Iran options

There are now some ideas out there about how the US should respond to the protests in Iran. Dubowitz and Shapiro, Michael Singh and Eli Lake have chimed in. Here’s my compilation of their and other proposals. I don’t mean to suggest I support these, only that they are options. I’ll clarify my own views in a later post.

Two things should be clear from the outset: any US effort will be far more effective if it has broad bipartisan and international support, and only Iranians can determine how this episode ends.

  1. Consistent bipartisan public and diplomatic support, including at the highest level. This is what the Trump Administration is doing, with tweets by both the President and the Vice President. Congress might chime in with a resolution. President Obama could contribute his charisma and organizing skills. The US government’s broadcast networks will join in. The idea is to encourage protest against a regime the US finds oppressive, corrupt, and aggressive, in the hope that it will either modify its behavior or fall to the popular will. This public support could focus on revealing corrupt practices and documenting unjustifiable arrests by the Islamic Republic’s security forces, including objecting to them in diplomatic contacts. Public and diplomatic shaming of this sort will be more effective if some countries relatively friendly to Iran can be convinced to join in. Today’s meeting of the UN Security Council provides an opportunity for that.
  2. Sanctions against human rights abusers, corrupt officials and enablers. The Global Magnitsky Act and other US legislataion makes this pretty easy: the President needs only to name names to block their financial resources and travel. Treasury has started with entities linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program. While there aren’t a lot of Iranian officials putting their savings in US banks or visiting the Washington Monument, listing them gives other countries pause as well. If the Europeans join in such designations of individuals, that would greatly amplify the impact. Likewise high officials of the regime who have been welcome in the West and its media could be given the cold shoulder until the repression stops. The US could also levy sanctions against companies that supply Iran with repressive apparatus or help Tehran to block internet communications, and encourage the Europeans to join in.
  3. Encouragement to tech companies to keep its channels to Iranians open. I’m a bit perplexed what this means in practice, but Karim Sadjadpour is pushing it so it must be a good idea. If there are ways for the tech companies to circumvent or reduce the impact of the Islamic Republic’s efforts to block internet and social media communications, there is obvious virtue in encouraging the companies to do whatever is possible. That should include not taking at face value Tehran’s blackballing of individuals to remove them from social media, and blocking any censorship efforts beyond the confines of Iran.
  4. Heightened visibility and costs of Iranian activities in the region. One aspect of the protests is criticism of the Islamic Republic for spending the nation’s resources in Syria and Yemen rather than benefiting Iranians at home. This complaint could be encouraged by greater attention in the international press to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ sponsorship of Hizbollah, Shia militias, Hamas, the Houthis and its other proxies, as well as more effective efforts to counter them on the battlefield.
  5. Reduced diplomatic ties. The US can’t do this, because it only has a interests section in the Swiss Embassy that handles minimal essential services as well as diplomatic communications. But it could encourage the Europeans and others to lower the level of their representation.
  6. An end to the visa ban on Iranians. This move by the Trump Administration lends credence to the Iranian regime’s claim that the US is prejudiced not only against the regime but also against Iranians. Vetting of Iranians for US visas is already vigorous. The ban could be lifted to signal support for Iranians while opposing the regime.

None of these moves would do more than marginally increase pressure on Tehran. All would require US diplomacy to enlist the support of many other countries, something President Trump’s egregious behavior towards many of them has made far more difficult.

As Karim Sadjadpour puts it, “change will not come easily, or peacefully, or soon.”

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