US policy towards Iran must focus strategically
Back in 2009 when a million Iranians took to the streets to reject the results of a manipulated Presidential election, we called for all-out US support to the protesters as they turned against the regime itself. The backing we suggested referred to political, moral and eventually peaceful logistical support, including broadcast, communications, and similar media allowing the opposition to express itself inside and outside the country. The world has seen briefly then, thanks to Twitter and YouTube, gigantic marches across the capital—but also acts of repression, including the shooting of young protester Neda. The regime shut down civil society’s media just before it clamped down on the protesters. Unfortunately, the US official positioning in June 2009 allowed Iran’s regime to eliminate its non-violent opposition faster than projected. One cannot destroy a million plus demonstrators unless there is certainty there will be no retribution. By stating that the US would not be taking sides between demonstrators and the Ayatollah regime—the words of President Barack Obama—indirectly gave a green light to the regime to crush the upheaval. The Obama administration was about optics: “The US should not be seen” as siding with Iran’s demonstrators because this would allegedly turn the country against the demonstrators. These talking points reflected the interests of the regime in Tehran, for American silence would demoralize the protesters, would demobilize allies and partners, and would freeze the use of international institutions to pressure the oppressive government in Iran—and it did.
Ironically, the same administration did not hesitate to openly call for the downfall of Egyptian, Tunisian. Libyan and other authoritarian heads of states two years later during the “Arab Spring.” So what was it about Iran’s democratic revolt of 2009 that forced the Obama team to abandon the millions of youth and workers in Iran as they rose? During that same month, President Obama sent a letter to Ayatollah Khamanei seeking engagement, which eventually led to a change of US policy towards Iran and the production of the “Iran Deal.” Abandoning the people on the streets of Tehran in 2009 was not some random tactical mistake; it was strategic policy that sacrificed democracy in Iran in order to establish an economic and political partnership with the regime. That US policy must change as we are witnessing its failures. Iran’s regime was given the opportunity to crush its popular opposition, export its military and militias to four countries in the Middle East, build a fleet of missiles, and keep its options open to produce and deploy nuclear weapons.
Today, the world is watching—again—many demonstrations taking place in Iran. The protesters come from all walks of life, spreading across the country beyond Tehran. They have been angry at the financial disparities and are now calling for the fall of the regime. Note also that many among the protesters were children during the 2009 upheaval. It is clear: the wave comes deep from within civil society. This a historic moment that needs to be seized by the United States and the international community to assist a peaceful political change in Iran, a change that would end half of the war on terror and set the track for peace and social prosperity. But what exactly should the US do?
First, speak and speak loudly, shatter the silence. Supportive tweets by President Trump are crucial because they can be read by Iranian youth, women and workers and can serve as a morale booster to Iran’s civil society, to the silent majority and to ethnic minorities. Just the opposite of what former administration officials are prescribing: more of the same silence that suffocated the 2009 revolt. However, the President’s tweets should present a focused content that can help allies, partners and the Iranian opposition understand what Washington wants and can do. Presidential tweets can be a formidable game changer if they are disciplined and prioritized. So are Congressional tweets from both parties.
Second, US diplomacy can and should raise the bar by speaking up as Ambassador Haley is doing at the UN Security Council, and as Spokeswoman Heather Nauert at Foggy Bottom and NSC staffers are voicing at the White House. But beyond lamenting the actions of the Iranian regime, what is needed next is the formation of a large coalition of countries ready to act at the UN, flanked by a larger alliance of NGOs ready to take it to the streets and social media. If Haley’s efforts at the UNSC are vetoed by Russia, she should call on a meeting in support of the Iranian people. Dozens of Arab, Muslim, Latin American, Asian, and African delegates will show up. Some East European countries may also join in. The US can convene a coalition of the willing to pressure Tehran.
Third, the Iranian opposition—particularly those in exile—must help the US and the world mobilize by uniting themselves first. The Western based Iranian groups need to stop unproductive competition, think of the now and not of who will seize power later, and appear together and in solidarity on the international scene. The “I am Iran” slogan must be put on the side for now, and a vast national unity coalition of emigres and exiles should be formed and petition the UN, UNHRC, EU, and other organizations to lend them support. Keeping in mind that the real actors on the ground inside Iran, that is the protesters, are the ones to be supported in their quest for democracy. The diaspora should back them up, and once the change is achieved, let a free competition be the fair game for all to form future governments.
Fourth, US policy must present a rational and strategic agenda regarding Iran’s protests. The administration’s narrative must be unified, and the administration must reach out to Congress and coordinate a comprehensive strategy. A bipartisan platform needs to be built as a basis for a national US approach to the matter. We strongly suggest the appointment of an “Iran coordinator,” as long as the crisis is ongoing, to maintain cohesiveness between all US government entities and to reach out to regional and international players, as well as the Iranian opposition. Someone who understands both the opposition and the strategies of the regime as well.
Fifth, the US and its international coalition must provide strategic non-military support to the Iranian people, ethnic majority and minorities alike, including efficient means of communications with powerful internet access. Along with broadcast abilities, both those funded by the US such as radio Farda and VOA Faris, and private sector networks. Coordinate with partners in the region to broadcast into Iran in Farsi and other languages, and work with humanitarian NGOs to assist the victims of violence in Iran
Six, extend assistance to civil societies in the region, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, targeted by Iran regime’s militias, so that they can also put pressure on Tehran to cease its interventions in the region.
Seven, continue to block the shipping of Iranian missiles to countries overseas, including in the Middle East, starting with Yemen.
Now that Iran’s civil society has risen, it is the moral obligation of the international community to not only express solidarity with the latter but also to provide support—within the limits of international law—so that Iran’s silent majority can bring about political change to that ancient country, ruled by dictators since 1979.
Dr Walid Phares is a professor of political science, and served as Foreign Policy advisor to Donald Trump in 2016 and senior national security advisor to Mitt Romney in 2011-2012. Author of several books including The Lost Spring: US Policy in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid
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