An Opportunity in Iran
Nov 22, 2022 | Walter Russell Mead
Joe Biden is a lucky man. The heroism of the Ukrainian people saved him from a Russian victory. Now the people of Iran, led by their women, are offering him a historic opportunity to weaken Russia, reduce long-term American vulnerabilities in the Middle East, and even return a sense of caution and sobriety to Chinese foreign policy.
Like many great opportunities, it comes unexpectedly. The Middle East has been a dreary place for Team Biden. The failure to enlist the Iranians in a renewed nuclear deal, the shambolic Afghan withdrawal, the embarrassing fist bump with a price-hiking Mohammed bin Salman, Binyamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory: Nothing in the Middle East has gone Joe Biden’s way.
This string of embarrassing failures has confirmed the Administration’s determination to downgrade the Middle East as a strategic priority. But the Middle East refuses to stay quiet.
Blowing off Biden Administration threats dating back to last summer, Iran is selling sophisticated drones to Russia for use in the war on Ukraine. Those drones have enabled Russia’s latest assault on Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure, threatening shutdowns of Ukrainian industry and leaving civilians without light or heat as winter nears. As Robin Wright observes in the New Yorker, Russia salvaged Iran’s position in Syria in 2015 by bolstering the criminal Bashar al-Assad regime. Now Iran is returning the favour by helping Russia in its flagrantly illegal attack on Ukraine.
Enter the women of Iran, whose resistance to clerical bigotry opens the door to a new era in Iranian and even world history.
We do not know whether the Iranian protesters can win. The track record of democratic revolutions across the Middle East is anything but inspiring, and the protesters in Iran have yet to coalesce behind a single group of leaders or political program. But using all the diplomatic and economic tools at America’s disposal to help the Iranian people’s fight for freedom is both the right thing to do and the best way to advance US interests at a critical time.
The time for action is now. Iran’s arrogant, incompetent rulers have isolated themselves to an unprecedented degree. Their ruthlessness at home has silenced regime apologists across the West. Their cynical alliance with Vladimir Putin places them in opposition to Europe as well as the US. Their weapons sales to Russia violate a Security Council-imposed arms embargo. Their unconscionable intransigence at the nuclear negotiating table has convinced most Europeans that Iran, not the US, is the chief obstacle to a reasonable agreement. The combination of recklessness abroad and instability at home has persuaded smart European businesses that the current regime is a bad bet.
A resolute White House bent on supporting the Iranian people would have many useful options to pursue. Working diplomatically with Europe for a “snapback” of UN sanctions to punish Iran for arming Russia, cracking down on black-market Iranian oil exports, and otherwise crippling the regime economically would undermine it at a critical hour. Assuring the Iranian people that normal economic relations would quickly follow the establishment of a law-abiding government in Teheran would encourage regime opponents.
Taking steps to restore internet service where the regime seeks to cut communications and providing other nonviolent, non-military assistance to democratically minded protesters would further help the Iranian people regain control of their future. American cooperation with interested neighbouring states could support the protests, make life more difficult for Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah, and put more pressure on both Russia and Iran.
The end of the clerical dictatorship that has blighted the lives of the Iranian people and troubled the peace of the Middle East since 1979 would be an unmitigated blessing for the US, its Middle East allies and the cause of freedom around the world. Russia would lose access to some of the missiles with which it hopes to crush Ukraine. Russia’s position in Syria would become unsustainable, and the Assad dictatorship would face a just reckoning.
The pressures on world fuel prices would dramatically shrink as Iran’s oil returns to the market. The reintegration of Iran into the world economy would offer a historic opportunity for European and other businesses at a difficult time. The US could reduce its military footprint in the Middle East without compromising the security of its allies. China would reflect on the resilience of American power. A world order that now looks fragile would suddenly seem much more robust.
There are risks to supporting the Iranian people, but America’s current Iran policy offers only the certainty of failure. The mullahs have offered President Biden an unprecedented opportunity; let us hope he seizes it with both hands.