The widespread protests in Iran demonstrate the failure of the Islamic regime. In common with previous revolutionary states in the Middle East — in Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and Syria — the Islamic Republic of Iran has delivered neither prosperity nor social justice. Its main achievement is to be more corrupt and repressive than its predecessor. Although the U.S. government should support protests that weaken Iran’s government and expose its lack of legitimacy, the U.S. must first stop enabling the Islamic regime.
Despite its rhetoric, the Trump administration has followed the Obama administration in accommodating the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions while announcing sanctions. President Barack Obama strengthened the clerical regime by not opposing Iran’s military intervention in Syria and ignoring Iranian support for sectarian militias in Iraq. Along with the chief of staff during his second term, Denis McDonough, Obama convinced himself that Iran was “losing as much as anybody” in the Syrian civil war. Obama then adopted a new rationale for allowing Iran to commit war crimes on behalf of the Syrian regime, to preserve the Iran nuclear deal.
Like Obama, President Donald Trump has taken no meaningful action against Iran’s growing military presence in Syria despite the threat this poses to U.S. forces and U.S. allies. All that matters for Trump in Syria, as he made clear during the presidential campaign, is that “Iran is killing ISIS.” The Trump administration has the same perspective in Iraq. Trump is uninterested in Iranian control over Iraq’s Shia militias, their human rights abuses, and repeated threats against U.S. forces—all because they have been effective against the Islamic State. When Iraqi forces used American weapons to attack Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in October, Trump said, “We’re not taking sides.” Iran did take sides, threatening the Kurds and crowing at their defeat.
Trump should break with Obama by treating the Iranian presence in Syria and Iraq as an act of aggression against the U.S. and its allies. He could warn Iran that any military transport across these countries is liable to U.S. interception.
More importantly, Trump should distance his administration from Obama by supporting Iranians and their struggle with the Islamic regime.
For more than a decade, the U.S. has stumbled in its attempts to assist Iranian dissidents and civil society movements. Although the Bush administration wanted to support these groups, it mismanaged human rights and democracy programs. Most Bush-era money went to Persian language broadcasts that few Iranians watched. The Obama administration sought to neutralize any possible impact from these projects, denying funding after the post-election unrest in 2009. State Department officials imposed restrictions, which they blamed on Congress, to stop money from reaching Iranian human rights activists. Obama was content to make empty statements when the Islamic Republic attacked demonstrators, telling CBS News on June 19, 2009, that “the world is watching” — a phrase Trump repeated twice on Twitter on Dec. 29.
Instead, the Trump administration should provide a mixture of support and incentives to the regime’s disparate opponents. Support involves patiently building connections with opposition groups across the whole of Iran, while avoiding self-promoting emigres who only demand money. All of the regime’s peaceful opponents need help organizing and remaining secure. Even if these protests fail, the U.S. should be in contact with Iranians who have defied the regime.
Previous administrations generally promoted middle class dissidents from north Tehran because they engage in human rights work. Iran’s dissidents are principled and courageous, but just one part of a broader movement.
For too long, the U.S. has failed to connect with Iran’s ethnic minorities. The regime executes hundreds of Arabs from southwestern Iran, Kurds from the northwest, and Baluchis from the southeast for alleged smuggling and drug trafficking. In 2016, an Iranian official admitted that the government had killed every single man in one Baluchi village for supposed drug-related crimes. Nor has the U.S. sought to understand the urban working class or the regional middle class, core regime constituencies that are increasingly disaffected. Support also means imposing sanctions upon those responsible for these abuses, from regional officials all the way up to the so-called supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iranians also deserve incentives. The U.S. can offer to alleviate sanctions and take Iran off the travel ban list if the Iranian state observes human rights norms and allows genuine popular representation. In particular, Trump should drop his absurd request that the regime provide details about Iranian citizens to the U.S. government in return for visas. If Trump does not trust the regime to observe the nuclear deal, why would he accept information about Iranian travelers?
Such an offer of improved ties with the U.S., which many in Iran want, in return for more freedom can demonstrate that Trump understands the difference between Iranians and those who rule over them.
Andrew Apostolou was the director for Iran at Freedom House. If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.