This week, 140 US lawmakers joined in sending a letter to President Biden which urged him to pursue a more comprehensive agreement with Iran. Biden has previously stated that his administration’s long term goal is to secure concessions from Tehran with respect to not only its nuclear program but also its penchant for destructive regional intervention, its support of international terrorism, its domestic human rights abuses, and so on. But the letter seems to reflect skepticism on both sides of the aisle regarding the prospect of Biden achieving that goal with the tactics that are presently on the table. Half of the signers were Republicans and half were Democrats.
Similar bipartisanship was on display the previous week when the Organization of Iranian-American Communities hosted an online conference to discuss the issues raised by a House resolution that is currently under consideration and has acquired more than 150 co-sponsors from both parties. H. Res. 118 focuses on human rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent inside Iran, but notes that those crackdowns are driven by the Iranian regime’s anxiety over an ascendant opposition movement that demonstrates “the Iranian people’s desire for a democratic, secular, and non-nuclear Republic of Iran.”
The resolution and subsequent letter stop short of dismissing the sort of diplomacy that is apparently favored by the Biden administration. But in highlighting the notion that the Iranian people and the Iranian regime are at odds over the country’s nuclear program, the resolution hints at an idea that was endorsed by a number of the lawmakers in the OIAC conference: that the only means of conclusively preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is by facilitating a change of government in Tehran.
None of the lawmakers in question intended this idea to be an endorsement of policies that would lead to another war in the Middle East. Rather, they referenced it in support of one of the central objectives of the House resolution, namely encouraging the US and its allies to stand with “the people of Iran who are continuing to hold legitimate and peaceful protests against an oppressive and corrupt regime.”
Those protests have been taking place on a particularly large scale since the end of 2017. In December of that year, a protest over worsening economic indicators broke out in the city of Mashhad and helped to spark a nationwide uprising that encompassed well over 100 other cities and towns. As the movement spread, its participants laid the blame for the economic situation at the feet of the theocratic regime, arguing that the system that created those problems could never be the system that fixed them. With slogans like “death to the dictator,” protesters clearly endorsed the platform of regime change that had long been embodied by the country’s main opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
Even the Iranian regime’s supreme leader acknowledged in the midst of those protests that the MEK had played a leading role in planning and staging them. His statement served both as a warning about the prospect of further uprisings and as a call for widespread crackdowns by institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Both of these things ultimately came to pass. Before the initial uprising ended in January 2018, dozens of protesters were killed and thousands were arrested and placed at risk of torture, multi-year prison sentences, and even execution. Yet Iran’s activist community soon responded favorably to a call from NCRI’s President-elect Maryam Rajavi for a “year full of uprisings,” and in November 2019 there was another nationwide outbreak of protests, this one at least 50 percent larger than its predecessor.
Warnings persist about further MEK-led demonstrations. The coronavirus pandemic has served to limit the opportunities for organizing those demonstrations on a very large scale, but it has also provided still more fuel for the Iranian people’s deep resentment toward the regime’s mismanagement of domestic affairs and its tendency to place self-serving objectives – such as the furtherance of the Iranian nuclear program – ahead of the dire needs of the civilian population. In the meantime, protests have periodically flared up in specific regions, and some of them have been very serious.
On Monday, as she delivered her keynote speech at a virtual conference marking International Women’s Day, Maryam Rajavi described the event as taking place “amidst the blazing flames of the blood-drenched uprising of the people of Baluchistan.” She went on to say that the protests in question, which were sparked by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps killing several fuel porters in the border region who had complained of the regime’s interference with their only available source of income, were “the continuation of the volcanic eruptions in November 2019.”
Unfortunately, the implications of both movements are similar, in that regime authorities promptly responded with unrestrained violence, driven no doubt by their fears over the threat those movements posed to their very hold on power. During the November 2019 uprising, the IRGC opened fire on crowds of protesters in various cities and, according to a report from Amnesty International, aimed their weapons with fatal intent. Consequently, about 1,500 participants and innocent bystanders are estimated to have been killed in the space of only a few days.
Dozens of people have reportedly been killed in the past week or so in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan, but authorities have also cut off access to the internet in the region, thereby slowing the release of information to the wider world. The death toll may prove to be much greater than initial reports have suggested, but regardless of the specific numbers, they might have been avoided if Western leaders had been more willing to listen, over the past several years, to calls for a different set of tactics aimed at a broader set of goals in dealing with the Islamic Republic.
The potential impact on Iran’s human rights situation might have been realized regardless of whether these appeals were aimed specifically at addressing prior abuses or just at the nuclear issues that are much closer to the center of the international community’s attention. In the US, House Resolution 118 represents one of these categories, while direct appeals to President Biden tend to represent the other. And both categories are well-represented among America’s European allies, as well, even though there is arguably less grounds for optimism regarding the response from officials representing the European Union and its member states.
The EU’s head of foreign policy, Josep Borrell, made a point of visiting Iran within days of taking on his role. That happened to be only about a month after the November 2019 uprising and the resulting crackdown, and Borrell’s effort to expand relations with the Islamic Republic seemed to convey Western indifference to the plight of the Iranian people, as well as to Iran’s nuclear commitments, which were then on the verge of being violated in their entirety.
This message can still be reversed, but in light of the differences between Borrell’s Iran policy and Biden’s, the latter will surely have to take the lead. He can do so by continuing to exert pressure on the Iranian regime over its full range of malign activities, rather than reentering the deeply flawed nuclear agreement that his predecessor exited in 2018. In this way, the US can begin to express support for the Resistance movement that stands ready to transform Iran into a peaceful and non-nuclear state. And once the EU sees the value of that policy, it may finally follow suit.