On Wednesday, a letter was sent to US President Joe Biden, which bore the signatures of more than 300 Iranian-American academics, professionals, and business leaders. The letter applauded the White House’s decision to withhold sanctions relief from the Iranian regime pending its full return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but it also urged the administration to tailor its Iran policy to a much broader set of priorities.
While the signers noted that Biden’s posture on nuclear negotiations “gives us hope,” they also cautioned him against repeating mistakes that they believe have been recurring in Western policy circles throughout the entire four-decade history of the Iranian regime. The letter suggested that countless policymakers have bought into a “fable” regarding political factions in the Iranian regime and that this has led them to provide unearned concessions in hopes of empowering “moderate” officials who might oversee serious reforms of the theocratic system.
This phenomenon was arguably on prominent display in 2013 with the election of the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani.
Some Western policymakers did indeed express high hopes for Rouhani’s reform agenda, and this seemingly helped to motivate American and European pursuit of the nuclear negotiations that would lead, in 2015, to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But expectations of broader reform were quickly tempered by reports of ongoing crackdowns on dissent inside Iran, and persistent belligerence in the regime’s foreign policy, targeting all of its traditional allies in both the Arab world and the West.
To the signers of Wednesday’s letter, these malign activities are not only evidence that Western support for Iran’s “moderates” is unfounded; they are direct consequences of that support. Conciliatory policies, the letter says, have “resulted in lost opportunities, devastating outcomes, and tremendous suffering by the people in Iran and in the region.”
That suffering has been especially visible to close watchers of Iranian affairs in recent years, as Iranian activists throughout the country have faced an escalating backlash against their challenges to the theocratic system. In the final days of 2017, a protest in the city of Mashhad provided the spark for a nationwide uprising that continues to have ramifications to the present day. Although the initial demonstration was focused on mounting economic grievances, its spread to surrounding regions coincided with the development of a more general anti-government message.
Protestors in more than 100 localities were reportedly chanting slogans like “death to the dictator” by mid-January 2018. And perhaps even more tellingly, the uprising also rejected Western narratives about “hardline” and “reformist” factions by calling out to both of them with the same chants and saying, “The game is over.” The same slogans appeared on a national scale once again in November 2019, and Wednesday’s letter unequivocally described these and other protests as expressing “loud and clear,” a popular desire for regime change.
Iranian regime authorities likely agree with this assessment, as evidenced by the worsening severity of their repressive response. Whereas the first uprising led to several dozen deaths over the course of about a month, the November 2019 uprising was crushed in a matter of only days after forces led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire on crowds of protesters, killing approximately 1,500. Another 12,000 activists were arrested around this time, and Amnesty International later reported that many of them had been subjected to torture for weeks on end.
Wednesday’s letter was no doubt motivated in large part by a desire for Western political intervention to prevent more of the same sorts of crackdown. But the signers also made a point of highlighting the ways in which such action would be in the national security interest of the US and its allies, as well.
“To repress the people’s revolt, the regime has paired domestic intimidation with terror abroad,” the letter said. It then added that “in recent years, the clerical regime has expanded its terrorist operations in Europe and the US.” This was seemingly confirmed in February when a Belgian federal court issued guilty verdicts for four participants in a plot to set off explosives at a gathering of Iranian expatriate activists and their Western political supporters just outside of Paris.
The prosecution, in that case, made it perfectly clear that the operation, led by a high-ranking diplomat from the Iranian embassy in Vienna, was directed by officials high within the regime’s leadership. The attempted bombing of the Free Iran rally was only one of several incidents that were exposed in the year 2018 alone, and it is presumably no coincidence that that and at least one other were directed against activists from the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) – a group that Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei credited with planning and facilitating the uprising at the start of that year.
This organized backing for the protest movement may explain why it recovered from the initial crackdown and re-emerged in nearly twice as many localities in November 2019, as well as why it recovered from the even more serious crackdown on that uprising and flared up again in January 2020 after regime authorities attempted to cover up their missile strike on a commercial airliner near Tehran.
In recent statements and conferences, the MEK and the National Council of Resistance of Iran have argued that still, further uprisings are just over the horizon, as evidenced by nationwide protests by an increasingly impoverished population of pensioners, clashes between citizens and authorities in places like Sistan and Baluchistan Province, and growing calls for a boycott of a forthcoming presidential election, the outcome of which is largely pre-determined.
In a speech to German politicians and Iranian-German activists on Thursday, NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi declared that “the flame of resistance is rising up again throughout Iran,” and she urged Western policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic to consider which side they will be on when the Iranian people next clash with the clerical regime. Wednesday’s letter to President Biden seemed to present a very similar challenge, referring in its conclusion to a “historic opportunity to support the people of Iran.”
In the interest of taking advantage of that opportunity, the Iranian-Americans said, “We respectfully request that your administration develop and implement decisive policies and a roadmap that side with the Iranian people and their legitimate desire for a free, secular, and democratic Iran.”
In practical terms, the letter indicated, this would involve continuing to withhold the sanctions relief. “No sanctions relief or concessions should be provided to the Iranian regime, unless that regime verifiably ends its human rights abuses in Iran and terrorism abroad, and abandons its destructive support for proxies in the region,” the letter declared.
This is, of course, a tall order for a regime that has so far insisted it will not so much as come back into compliance with the preexisting terms of the JCPOA unless the US first removes all of the sanctions imposed or re-imposed since 2018, immediately and without condition.