Insights into Iran’s protest movement
Oct 7, 2022 | AIJAC staff
Following up on last week’s Update, focusing on the mass Iranian protest movements sparked by the death of young Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s notorious morality police, this Update offers further inside information and insights on that protest movement, the regime crackdown against it and possible steps Western governments can take to assist the Iranian people.
We lead with a detailed analysis of the brutal tactics that the Iranian regime is apparently using to crack down on the protests, prepared by the staff of the Washington Post. It is based primarily on videos of the crackdown published on social media by Iranian witnesses, and includes clear evidence of deadly force, such as firing live ammunition into protesting crowds. It also looks at the regime’s program of mass arrests and efforts to shut down the internet as a means to prevent protestors from organising and communicating. For this important account of what is happening to protestors on the streets of Iranian cities, CLICK HERE.
Next up is a story from the Wall Street Journal highlighting how, while this protest movement was originally sparked by women’s rights issues, economic grievances are also fuelling the unrest and widespread anger at the regime. Reporter Benoit Faucon paints a dismal picture of a collapsing Iranian middle class, increasingly unable to afford even basic staples, thanks to corruption, economic mismanagement and international sanctions. The story highlights an explosion in poverty in Iran amid increasing inequality, thanks in part to an economy which has been largely taken over by entities affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Finally, US-based Iran experts Behnam Ben Taleblu and Saeed Ghasseminejad offer some concrete policy suggestions about how Western governments can help Iranians oppose their oppressive and aggressive theocratic regime. They have a total of ten points to suggest. Some are obvious – such as sanctioning individuals associated with Iran’s apparatus of repression and rhetorically keeping a spotlight on the protestors – but other suggestions are more original, such as utilising cyber and intelligence capabilities to assist the protestors, and fighting back visibly against recent Iranian shows of force in Iraq and elsewhere. For this knowledgeable and detailed list of ways governments can help the Iranian protestors, CLICK HERE.
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- The death of 16-year-old Nika Shakarami who, like Mahsa Amini, also apparently died or was killed in the custody of security forces, has given the Iranian protest moment another rallying cry.
- American columnist Bobby Ghosh underlines the significance of reports that Iranian schoolgirls are now openly defying the regime, taking off their headscarves and chanting anti-regime slogans.
- Iran expert Mehdi Khalaji looks at the use of social media forums – especially Instagram and Clubhouse – by Iranians as a substitute for free civil discourse inside Iran.
- A factsheet on Iran’s unprecedented missile attacks on the Kurdish region of Iraq last week, killing at least 13 people.
- Proliferation experts Anthony Ruggiero and Andrea Stricker argue the next step in the nuclear standoff with Iran must be European invocation of the “snapback” provisions of the JCPOA nuclear deal at the UN Security Council.
- AIJAC’s Oved Lobel asks why so many governments and commentators seem content to ignore Iran’s supply of large numbers of military drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine.
- An Israeli-Lebanon maritime border agreement, which looked like all but a done deal a few days ago, is now in doubt after Lebanon made new demands. Israel has placed its military on alert for the possible outbreak of violence from Lebanon as a result.
Tactics of repression: How Iran is trying to stop Mahsa Amini protests
A visual forensics analysis shows authorities using indiscriminate force, making violent arrests and throttling internet service to crush demonstrations.
By Joyce Sohyun Lee, Stefanie Le, Atthar Mirza and Babak Dehghanpisheh
Washington Post, October 5, 2022
Images from videos published on social media revealing the measures being used by Iranian security forces to crackdown on the protest movement (Images from Videos on 1500 Tasvir/Telegram/Twitter, republished by Washington Post).
Iran’s bold and bracing protests, stretching across an unsettled nation for more than two weeks, have been marked by defiant acts and daring slogans that challenge the country’s clerical leadership and its stifling restrictions on all aspects of social life.
Government security forces have responded with deadly, uncompromising force. At least 52 people have been killed, according to Amnesty International, including women and children.
The ongoing protests began in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who fell into a coma after being detained by the country’s hated “morality police.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed Monday that the unrest had been instigated by foreign powers and blamed protesters for the violence: “The ones who attack the police are leaving Iranian citizens defenseless against thugs, robbers and extortionists,” he said.
Khamenei gave his full backing to the security forces, signaling a further wave of repression could be coming.
To understand the extent of the government’s crackdown against protesters, The Washington Post analyzed hundreds of videos and photographs of protests, spoke to human rights activists, interviewed protesters and reviewed data collected by internet monitoring groups. The Post geolocated videos of protests in at least 22 cities — from the Kurdistan region, where the protests began, to Bandar Abbas, a port city on the Persian Gulf, to Rasht on the Caspian coast.
The investigation focused on three key tactics used by the government to crush the protests — the apparent use of live ammunition by security forces, targeted arrests and the throttling of internet service.
The Post interviewed protesters in Marivan, Balo and Tehran, who corroborated the findings. All spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by security forces.
The protester in Marivan, a city of 50,000 people in the Kurdish west, described the scene on Saturday as akin to martial law. “All of the security forces were out. … I would say more than 1,000. They filled every square and intersection and major street.”
The Post geolocated videos from seven cities that appear to show security forces shooting at protesters. Though it was impossible to verify the type of rounds used from the videos alone, “it’s extremely likely [security forces] were using live rounds against protesters during the events of recent days and weeks,” said N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of Armament Research Services, who reviewed the videos for The Post.
Security forces have been firing indiscriminately at demonstrators since the start of the protests, 1500 Tasvir, an anti-government monitoring group, told The Post. Videos recorded Sept. 17, according to 1500 Tasvir, in the Kurdish city of Saqqez — Amini’s hometown — appear to corroborate the claim. They show protesters marching through the center of the city on the same day as Amini’s funeral. They are quickly dispersed by officers on motorcycles firing in the direction of the crowd.
A screenshot from a video posted on Sept. 17 shows an injured protester in Saqqez, Iran, being rushed to a medical facility. (Video: Twitter)
A video filmed on side streets nearby captures a frantic group carrying a young man, unconscious and covered in blood, into a medical facility.
Analysts with Janes, a defense intelligence provider, also reviewed videos for The Post and determined that at least two videos likely showed the use of live ammunition.
In a video posted Sept. 20, officers fire pistols in the air and at retreating crowds in the northern city of Rasht. The officer to the left is likely firing off live rounds into the air where there is no point of impact, according to Andrew Galer, head of land platforms and weapons at Janes.
A video posted Sept. 23 in Tehran shows a man in army fatigues calmly taking aim and shooting a variant of an AK-47 assault rifle, according to Janes. While blank cartridges are made for the AK-47, Janes said, it has no record of any less-lethal or riot-control rounds being made for the gun. “On probability, [these] are assessed as being live rounds,” Galer concluded.
Screenshots of videos published by protestors, and analysed by the Washington Post, apparently showing Iranian security forces firing into crowds of protestors in Rasht and Teheran.
A leaked document from the general headquarters of Iran’s armed forces on Sept. 21 — obtained by Amnesty International and reviewed by The Post — ordered security forces to “severely confront” protesters. Another document, issued two days later by the commander of armed forces in Mazandaran province, went even further, ordering security forces to “confront mercilessly, and while going as far as causing deaths, any unrest by rioters and anti-Revolutionaries.”
The protesters interviewed by The Post in the western cities of Marivan and Balo told The Post they had witnessed security forces firing on demonstrators.
“Security forces fired directly at the people in Darai Square,” said the protester in Marivan, describing a crackdown on Oct. 1. “They had no intention to arrest or to calm the situation. They only wanted to shoot.”
The protester from Balo described a chilling “ambush” on Sept. 21 by the Basij, a paramilitary force under the command of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. “Members of the Basij were already on the roofs of nearby buildings,” the protester said. “They started shooting in the air, and the crowd scattered.” Other Basij fighters came out onto the streets, shooting into the air at first, and then directly at the fleeing protesters, he told The Post.
Two young men were killed in the barrage of bullets, he said — one was shot in the stomach, another in the throat. Their deaths were corroborated by Hengaw, a Kurdish rights group, and videos from their funerals were shared with The Post.
The Post verified and geolocated five videos showing security forces violently arresting protesters in five cities across Iran over the past two weeks. The videos show security forces often detaining protesters away from the crowds, on side streets. Some arresting officers traveled on motorbikes, allowing them to quickly descend on demonstrators and whisk them away.
The protester in Balo recounted members of the Basij making arrests in the middle of the night on Sept. 21 and using tear gas to force civilians out of their homes.
“They [the Basij] come with civilian clothes and cover their faces. It creates fear,” the protester said.
As of Sept. 30, security forces had arrested at least 50 people in Balo, and the majority are still in custody, according to the protester. “There are no more protests in Balo because of the fear they created,” the protester said. “After 10 p.m., you don’t see anybody out.”
Prisoners in Iran are routinely subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment, rights groups have found, and families often struggle to get information about loved ones who have been detained. “The documented acts of torture and other ill-treatment raise concerns that hundreds of people arrested since the start of the protests risk similar treatment in custody,” Amnesty said.
In a video from Gorgan, the capital of Golestan province in the northeast, officers on motorcycles surround and beat a protester in front of a closed storefront at night before arresting him.
In Tehran, a video shows officers walking a man in a black shirt, his hands behind his back, to a busy downtown street. They then force him onto the back of a motorcycle driven by an officer.
In another video from Kermanshah, in the west, a protester surrounded by officers on motorcycles is placed into a police vehicle and driven away.
Iran has frequently employed internet disruptions during times of unrest, making it more difficult for protesters to communicate with one another and with the outside world. But the cuts over the past two weeks have been more targeted and appear to show a greater level of sophistication.
Network traffic data from Iran to Google’s web search product shows significant disruptions in the evenings beginning Sept. 21, the bloodiest night of protests so far and a crucial turning point in the government’s response, according to Raha Bahreini, Amnesty’s Iran researcher. The majority of the deaths recorded by Amnesty took place Sept. 21.
According to The Post’s analysis of internet data, traffic patterns show a cyclical nature to the disruptions, beginning every afternoon around 4 p.m. local time — the end of the Iranian workday, when most protests begin — and returning to normal levels after midnight.
Instagram and WhatsApp, major platforms for sharing video, were also shut down Sept. 21, according to NetBlocks, a London-based group that monitors global internet access. These restrictions have coincided with sudden decreases in visual evidence coming out of Iran.
The Post tracked the number of protest videos coming from a Telegram account that regularly posts and circulates clips. The count revealed the direct impact of the throttling of internet connectivity, with the number dropping from around 80 new clips on Sept. 21 to just 40 the day after.
1500 Tasvir told The Post that in the first few days of the protests, the group received more than 3,000 videos per day. After the increase in internet disruptions, that number dropped dramatically, to about 100 to 200 videos per day.
The protesters who spoke to The Post confirmed the internet restrictions observed in the data.
“Most of the people don’t have internet at home,” said the protester in Balo. “They only have internet on their sim card, and it’s cut between 4 and 10 p.m. And even when it comes back, it’s still very bad.”
That account was echoed by the protester in Marivan: “The internet gets cut every day at 3 or 4 p.m. and doesn’t come back until around midnight or 1 a.m.,” the protester said. “None of the big apps like Instagram or WhatsApp or Telegram work.”
Despite the violence by security forces — and the daily blackouts — protesters are still in the streets. To some, the crackdown has only made them more determined. The protester in Tehran recalled a scene from a recent protest, where he and his compatriots dragged trash cans into the street and set them on fire. As security forces approached on motorcycles, they began to chant:
“We didn’t have our people killed in order to compromise.”
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.
Iran’s Crippled Economy Sustains Protests After Religious Police Lit Flame
The country’s middle class is shrinking for the first time in decades amid U.S. sanctions, corruption and economic mismanagement
By Benoit Faucon
Wall Street Journal, Oct. 4, 2022
The death of Mahsa Amini and women’s rights issues may have been the spark that started the protest movement, but the protests are also increasing fuelled by middle-class anger over Iran’s collapsing economy (Photo: Alexandros Michailidis, Shutterstock).
TEHRAN—The protests that have gripped Iran for three weeks started over a headscarf, but are morphing into a broader movement fueled by middle-class anger over the country’s collapsing economy.
Iran’s large urban middle class has mostly driven the demonstrations in dozens of cities since the death of Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16, a 22-year-old woman detained for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code. Organized by word-of-mouth and amplified on social media, their complaints have quickly turned from women’s rights to demands for an end to the country’s Islamic system of governance, which controls all aspects of society.
“The triangle of women, technology and poverty is the fuel behind the demonstrations,” said Mostafa Pakzad, a Tehran businessman, who advises foreign companies on their Iran business strategy. “Young people feel their lives are being literally wasted by the heavy restraints they are facing,” he said.
The middle class kept Iran stable after its 1979 Islamic revolution and was its economic engine amid sanctions from the U.S. and others over its nuclear technology, ballistic missiles and support for terrorism and militias in the region. Iran’s middle class kept growing over the past four decades to 60% of the population, with a strong education system churning out doctors, lawyers, engineers and traders despite a devastating war and several oil-price crashes.
Now, the middle class is under pressure from 50% inflation and a currency, the rial, that fell to its lowest levels ever this year. Today, more than a third of Iran lives in poverty, compared with 20% in 2015, and the middle class has shrunk to comprise less than half the country
Anger has been building for years over the economy and the failure to revive the international agreement that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for tight but temporary limits on its nuclear program.
“The root of these protests is the economic problems and you now see the eruption,” said a 52-year-old homemaker who has been protesting on the affluent streets of north Tehran, taking off her hijab and waving it with crowds of other women.
She and her husband, a small food-business owner, have run out of savings and inflation threatens their middle-class lifestyle. They once owned several properties but have sold some to raise cash. She said she used to buy a new car every two years, trading in the old model for a new one, but she recently sold her car for cash to pay off loans.
The homemaker was protesting on Friday when some plainclothes police officers shouted at her for not wearing her headscarf and attacked two female protesters near her, she said. Some officers opened fire, she said, and she was hit by a rubber pellet from the shotgun-like weapon Iranian police use to disperse crowds.
“The shot has a horrible, real-gun sound,” she said. But now that she’s been shot, she said, “I am not afraid of pellets. I would go to protest again.”
At least 50 people have been killed in the Iran protests, with thousands more injured or arrested, according to estimates from human-rights groups.
U.S. sanctions that target Iran’s oil industry and financial sector are the main factor crippling the Iranian economy, cutting the country off from the dollar, most economists agree.
Even so, about 63% of Iranians blame domestic economic mismanagement and corruption, rather than sanctions, for the country’s financial woes, according to a poll of 1,000 respondents carried out a year ago by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and IranPoll, a Canada-based opinion-research and polling firm focused on Iran.
Once one of the world’s biggest oil producers, Iran now pumps about 2.5 million barrels a day, down from more than 6 million in the 1970s and 4 million as recently as 2016. Economists say the benefits of any postpandemic growth are partly offset by runaway inflation. Employment for college graduates dropped by 7% in the aftermath of sanctions and wages of male skilled workers by almost 20%, according to an International Monetary Fund study published last week.
A first wave of demonstrations began earlier this year, led by trade unions representing oil-industry workers and teachers who saw their wages fall below the poverty line. Workers say they have trouble affording Iranians staples like spaghetti or hamburger meat.
The unions have called on their members to join the movement to end the enforced headscarf law that Ms. Amini was accused of violating.
In recent days, students at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran have picked up the theme, chanting: “Poverty, corruption, tyranny. Death to this dictatorship.”
Farshad Momeni, head of the Institute for Islamic Studies in Humanities, an independent Iranian research center, told the semiofficial ILNA news agency that the scale of Iran’s resurgent poverty is “unprecedented in the last 100 years” and could destabilize the country.
Iranians received a surge in growth after the 2015 nuclear deal, but since then the economy has been declining or flat, leading to an “unprecedented” resurgence in poverty (Image: US Institute for Peace)
Some Iranian leaders have urged the government to hear the protesters out. Ayatollah Hossein Noori-Hamedani, a cleric known to be close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on his website last month that “it is necessary that the authorities listen to the people’s demands and solve their problems.”
But in calling for the government’s downfall and an end to the Islamic system, protesters have little room to maneuver with Tehran authorities. Mr. Khamenei this week denounced the protests as riots inspired by foreign enemies such as the U.S. and Israel and praised the authorities’ crackdown.
“This is not about the hijab in Iran,” Mr. Khamenei tweeted on Monday. “It is about Islamic Iran’s independence & resistance.”
For many middle-class Iranians after 1979, the relative freedom to do business and make money helped take the edge off their discontent over political repression and the imposition of conservative Islamic values on a secular society. The government also redistributed oil wealth that had been concentrated among an elite under the shah, offering free healthcare, schools and family-planning programs.
Iran’s strong educational system gave the country’s rural poor a path to social mobility and homeownership, with a university degree unlocking access to professions such as medicine and law.
By 2015, Iran’s Human Development Index—a United Nations measurement that includes social equality, education levels and life expectancy—ranked above those of Mexico, Ukraine, Brazil and Turkey.
That year, Iranians hoped that an agreement with the U.S., European powers, Russia and China would end years of international isolation over their country’s nuclear program. In exchange for tight but temporary limits on the nuclear work, Iran was freed from most international sanctions and able to do business again with much of the West.
The impact was limited. Many Western companies shied away from deals with the Islamic Republic after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Since 2018, when Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal and reimposed American sanctions, more middle class Iranians have slipped back into poverty.
Middle-class Iranians once put their faith in reformist political candidates such as Hassan Rouhani, who led the country from 2013 to 2021. Polls and interviews suggest the voting bloc has lost hope in political change through the ballot box. Last year, turnout hit a record low after it became clear Mr. Khamenei wouldn’t allow even a token reformist candidate to run for president.
Mr. Rouhani’s successor, Ebrahim Raisi, who previously headed Iran’s repressive judiciary, has emphasized economic self-sufficiency and trade with Russia and China, rather than with the West.
“In Iran, there is no release valve—no economic opportunities, no social opportunities, no political opportunities, just a cloud of repression,” said Sanam Vakil, the deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at the U.K.’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Today, more than a third of Iranians live in poverty, compared to 20% in 2015. (Photo: Wikimedia commons).
A 40-year-old businessman in Tehran said inflation and an unstable business environment ruined his plans to open a coffee shop. He also had plans to sell foreign perfume in Tehran, but those talks are over. He has canceled wedding plans, as they are too expensive. The pricey shirts and holidays in Istanbul and Dubai he once could afford are gone.
“My dreams have just evaporated,” he said. “People are tired and hopeless.”
In 2017, and then in 2019, protests flared up across Iran that were rooted in economic discontent. The Iranian authorities violently suppressed both movements, with more than 100 dead in 2019, according to Amnesty International, a nonprofit human-rights organization.
A 2019 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Defense by Boston-based social-sciences consulting firm National Security Innovations said Iranian protesters now “largely come from higher income professions such as trade and transportation” and “are being formed by well-educated and elite Iranians.” The rising role of the Iranian middle class in protests would bring more instability and would be met by mounting repression from the government, the study predicted.
Wealth is now concentrated in fewer hands, fueling resentment against members of the Iranian elite widely suspected of profiteering from sanctions evasion.
Businessmen in Tehran say the economy has increasingly been taken over by state-aligned groups, from public pension funds to religious foundations to entities owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, leaving little breathing space for a genuine private sector.
The top 10% of Iranian households now receives 31% of the total gross national income while the bottom 10% gets about 2%, according to Iran’s welfare ministry. That means the Islamic Republic has economic inequalities as pronounced as in the U.S. and much higher than in other countries in the region such as the United Arab Emirates, Iraq or Israel, according to the World Bank.
As many Iranians cut meat from their diets because of the expense, luxury car showrooms are full. Alireza Ghasemi, 33, a salesman for German luxury brand Mercedes-Benz, said he has a waiting list for 160 buyers ready to scoop the vehicles after the government said the imports would be allowed again after a five-year hiatus. The cars go for up to $97,000—half a century of earnings by an Iranian taxi driver.
How Biden Can Stand With the Iranian People
With the prospect of reform non-existent, the Iranian protests offer Washington a chance to do well by doing good.
by Behnam Ben Taleblu and Saeed Ghasseminejad
The National Interest, October 5, 2022
There have been demonstrations in solidarity with the Iranian protest movement around the world, such as this one in Los Angeles on Oct. 1. But are there measures that Western governments can take that will make a difference to the protest movement in Iran? (Photo: Yasamin Jafari Tehrani, Shutterstock).
“These men have not slept for nights.” That’s what Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, the chief of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, said about Iran’s security forces in a recently leaked video. Despite seeking a quick end to protests rocking the country, the Islamic Republic’s repressive apparatus is yet to win the war of wills against its own people. In another clip, Brig. Gen. Hossein Ashtari, the commander of Iran’s Law-Enforcement Forces (LEF), is seen attempting to boost the morale of his officers by saying that they should “not have a shred of doubt” about the task that lies ahead of them. Already, 133 Iranians have been reportedly killed and over 3,000 have been arrested in demonstrations that have mushroomed across the entire country. But protests continue.
Triggered by the morality police’s brutal killing of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly violating mandatory veiling laws, the latest iteration of Iran’s street protests both borrows from, and breaks with, the recent past. Unlike the 2009 Green Movement protests, which followed an election being stolen from a reformist candidate, the past half-decade of increasing Iranian protest activity is not tied to any faction or element of the regime. This is made clear in the slogans chanted at the protests, such as “reformists, principlists, the jig is up!”
Instead, these protests build on the critical evolution of demonstrations and labor strikes since 2009 away from reform and toward revolution. Starting in late 2017, Iranians began to take every available opportunity to move from “passive resistance” to active resistance. This was and continues to be done by using economic, environmental, social, and even security issues as a way to contest the Islamic Republic and, in doing so, make a larger political point about Iranians’ desire for a representative government in line with their values and interests.
In November 2019, Iranians poured onto the streets in response to high gas prices, but their slogans and aims were not about macroeconomics. While some in the West failed to comprehend this, Iran’s rulers faced no such analysis paralysis. Hiding behind an internet blackout, security forces reportedly killed 1,500 protesters in a matter of days. Yet Iranians turned out to protest less than two months later when the Islamic Republic downed a civilian airliner, killing 176 passengers. Fast forward to 2022, and the anti-regime protests that began this September actually picked up where protests sparked by high food prices this May had left off.
Yet, the increasing frequency, scale, and scope of Iranian political protests, the violence employed against protesters by authorities, and the population’s willingness to push back and continue transgressing redlines are missed in Washington’s nuclear-deal-centric framing of Iran policy.
Success for Iran’s protest movement or even the erosion of the Islamic Republic’s power could have profound consequences for stability in the Middle East and redound to America’s strategic advantage if supported correctly and carefully. After all, the Islamic Republic has never been shy about hiding its enmity for America—“the Great Satan”—and its desire to frustrate U.S. policy. This is especially true in the counterterrorism context, given Iran’s material support to terror proxies—styled by Tehran as “the Axis of Resistance”—in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza, as well as through the increasingly relevant paradigm of great power competition, where Tehran is busy tightening economic and military ties with China and Russia.
With the prospect of reform non-existent, the Iranian protests offer Washington a chance to do well by doing good. Here’s a ten-point plan to do exactly that.
First, the Biden administration should push away from nuclear negotiations, however indirect, with Tehran centered on resurrecting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). So long as the JCPOA remains on the table, Tehran will know that international pressure will ultimately fade. A nuclear deal that fails to fully and permanently block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon is, on its best day, a Faustian bargain for American national security. But having that same deal provide a regime like the Islamic Republic with a financial windfall of an estimated one trillion U.S. dollars by 2030 is sheer folly. Enabling the flow of such funding in exchange for limited and reversible concessions on select elements of Iran’s atomic infrastructure will oil the repressive apparatus that killed Mahsa Amini and her protesting compatriots. It will also permit Tehran to better back its foreign legion, thereby underwriting more, not less, bloodshed in Iran and across the Middle East.
Second, Washington should move to politically isolate the Islamic Republic by pushing for its removal from, or censure in, international organizations while also pressuring allies to sever or downgrade their bilateral diplomatic relations. Lest we forget, there have been a handful of times over the past four decades when European nations recalled their ambassadors from Tehran. The recent string of demarches, statements, and more by American allies is therefore welcome, but more can be done. There is no reason why, in the aftermath of the brutal killing of Mahsa Amini (as well as many other brave young women in protests), Iran should be permitted to retain its seat cost-free on the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN. Elected to the commission this spring, a regime that treats women as the Islamic Republic does not deserve to be anywhere near such a body.
Moreover, Washington could work with partners to support the establishment, as recommended by Amnesty International’s Secretary General, of an investigative body “by the UN Human Rights Council for the most serious crimes under international law committed by the Iranian authorities.” National governments with evidence of rights violations should be encouraged to submit information to such a body with the aim of developing a baseline international consensus as to what accountability for Iranian rights violators must look like.
Third, following its recent designation of Iran’s morality police and select military commanders for enabling the Islamic Republic’s crackdown, the Biden administration should initiate a mass designations campaign. Aimed at naming, shaming, and penalizing the Iranian people’s oppressors, these penalties can target vigilante, LEF, Basij paramilitary, or even Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders at the regional and local levels. Elsewhere, penalties can be scaled-up to explore the applicability of sanctions against politicians and officials supportive of the crackdown at the regional and national levels. Most of this culpability can be determined through open sources.
Specifically, sanctions can be ratcheted-up to target Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi, both of whom are currently on the Treasury Department’s blacklist, but not for human rights-related offenses. Sanctions can also be extended to other pillars of the regime where there may be a financial or institutional nexus of support to Iran’s apparatus of repression. For example, Iran’s current Minister of Information and Communications Technology is not sanctioned despite his ministry’s involvement in internet restrictions and blackouts during protests. Yet in 2019, his predecessor was sanctioned for exactly that. The administration should also investigate the applicability of sanctions against select telecommunications and information technology firms and their leadership structures, be they government subsidiaries or government-supported “start-ups.” Doing so can help protect against nefarious actors using cut-outs to take advantage of new licenses and loosening communications restrictions by Washington.
As a corollary, Washington should share targeting information about these entities with its international partners who possess or are developing autonomous sanctions authorities. The mass designation and accountability campaign can then be “multilateralized” against the IRGC, LEF, regime officials, sanctions busters, censors, and others aiding the Islamic Republic’s repression machine. Canada’s recent sanctions against Iran’s morality police are a good example of this, but they must be expanded to include America’s trans-Atlantic partners. Conversely, when there are instances of entities subject to EU penalties that are yet to be targeted using State Department and Treasury Department authorities, Washington should rapidly move to bridge the trans-Atlantic gap.
Fourth, building on the mass designations campaign, the administration should use existing State Department authorities under a 2021 appropriations act to prevent the entry into the United States of Iranian human rights violators and their families. Far from any blanket visa ban that existed under the previous administration, this penalty can first be applied to individuals on the Treasury Department’s blacklist where an evidentiary basis for human rights penalties may already exist. It can then be broadened against new targets. After that, Washington can commence a dialogue with international partners where it has had success in sharing sanctions targeting information to get them to also consider a visa ban against the same persons and their families. The net result would be a widening web or “no-go zone” for Iranian human rights violators and their families. Lastly, should the political appetite and commensurate legal interpretations exist, the administration or Congress could inquire about, within the full extent of the law, revoking visas for family members of the regime elite already in the United States.
US-based Iran experts Behnam Ben Taleblu and Saeed Ghasseminejad: Washington’s nuclear-deal-centric framing of Iran policy leads to missing opportunities to both advance Western interests and help Iranians achieve their desire for a genuinely representative government (Images: Foundation for Defense of Democracies)
Fifth, with international politics and domestic news cycles not slowing down anytime soon, the Biden administration should work to increase its rhetorical support for Iranian protesters and keep the spotlight on the Islamic Republic’s crackdown. Drawing on the playbook employed by his predecessor during protests in 2018 and 2019, Biden and other high-ranking officials can vigorously embrace traditional and social media to amplify their support for the Iranian people and remind demonstrators that Washington stands with them. The more U.S. officials mention the names of the victims of the regime’s repression, the more the Iranian people will know their plight has not been overlooked and forgotten.
Concurrently, members of Congress can and should continue the string of letters, resolutions, tweets, and statements made in support of the Iranian people while also seeking to clarify or improve U.S. policy. Hearings about the administration’s human rights policy toward Iran, amongst others, can also be of assistance.
Sixth, the administration should support efforts to provide the Iranian people access to uncensored internet via satellite. As Iranians increasingly rely on the internet, social media applications, and mobile communications to organize and share the regime’s atrocities with the outside world, the Islamic Republic has improved its domestic cyber capabilities to censor and throttle or blackout the internet. With a reported 80 percent of Iranians already using virtual private networks (VPNs) and anti-filtering technologies prior to the start of the protests, measures to ensure connectivity are now a critical lynchpin.
Reports that Elon Musk is seeking to provide Iranians with Starlink is welcome news. To ramp up the production of Starlink terminals, an Iran Free Internet Fund (or similarly named entity) should be created under public-private auspices to offer Starlink financial support for an Iran-specific acquisition program. Washington can then create an interagency task force to oversee an operation to ensure that Iranians get access to the necessary hardware to make sure Starlink becomes operational, and sustain the costs of funneling this hardware into Iran over time. In the meantime, the U.S. government task force can help identify and contest regime or pro-regime hacker-led disinformation and hacking efforts to mislead Iranians about the current operational status of Starlink.
Seventh, the latest round of Treasury Department designations against Tehran’s petrochemical and oil smuggling networks raises hopes that at a very minimum, Washington may move towards greater enforcement of the sanctions penalties it has inherited and, until recently, decided to let atrophy.
Since May, the Treasury Department has issued these penalties against networks supporting illicit Iranian oil and petrochemical producers, financiers, and shippers to the tune of one sanctions package a month. While these measures have been insufficient to elicit Iranian nuclear concessions or foster a change in behavior, a greater focus on Iran’s petrochemical exports is critical given their importance to the regime.
The administration should make sure relevant agencies are tracking these shipments so that Washington can move to confiscate, wherever possible and within the full extent of the law, illicit Iranian shipments. The funds generated from these sales can not only fund the aforementioned Iran Free Internet Fund, but also underwrite a strike and protest fund akin to what was done for Poland’s Solidarity Movement during the Cold War.
Eighth, the United States and many of its international partners have significant cyber capabilities that can be used to help protesters. In addition to targeting Tehran’s command and control systems from abroad, Washington can help the protesters in their efforts to move from street power to strike power. At present, protesters are facing challenges in sustaining a pincer movement against the regime. Labor strikes are currently ongoing in educational institutions across Iran, but they are slowly moving towards the service sector. Laborers in strategic sectors, such as the energy sector, are now threatening to go on strike. Disrupting the operations of these key sectors could give a much-needed boost to laborers and threaten the regime. Oil strikes were a critical factor that multiplied street power in the 1978-1979 protests that took down the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran.
Ninth, as protesters combat a well-equipped machine of oppression, Washington and its partners are likely already in possession of intelligence through signals and imagery that could possibly be shared with protesters via the Iranian opposition. Specifically, should Basij, IRGC, and LEF bases and command outposts be the subject of monitoring, then information on force deployments from these positions could be useful for Iranian protesters.
Tenth, as the Islamic Republic continues its crackdown on Iranians at home, it has been looking abroad to project strength. For the third time since protests began in September, Iran attacked Kurdish positions in northern Iraq. But unlike the first two days of strikes, on the third day, IRGC ground forces escalated to launch a reported seventy-three ballistic missiles at several locations in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing a reported thirteen people. This marks Iran’s second ballistic missile operation against northern Iraq in 2022, the first being a barrage in March against the home of a Kurdish oil tycoon, which Tehran claimed was an Israeli outpost. The recent operation even took the life of an American citizen, but Tehran has thus far only received condemnation from Washington.
Despite domestic unrest, Tehran has not taken its eye off of the Middle East’s proxy wars. Neither should Washington. In addition to the need to counter Iran’s weapons proliferation and terror funding, a greater kinetic pushback on Iran and its proxies could lead to concurrent and even reinforcing foreign and domestic vectors of pressure on the regime. Over time, this could help elicit or widen fissures among the security establishment, as they may be forced to debate priorities and have to consider reallocating funding, time, political attention, and other resources to each contest. Ultimately, sustained domestic and foreign cost-imposition to the Islamic Republic can shatter the image of invincibility that it has carefully cultivated among adversaries and allies
At the end of the day, the Iranian people are and will remain the stewards of their own destiny. But three weeks in, one thing is clear: the Iranian people deserve more support. This strategy offers Washington a way to get off the sidelines and show, in ways consistent with American national security interests, that it stands with the Iranian people in practice, not just principle.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior adviser. Both contribute to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP), among others. The views expressed are their own.