Trump Admin Divided on Level of Support for Iranian Protesters

Analysis: Ahead of major Pompeo speech, dissidents beg for concrete action on Iran's hardline ruling regime

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani / Getty Images
July 19, 2018

Iranian dissidents and congressional opponents of the hardline ruling regime in Tehran are pushing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to end a secret deal with Iran that has prevented the United States from leveling sanctions on the Islamic Republic's chief propaganda network, which has been working to quash a wave of popular protests, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

Ahead of a major speech this weekend in which Pompeo is expected to throw the Trump administration's support behind Iranian protesters who have taken to the streets in recent months in a bid to topple the hardline regime, Iranian dissidents and some in Congress have been demanding the State Department reverse a years-long policy that prevents the United States from sanctioning Iran's propaganda network, known as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB, a satellite service that disseminates propaganda across Iran and routinely censors content.

While the Trump administration has issued multiple public statements backing Iranian protesters who are fed up with the regime's financial support for terror groups, it has avoided sanctioning the IRIB, which dissidents view as a key step in helping their campaign against the ruling regime.

As protests continue to percolate and grow, the Trump administration has found itself in the position of trying to bolster these protestors while avoiding being seen as backing regime change in Iran. This policy was once advocated by current White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, who said in May this is not the Trump administration's current goal.

Under a secret deal with Iran first inked by the Obama administration, the State Department has been issuing a waiver barring U.S. sanctions on the IRIB, despite initial promises from the Trump administration to move forward with these sanctions.

U.S. action against the IRIB could send a message of support to Iranian dissidents as they continue to protest against the Islamic regime, but efforts to spur new sanctions have gone unanswered for months, prompting concerns the U.S. administration is half-heartedly supporting democratic allies struggling in Iran.

The Trump administration quietly waived IRIB sanctions in January, before Pompeo took over the State Department, a move that drew sharp criticism from congressional opponents of Iran's ruling regime, as well as dissident parties in Iran.

The State Department this week declined comment on a series of questions from the Washington Free Beacon about the IRIB sanctions and whether they will be waived again or have been waived already.

Congressional insiders have been voicing increasing concerns about the State Department's lack of clarity on the matter, according to sources familiar with the situation.

With Pompeo expected to throw U.S. support behind Iranian protesters in major policy address this weekend, dissident voices and some in Congress say it is vital to back up this talk with firm action against the IRIB, which has evaded U.S. sanctions since 2013 when the Obama administration inked a secret deal with Iran in a bid to pave the way for the landmark nuclear agreement.

Since that agreement, the United States has waived sanctions every 180 days on the IRIB, despite evidence it continues to censor content and jam broadcasts the hardline ruling regime finds unacceptable, sources said.

"Continuing this waiver would seriously undermine Secretary Pompeo's upcoming speech to the Iranian people," said Richard Goldberg, a former senior Senate official who has worked on the policy. "How do you deliver a speech saying you stand with the people of Iran while at the same time enable the propaganda lifeblood of the regime?"

"IRIB commits serious human rights abuses and should be subject to U.S. sanctions—the secretary should use his speech as the backdrop to announce just that," said Goldberg, currently a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Senior congressional officials also have been met with resistance when petitioning the State Department to clarify their position on IRIB sanctions and issuing another waiver.

"The State Department's lack of communication with the Hill on IRIB is deeply troubling," one senior congressional official working on the matter told the Free Beacon. "Maybe they're going to do the right thing and issue sanctions. But it looks like they intend to keep secretly issuing the waivers, and they don't want to tell lawmakers beforehand because the decision is both embarrassing and indefensible. That said, how do they think this ends? Do they think we won't find out they sandbagged us?"

Following initial reports by the Free Beacon in January exposing the IRIB sanctions waiver, Iranian dissident groups launched a campaign asking the Trump administration to renew sanctions on the IRIB.

In a January 7 open letter to the Trump administration, these dissident voices pleaded with the Trump administration to renew sanctions on the IRIB as part of bid to bolster opponents of the hardline regime in Tehran.

"Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting ('IRIB') has played, and continues to play, a central role in the human rights abuses perpetrated in Iran," they wrote.

"The Islamic Republic uses IRIB not only to disseminate propaganda and advance repression within Iran, but also to promote and achieve its political objectives abroad, including destabilization of the Middle East and cultivation of non-state paramilitary and terrorist organizations," the letter states.

Leading member of Congress also questioned the nature of the Obama administration's deal to waive IRIB sanctions and the Trump administration continuation of this policy.

"At such an important inflection point in Iranian history as brave Iranians are protesting an illegitimate tyranny, it defies logic that the State Department could be waiving sanctions to assist the Iranian regime," Rep. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees told the Free Beacon in January, when the waivers were first disclosed.

"Congress needs to get more information about this specific waiver and why waiving such sanctions is necessary at this moment given that the protesters are calling for more sanctions against the regime," DeSantis said at the time.

Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iran research follow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has been in contact with Iranian dissident voices, told the Free Beacon that IRIB sanctions are key, though the issue has received little attention in the media.

"What IRIB does is harmful to the United States and its national interests around the world," Ghasseminejad said. "IRIB has been promoting violence against the United States for a long time; it closely works with the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and its intelligence organization, and it has been involved in systematic violation of human rights."

If the United States is to be seen as a force for change in Iran—as Pompeo is expected to discuss in his speech on Sunday—the Trump administration must take action against Iran's powerful propaganda networks, he said.

"It is a short-sighted decision to waive the U.S. sanctions against the IRIBs especially when it seems the main reason to issue the waiver is to help a company, whose main headquarters is in Luxemburg, to make money by selling its service to the propaganda arm of Islamic Republic's terror machine," Ghasseminejad said.

Published under: Iran , Sanctions