U.S.-Iran policy has become more partisan and ideological than fact-based, and the Iranian regime has exploited our blind spots. American conservatives have reflexively promoted forced regime change without understanding the fallout from the 1953 U.S.-led coup and its byproduct, the 1979 revolution. American liberals have aspired to friendship with mullahs who held anti-Americanism as a sacred tenet.
Against this partisan backdrop, only a handful of people within the U.S. government or either political party’s policy-making apparatus have ever so much as visited Iran, let alone worked there, learned to speak and read Farsi, or earned familiarity with cultural nuances. Iranians as a whole — and the mullahs in particular — know us much more deeply and intuitively than we know them.
Thus, up to now, U.S. policy on Iran has mostly been about de-escalation and containment interspersed with big declarations. Meanwhile, the Europeans have fattened their coffers through trade with Iran while claiming a moral high grand in promoting the JCPOA.
But the Iranian protestors now offer a historic opportunity to change global dynamics not just for their own country, but also the world at large.
The United States and its democratic allies have many options to leverage this situation. But first we must do no harm to either the Iranian people’s dreams or to U.S. global standing. In the U.S., we must set aside the partisan bickering as our division only emboldens the Islamic regime, and speak with a unified American voice. We must also recognize that the Iranian people desire the support of global solidarity and not kinetic intervention.
This does not mean taking a wait-and-see attitude. The actions taken, however, must align with what the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. We should not throw our support to so-called opposition groups like the MEK (National Council of Resistance), which are despised by the Iranian people for supporting Iraq during the 1980s war, yet have effectively found their way around the halls of Congress. We must not fan ethnic separatist movements, as the Iranian government has unfailingly played on fears of national disintegration to justify its internal iron fist. This is a major reason why protestors in 2009 demanded reforms rather than regime change in light of internal Iraqi dynamics following the 2003 U.S invasion..
Along with its democratic and regional allies, the U.S. should immediately convene a global conference to adopt appropriate measures to address the regime’s ongoing internal repression and external regional destabilization. French President Giscard d’Estaigne’s 1979 Guadeloupe Conference provides a useful (if forgotten) precedent. This conference would have several concrete outcomes.
One main goal of a summit would be to collectively choke off the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ funding sources, which are deeply intertwined with the Iranian economy. The Guard accounts for up to an estimated 80% ownership of trade and industry, so financial disruptions would greatly diminish their power. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Iran owns some $31 billion in foreign assets. Every effort should be made to freeze these assets, in addition to the foreign investments of Iranian leadership and their families.
It also behooves EU nations to exit INSTEX, the financial mechanism allowing them to barter with Iran, while circumventing U.S. sanctions. Any proceeds gained by the Revolutionary Guard enable them to import proxy fighters and fund internal cronies to repress the protests and continue fomenting regional turmoil.
The Biden administration deserves credit for standing firm on the Revolutionary Guard’s designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and maintaining sanctions on the National Iranian Oil Company and the Central Bank. The necessary next steps are deterring Iran’s oil smuggling—purchased mainly by China where the proceeds are used for military or dual-use equipment. In addition, the sanctions waiver that had allowed Russian, Chinese and European companies to carry out nonproliferation work at Iranian nuclear sites must be rescinded.
Domestically, Congress must review the Revolutionary Guard’s potential criminal liability and pass laws to hold them accountable. Internationally, democratic allies should push to reinstate United Nations’ sanctions against Iran for violating resolutions that ban arming Russia. While sanctions on the Guard will doubtless affect average Iranians, they should know that democratic nations will be looking out for them in a free Iran.
The U.S. and allies should also officially announce support for free and fair elections in Iran—without picking a winner. Since Iran’s clerical regime will always seek nuclear weapons, place the JCPOA on permanent hold until a democratic government takes power.
We should also invite opposition figures and influential Iranian diaspora to the conference to outline the format of a democratic Iran, drawing both inspirational and cautionary lessons from modern examples. In addition to giving Iranians a voice, such a project will nurture political leaders and help develop habits of negotiation and compromise. This is critical as the likelihoods of IRGC taking over as a police state from the Mullahs increases every day.
Finally, we should be prepared for increased Revolutionary Guard-induced mayhem aimed at intimidating foreign powers and distracting from the protest movement.
For too long, global diplomacy has been about lowering risk and putting off difficult decisions. Today, the risks of responding to Iran are at an all-time low. If handled well, a turn of events in Iran is an unexpected gift and a geopolitical game-changer for the West.
Goli Ameri is a former US Assistant Secretary of State, US Representative to the UN General Assembly and a US Public Delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights. She is the Vice Chair of Freedom House and serves on the Advisory Board of the Rand Center for Middle East Public Policy. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Chair of Rand Center for Middle East Public Policy, has served as US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. His first posting was in Khoramshahr, Iran. Three of these appointments were under Republican administrations, and three were under Democratic administrations. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 2009.