Iran on the Brink

Column: How to support the Iranian people—and stop an Iranian bomb

Protesters in Iran / Reuters
September 23, 2022

Unforeseen events have created a crisis of legitimacy within the Iranian regime. For the third time in 13 years, mass protests directed against the ruling theocrats have erupted across the country. The unrest is an opportunity for the U.S. president to address the Iranian people directly and to tell them that America is on the side of freedom. President Biden, the mic is yours.

"Today, we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights," Biden told the U.N. General Assembly on September 21. His words of support are welcome. But more needs to be said and done.

For those of you just tuning in: Iran has switched off the cameras that monitor its declared nuclear sites. Its nuclear centrifuges spin and spin. Its agents plotted to assassinate, on American soil, a former U.S. national security adviser and former secretary of state. Last month the decades-old fatwa of Iran's former supreme leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, inspired a 24-year-old New Jersey man to stab author and U.S. citizen Salman Rushdie 10 times at a public event in Chautauqua, New York. Last month, Iran sent its first shipment of drones to Russian forces. The invaders and occupiers of Ukraine put the weapons to use.

These latest protests began after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in state custody. The "morality police" had arrested and detained her for the crime of wearing an "improper hijab." Widespread disgust at the official explanations and excuses for Amini's cruel and senseless death has led hundreds of Iranian women to burn their own hijabs. Iranians of all stripes are marching in the streets in defiance of the authorities. Some call for an end to the Islamic Republic. At this writing, at least seven protesters have been killed. The government is scrambling to close social media and electronic communications. The crisis is real. It has the potential to threaten the regime itself.

Why? Because the disruption arrives at a critical juncture in the sad and bloody history of the Islamic Revolution. The state that emerged from that revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic, faces both a leadership crisis and a demographic transition at the very moment that negotiations over the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a.k.a. the Iranian nuclear deal, have reached an impasse.

These are not the actions of a state that will give up its nuclear ambitions and be brought into the fold of the "international community." They are the actions of a crazy state whose chief export isn't energy but terrorism, violence, and death. The malignancy of the Iranian government spreads beyond the nation's borders, for sure. But its primary victims are the Iranian people. They are the first to suffer the economic, social, cultural, and physical costs billed to the regime. Their discontent is the clearest register of the regime's criminality and the most visible sign of its decay.

The overlapping challenges for Iran increase the regime's fragility. Hence the best course of action for the United States: End our nuclear negotiations with Iran, reinstate "snapback" sanctions, reestablish a credible military threat, and demand that the Iranian government recognize the human rights and dignity of the Iranian people.

Ayatollah Khamenei is 83 years old. He is not in good health. Yes, he has made some public appearances in recent days. But the few images we have seen of him do not exactly project strength. As happens in every authoritarian regime, his acolytes and toadies must be jockeying for position in anticipation of his ultimate demise. If so, then there must be an environment of confusion and uncertainty at the highest levels of the regime.

The cries of Iranian youth for personal freedom have no doubt worsened the disarray. There are 88 million Iranians. Half of the population is under 32 years old. They are ruled by a grizzled and sclerotic clerisy that funnels resources to its private army, the terrorist Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Mahsa Amini represented a generation of Iranians who want more than the limited options, cruelty, and state-imposed religion that have been on offer for 43 years. That is why she has become a symbol for all those who disapprove of, and dissent from, the mullahs' hard line.

A push from the United States would make all the difference. There is no better time for a change in U.S. strategy. The nuclear deal is going nowhere. Accepting Iran's most radical demands at the negotiating table would make America look weak, foolish, and callous. Give in to Khamenei as he murders his citizenry and supplies Russia with weapons to use against Ukrainians? The stomach churns at the idea.

If the current disorder were a test, Biden answered the first question correctly. He has yet to complete the exam.

America's two previous chief executives did not pass it. In 2009 President Obama stood mute as students took to the streets in the so-called Green Revolution. In 2019 President Trump delivered mixed messages while Iranians rebelled against government corruption and economic mismanagement. Obama did not want to jeopardize his plans for détente with the mullahs. As a rule, Trump's personal foreign policy deemphasized human rights and democracy. Crippling sanctions were his weapon of choice.

The motivations of the two presidents differed. The results did not. In both cases, the regime used brutal means to survive the upheaval. And the Ayatollah Khamenei continued to build his nuclear infrastructure and spread havoc throughout the region and the world.

Draw the line here. U.S. officials say they have made their final offer to Iran. Fine. The ayatollah rejected it. Now America must reject him as well. Isolating and punishing the Iranian regime for its malign behavior abroad and oppression at home would further American interests in the Greater Middle East. It would undermine one of Russia's few allies. And it would help the Iranian people in their struggle to put their government where it belongs: on the ash heap of history.