and unofficial Washington. Iranian protestors deserve bipartisan backing, regardless of who is in the Oval Office or which party controls Congress.

A damaged credit union branch in Shiraz, Iran. Slogan says, "Death to Khamenei", "Death to Rouhani".
A damaged credit union branch in Shiraz, Iran. Slogan says, "Death to Khamenei", "Death to Rouhani".

The same of course, is true for the media. Insufficient or lackluster coverage generates less pressure on Washington to voice its support, which can incentivize Tehran’s tyrants to crack down harder.

Economically, Washington can issue targeted designations. The executive branch already has ample authority to sanction, as well as name and shame, those who impede Iranians’ freedom of assembly and communication. Earlier this summer, the Trump administration issued a new executive order that sanctions anyone “appointed by the Supreme Leader of Iran” or “a person appointed to a position as a state official of Iran.” This authority should be wielded broadly, in conjunction with others, for maximum impact.

Specifically, the administration should consider sanctioning the head of Iran’s national police force and the head of its Basij paramilitary force for the role of their organizations in any clampdown. It should also sanction Iran’s Minister of Interior, as well as the country’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology, alongside any relevant deputies, for facilitating the crackdown and threatening protestors, or aiding in the blockage or filtering of the Internet.

An Iranian man shows his phone while unable to load a social media page as internet service is reportedly disrupted, Tehran, Iran, 17 November 2019.
An Iranian man shows his phone while unable to load a social media page as internet service is reportedly disrupted, Tehran, Iran, 17 November 2019.

The United States can also support Iranians by helping restore internet access, which protesters use to coordinate their efforts, expose regime corruption, and inform the world about atrocities. The shutdown of the internet allows the government to crush protesters behind an iron curtain.

Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, said in a recent interview with Radio Farda that he had predicted Tehran would limit internet communication during a protest and has worked on countermeasures. Later, Richard Grenell, U.S. Ambassador to Berlin, went further announcing on Twitter that, "We understand the issues and yet cannot give details as to what is being done."

Ultimately, condemnations of the regime and messages of support for the protestors, coupled with targeted sanctions and provision of communication and internet services should be the proverbial price floor, not price ceiling, of what Washington can do for Iran’s protestors. This array of options however, is not only limited to America. Other members of the international community, particularly the European Union, can and should amplify these measures with diplomatic demarches, as well as add to their own human rights sanctions. Similarly, social media platforms should use protests and internet blackouts as an opportunity to level the playing field in Iran by banning accounts held by regime officials. Why should Iran’s repressive apparatus get to tweet invective while average Iranians must use workarounds to express their opinions?

Despite the rhetorical victory lap being taken by Iranian officials, regime actions indicate that they don’t necessarily feel secure or confidant. History proves that they shouldn’t. Iranians have been protesting for over a century for a more representative government, and don’t appear to be backing down now. The least Washington can do is respond at the right time, place, and manner. Much depends on it.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior advisor on Iran and international economics. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP)

The opinions expressed by the authors are not necessarily those of Radio Farda​.