February 28, 2019

JOHNS | Reining In Iran’s Brutal Regime

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Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a new dueling columns feature. In this feature, Michael Johns ’20 and Giancarlo Valdetaro ’21 debate, “Forty years after the Iranian Revolution, what posture should the U.S. take on the Islamic Republic?” Read the counterpart column here.

An unidentified man was publicly hanged in the Iranian city of Kazeroon last month, one of thousands of Iranians executed on charges of homosexuality in the country since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran’s despotic legal system and practice of secret executions make it easy to underestimate the magnitude of Iran’s human rights abuses, which also have targeted political opponents and religious minorities. Yet, while numbers are hard to come by, human rights experts are nearly unanimous in placing Iran among the world’s worst human rights violators.

Since the Iranian regime came to power in 1979, it has opposed all international efforts to improve and monitor the country’s human rights conditions. And for good reason —  the regime has a lot to hide. From the slaughter of 5,000 political prisoners in 1988 to the arbitrary arrest of more than 7,000 protesters and journalists in 2018, the Iranian regime has beaten down any who challenge its brutal, autocratic reign. Additionally, as I wrote in The Hill in August 2016, thousands of protesters participating in the pro-democracy Green Revolution in 2009 were killed, injured or jailed by the Iranian regime as the Obama administration stood idly by, failing to lend the movement even perfunctory rhetorical support. These demonstrators were sent to the same prisons, subjected to similar mass show trials and executed with the same impunity that the regime’s opponents were when it first took power.

Nor has Iran’s militant and repressive ideology been constrained to its own country. Since coming to power, the regime has aggressively exported its violent and dogmatic brand of Islamism, and is today the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Tehran has provided substantial and long-standing support for multiple vicious terrorist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis in Yemen, Shiite militias in Iraq and the bloody Assad dictatorship in Syria — all of which have used Iran’s backing to commit horrific acts of repression. The regime has openly tested ballistic missiles and, even more outrageously, shipped them to extremist rebels in Yemen in defiance of United Nations prohibitions. Brazenly, Iran also has been implicated in plotting assassination attempts against its political opponents throughout Europe and the U.S.

Since the Carter administration, the U.S. has properly condemned Iran’s terrorist acts and human rights violations, though efforts to curtail Iran’s malign influence have consistently fallen short. The Obama administration, however, departed from this posture and instead negotiated an unjustifiably accommodating nuclear deal with Iran while cutting a variety of secret side deals. These deals were secret for a reason —  they disproportionately benefited the Iranian regime. Throughout the negotiations, the Obama administration undermined international arms control efforts against Iran and Hezbollah, sought to give Iran access to the U.S. financial system in violation of sanctions (while lying repeatedly to Congress about those plans) and covertly sent $400 million in cash to Iran’s dictators, overriding a Clinton administration promise to deliver that money to American victims of Iranian terror.

President Obama’s 2015 Iran deal proved a colossal failure. Not only did the regime refuse to end its destabilizing terrorist activities, it used U.S. aid to further extend them. Not only did human rights conditions fail to improve, but they worsened substantially. Alarmingly, the Iran deal also failed to rein in the country’s covert nuclear weapons development program. The deal did not, as former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry promised, “permanently shut down all pathways” to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Instead, it left Iran with most of its nuclear infrastructure, permitted it to research and build advanced centrifuges and ballistic missiles and unconditionally unfroze $150 billion in Iranian assets. The few requirements it did impose, such as intolerably limited visits from nuclear inspectors, included conditions that rendered this promise meaningless, such as precluding inspections at probable nuclear development sites and requiring advance notice for inspections. So glaring were the deficiencies of the Iran agreement that it never was presented to the Senate for ratification. Its proponents knew it would be met with overwhelming bipartisan opposition.

Responding to Iran’s repeated violations of the deal, and the lies which Iran circulated when originally negotiating it, the Trump administration properly opted to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement last May. With the support of Congress, President Trump instead expanded economic sanctions against the country and rallied allies to join in isolating the regime. Since this policy change, Iran’s dictators have confronted unprecedented pressure as the economy has contracted, inflation has surged and anti-regime protests have erupted. Many Iran analysts saw the abrupt resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif earlier this week as a sign that the Iranian regime is now beginning to crack under the mounting pressure.

For the first time since 1979, U.S. policy toward Iran shows promise. Barred from financial resources and export markets, the Iranian regime’s support for global terrorism is slowly being denied the resources it demands, and new hope is emerging that its survival is no longer guaranteed. While regime change would ultimately need to be initiated by Iranians, not the U.S., it increasingly appears that domestic opposition to the regime may well force the sort of democratization and liberalization that most Iranians seek. The key to realizing that goal is for the U.S. to continue President Trump’s policy of isolating Iran’s dictatorship, both economically and politically. For the first time in four decades, Washington appears to have gotten Iran policy right.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].