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Experts in Foreign Affairs Urge Stronger US Policy as Iran Enters a New Year

On Wednesday, the US representative office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) held a virtual meeting as a socially-distanced alternative to its annual in-person gathering with American supporters and Iranian expatriate activists. The online gathering was intended to celebrate the Iranian New Year holiday Nowruz, which formally took place on Saturday and marked the start of the year 1400 on the Iranian calendar.

The high-profile participants in the gathering addressed a virtual audience of Iranian-American activists and supporters of the NCRI, who were reportedly drawn from nearly all 50 US states. Also, last week there was another similar gathering focused on highlighting the bipartisan support the NCRI had developed in the US Senate. Toward that end, it featured speeches from Democrats Robert Menendez and Ben Cardin, Republicans Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and several other members of both parties. The message of bipartisanship was reinforced by speeches in this week’s event, which came from a range of American academics, diplomats, and former government officials.

Mitchell Reiss, a former president of Washington College and former employee of the US State Department, freely acknowledged that bipartisanship is rare in current American politics, but observed that attitudes toward the Iranian regime are a notable exception to this trend. In fact, several fellow speakers gave the impression that bipartisan agreement on Iranian affairs has actually grown in recent years, as evidenced by the Biden administration’s apparent disinterest in simply reversing the policies put into place by the previous administration.

Retired General Charles Wald, the former deputy commander of United States European Command, focused much of his commentary upon Iran’s violations and that nuclear agreement, acknowledging that it was well-intentioned but had serious flaws, exacerbated by well-practiced deceptive activity by the likes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Wald urged the US to go beyond its current refusal to take the first step back toward the status quo, and to instead seek out a new, farther-reaching agreement that allows for immediate and unlimited expansions of Iran’s nuclear activities and also addresses the regime’s other malign activities.

This notion of a need for more comprehensive pressure on the Iranian regime was a common refrain in Wednesday’s event. Robert Joseph, a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, also offered pointed commentary on the nuclear issue, insisting that Iran has been actively pursuing nuclear weapons capability and that it will never give up this pursuit as long as the current ruling system retains power. He then tied this to broader observations about the nature of the theocratic regime, which he said “can’t reform,” “can’t change,” and “can only survive through repression and brutality.”

Joseph, currently a senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy, went on to warn that Western silence in the face of that brutality would constitute “abandonment of our own values and encouragement to dictators throughout the world.” Virtually every speaker at the event made similar reference to the regime’s repression of its own people, which has apparently escalated in recent years as anti-government sentiment became increasingly widespread and increasingly bold.

In December 2017, protests began spreading across the country while popularizing provocative slogans like “death to the dictator,” and by the middle of January 2018 the movement had come to encompass between 100 and 150 cities and towns. Another nationwide uprising in November 2019 proved to be substantially larger, with the same anti-government slogans appearing in nearly 200 different localities. Ambassador Marc Ginsberg referred to the latter uprising as “Bloody November” in his remarks on Wednesday, referring to the fact that panicked Iranian authorities opened fire on crowds of protesters almost immediately after the unrest broke out, killing approximately 1,500.

The incident has since been referred to as a crime against humanity – a description that is made even more appropriate by the fact that the killings coincided with upwards of 12,000 arrests, which in turn led to countless instances of detainees being tortured and put under pressure to furnish false confessions or incriminate one another. These tactics were described in detail by an Amnesty International report titled “Trampling Humanity,” but Wednesday’s indicated that for longtime critics of the Iranian regime, such tactics were already familiar from countless earlier crackdowns on dissent.

The event’s participants apparently called attention to that fact in order to promote more assertive Western policies toward the Iranian regime, especially where human rights are concerned. But the same participants also took the opportunity to simply praise Iran’s activist community and its supporters in the Iranian diaspora for their resilience in the face of escalating political violence. John Sano, former deputy director of the National Clandestine Service, said, “Despite the overly harsh retribution… the protests and the discontent continue to rise.”

Sano characterized the underlying demands for change as a source of great anxiety for the regime’s leadership, since any change must necessarily result in the collapse of the ruling system. He went on to suggest that the US could help realize that outcome simply by adopting policies that hold Iranian officials and institutions accountable for JCPOA violations, international hostility, and human rights abuses. Robert Joseph expressed much the same sentiment after explicitly endorsing regime change as the only lasting solution to global issues stemming from Iran.

Joseph described the current system as “a brittle regime that should and will be overthrown,” but emphasized that that overthrow would come about as a result of the sort of domestic pressure that was on display in January 2018 and November 2019. The role of the US in this, according to the former State Department official, is mainly to avoid getting in the way of the Iranian Resistance movement and to avoid “feeding the beast” that is the current regime by granting it sanctions relief or allowing it to expand its diplomatic and trade relations.

In her speech introducing Wednesday’s event, the head of the NCRI’s US representative office, Soona Samsami, suggested that as long as Western actions don’t provide Tehran with a lifeline, “the Iranian year 1400 will be different from all others” in terms of opportunity for the civilian population to establish a new government. The current system, she said, is facing “profound political, economic, and social crisis,” which Iranian activists have already been exploiting in recent weeks, with resurgent protests in some geographic regions and social sectors.

“The only option for the United States and the international community,” Samsami concluded, “is to show maximum resolve” in their dealings with the Iranian regime “and to stand on the side of the Iranian people.”