Jason Brodsky, policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute's Iran program, was interviewed in a June 30th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) by Benjamin Baird, director of MEF Action, the Middle East Forum's new advocacy project. Brodsky discussed the U.S. response to Iranian protests in answering the question, "Did Washington sufficiently support Iran's revolutionaries?" The following is a summary of his comments:
Founded in 2008 as a "hybrid advocacy tank/think tank," UANI advocates for the Iranian people's human rights and calls for an end to the Islamic Republic. It educates the public about the Iranian regime's "malign influence around the world," tracks sanctions enforcement as well as sanctions evasions by the regime, and closely follows the activities and the "modus operandi" of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the regime's "ideological army."
Although media coverage of the mass protests against the regime has subsided, the Iranian people continue to bravely engage in acts of civil disobedience daily, with a mixed U.S. response. At the height of the protests, the Biden administration foiled the regime's internet censorship to keep thirty million Iranians online. There were other "good moments," as when the U.S. had a hand in the Islamic Republic's removal from the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and when the U.S. ensured that the UN Human Rights Council would investigate human rights abuses committed by the regime.
The administration has also attempted to be more publicly forceful in its support of the Iranian people, having learned from Obama's "grave error" of abstaining from public objection to the regime's crackdown during 2009's Green Revolution. But still not enough has been done in this regard. Biden's "hesitancy" to unambiguously articulate and amplify the call of the Iranian people who take to the streets demanding freedom is a "mistake." Also lacking has been any U.S. effort to rally international pressure on the regime.
Although there is bipartisan support in Congress for sanctions on the IRGC as a terrorist organization, the Biden administration is mistaken in not clearly calling for our allies to follow suit. The Iranian diaspora joins with those under threat in Iran in its plea to sanction the IRGC, which the Iranian people see as "their ISIS."
The U.S. should not only be engaging our European allies to sanction the IRGC, but also extending sanctions to the Supreme Leader, to Iran's president, and to high-ranking officials for their human rights abuses and support for terrorism. The MAHSA Act, in memory of Mahsa Amini, the Kurdish woman killed by the regime's modesty police, is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives and will expose the administration's foot-dragging on Iran. Although greater enforcement of international sanctions would deliver an economic blow to the regime, what is needed is a message from Washington and Europe that global democracies stand united in holding the Iranian regime accountable for its abuses.
Due to its narrow focus on forwarding an "agreement" that would stymie Iran's nuclear and non-nuclear ambitions, the administration is "risk-averse" in articulating a clear message at home and abroad and has framed its current efforts so as to bypass congressional review. The nuclear threat is significant, but U.S. policy on Iran has proven to be ineffective and piecemeal. Any approach to the Islamic Republic without congressional approval is unsustainable. "We have the corpse of the JCPOA from 2015 to prove that case."
This lack of leadership, which is apparent from U.S. and European "self-deterrence," only emboldens the regime. The administration handicaps itself in believing that something resembling the Iraq War model is the inevitable outcome for public support of the Iranian people. Although "no one is calling for the invasion of Iran," the political landscape has changed since 2015. Congressional representatives and senators who supported the JCPOA have reconsidered their stance given the regime's unchallenged human rights abuses, which are crushing the brave Iranian people. European governments are considering a new Iran strategy now that the regime is arming Russia with drones that are used against Ukraine.
The Iranian people are asking the West to stop supporting the regime with "resources, sanctions relief, diplomatic legitimacy" and instead support their cause for freedom. The call of dissident leaders for a "strike fund" from the regime's frozen assets held abroad should be heeded. These monies rightfully belong to the Iranian people and should be used to sustain striking Iranian workers. Strikes could play an important part in crippling the regime as they did during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
That U.S. citizens are held hostage in Tehran necessitates some U.S. engagement with the regime, but a policy that releases assets to gain the captives' release will only incentivize more hostage-taking. The constant protests and Ayatollah Khamenei's brutal response has pressured regime sympathizers, but the Supreme Leader in whom power is concentrated represses any dissent within the ranks. The Iranian opposition won't engage with reformists, whom they see as a threat because they want the Islamic Republic to endure and would likely strengthen its hold.
Any rhetorical support by the U.S. president would infuse the protest movement with energy, yet Biden avoids talking about Iran. The administration need to change its message to the public about the Iranian regime. Even Obama articulated that the military option was a credible threat. While Biden has stated the same, his unwillingness to properly articulate such an option as part of a successful Iran strategy invites the regime to doubt U.S. will. In turn, the regime escalates its demands and takes an even harder line. "Deterrence is a function of not only the capability to take out Iran's entire nuclear infrastructure, but also the will to do so."
America's tepid or non-response to the Islamic Republic's drone and proxy attacks that have in recent months killed U.S. citizens in Iraq and Syria evokes weakness that the mullahs interpret as an invitation to escalate. A way to stop the Iranian leadership from targeting U.S. forces and citizens is to target IRGC assets. This approach would serve as a deterrent, because any significant attack against the U.S. would "be an invitation to war."
Consider how our deterrence is undermined when the regime's thwarted abduction or assassination of regime critics here in America is reduced to a law enforcement problem. The government issues warnings to Iran that there will be policy consequences, but a lack of follow-through encourages Tehran to escalate. If the regime managed to successfully carry out its threat against an American citizen on U.S. soil, it would be a casus belli.
The Islamic Republic is ideologically committed to its revolutionary movement and does not represent the Iranian people. The U.S. government chooses to detach itself from the Iranian diaspora and its critical links to networks within Iran. Washington's foreign policy priorities are China and Ukraine, not Iran. The administration is buying time rather than effectively forming a U.S. strategy towards the Islamic Republic in framing Iran as a "distraction."
In response, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee should hold an Iran-focused oversight hearing and demand answers from the executive branch. The administration must improve its communication about its Iran policy and "stop dodging" the problem by avoiding a "public conversation." After all, "an organized united Iranian diaspora is the worst nightmare of the Islamic Republic."
Yet, "I unfortunately have not seen or have sensed that the U.S. government . . . there's been a real detachment from what is pulsing and trending in the Iranian diaspora and that's quite unfortunate. I think that we need to rethink how we engage with critical constituencies that make any Iran policies successful, and at the heart of that is the Iranian-American diaspora. We also have the Jewish community; we have a lot of other constituencies who are greatly concerned about the threat that the Islamic Republic poses. And if we're not engaging, if we're not having figures in the Biden Administration who have the confidence of those constituencies, were going to have problems. And that's what I'd like to see moving forward."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.