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Biden must act to support Iran protests


Iranian protests are in their third week. What began in outrage over a woman murdered in police custody has spread across the country. Protests have captured the popular imagination. Videos go viral of women cutting their hair, burning headscarves, or singing. Chants of “Death to the Dictator” are undeniable. That Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must rely on the Lebanese Hezbollah to quell unrest suggests desperation.

Wishful thinking is no strategy, no matter the hunger for change. The price of liberty will be high. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini promised Iranians an “Islamic democracy” and forswore any interest in personal power. Iranians who joined Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution quickly discovered they had simply traded a secular dictatorship for an even less tolerant religious one. The
Islamic Republic
was never popular; the regime was just better at smothering embers of dissent than were ordinary Iranians at fanning the flames. What the outside world does matters.

First, it should do no harm. This means cutting off resources to an
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
that today controls 40% of the Iranian economy. National security adviser Jake Sullivan and special envoy Rob Malley may believe they can negotiate with the regime and cheer on the protesters, but this is false. Evidence that sanctions relief and investment benefit Iran’s most anti-Western elements is overwhelming. Between 1998 and 2005, for example, the height of the “Dialogue of Civilizations,” European Union trade with Iran nearly tripled, and the price of oil quintupled. The IRGC diverted perhaps 70% of Iran’s hard currency windfall into its then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Today, Sullivan and Malley’s willingness to lift sanctions or decline their enforcement pumps money directly into Iran’s apparatus of repression at a time when the regime teeters.

With upwards of 1,000 deaths so far by some accounts, it is clear that the Islamic Republic will not go down without a fight. At stake is not only Iran’s freedom but also hundreds of billions of dollars locked into the Supreme Leader’s foundations and IRGC businesses. Frankly, 1,000 murders might be a drop in the bucket of what the regime is willing to commit.

We have been down this path before. Eleven years ago, no one expected anti-Assad sentiment to explode in the dusty southwestern town of Daraa. On April 29, 2011, Syrian security forces kidnapped 13-year-old Hamza Ali al Khateeb after he participated in a protest for freedom. A month later, they returned his castrated, burned, and bruised body to the family. Assad’s goal was to intimidate, but the result was to pour gasoline on the fire. Civil war soon engulfed Syria. Violence was never random. Rather, Assad used the opportunity to play demographic games, forcing Sunnis or Kurds out of key areas in order to privilege the ruling Alawi community.

Iran will be no different. The greatest violence today is in Iranian Kurdistan and Baluchistan. In both, ethnic and sectarian minorities predominate. The Iranian regime will not hesitate to use violence to drive out the educated middle class. With Khamenei nearing death, hardliners figure purging society will only help consolidate the regime.

Unexpected crises define leaders. In 2011, President Barack Obama failed his test. Rather than recognize that the arc of history bends toward progress only when leaders emerge to support that path, Obama remained aloof and passive. While Assad enjoyed Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah support, progressive and pro-democracy Syrians had no one. They radicalized, if not out of disillusionment than for the practical reason that Turkey made an embrace of Sunni extremism a precondition for its support. Obama fumbled the moment.

Today, President Joe Biden repeats his mistakes. Sullivan’s substitution of an occasional photo-op with an Iranian activist or statement supporting human rights with a meaningful policy to cut off the IRGC’s resources is malpractice. The Iranian people need substantive support: strike funds, satellite receivers, media support, as well as a crackdown on those entering Iran to arm or support their tormentors. Time is running out to prevent Iran from becoming Syria 2.0.


Michael Rubin (
) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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