- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2021

It started two weeks ago as a small-scale demonstration over water shortages in a remote province, but like other Iranian protests in recent years, the outburst has spread to several major cities with large crowds calling for the downfall of the Iranian regime and chants of “Death to the dictator.”

What has been unfolding since mid-July looks increasingly like a repeat of what occurred in 2017, in 2018 and in 2019, when protests over economic hardship and high fuel prices ultimately exploded into wide-scale uprisings against the country’s authoritarian and theocratic regime before they were violently suppressed. With hard-line President-elect Ebrahim Raisi set to formally take office in days, the bigger question is whether the latest jolt of domestic popular anger will be strong enough to shake the foundations of the increasingly stressed Islamic system.

“The regime has to worry at this point because this is a confirmation of an ongoing trend in which seemingly nonpolitical issues very quickly serve as an opportunity for people to express distinctly political grievances, including outright anti-regime sentiment,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow who focuses on Iran.

Demonstrations last week featured slogans of outright frustration with the regime’s failure to meet the needs of common Iranians while pumping billions of dollars into an adventurist foreign policy that includes funding and arming militant proxies in places such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Yemen.

The gripe echoes Washington‘s complaints about the regime. The Trump administration sought to put these complaints on the front burner by pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on the grounds that it dangerously ignored Tehran‘s growing non-nuclear military arsenal and its backing of U.S. opponents in the region.

The Biden administration has generally agreed with that argument but said engaging with the regime while keeping the nuclear programs in check is a better road to regional stability. Now, in an apparent bid to avoid confrontation with Iran‘s rulers as negotiations on reviving the nuclear accord are at the most delicate stage, Biden administration officials have largely remained silent about the wave of protests gripping Iran.

Critics say Washington is missing a key chance to stand up for freedom and democracy in the Middle East by showing the Iranian people that America supports their struggle and is laying down a marker for the new president.

Targeting Iran‘s foreign policy

Videos of demonstrations last week in Tehran and other Iranian cities showed protesters voicing slogans against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and chanting, “No Gaza, no Lebanon, I sacrifice my soul for Iran.” The message was an apparent reference to the regime’s active policy of backing the militant operations of Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Gaza-based Hamas against Israel.

Al-Monitor, a neutral publication known for its analysis of Middle East affairs, noted in an article Thursday that the slogan has resurfaced in almost all anti-government protests in Iran since the 2009 Green Revolution, a series of popular protests after a disputed election that nearly toppled the regime. The message, Al-Monitor said, has “served as sharp criticism against the Islamic republic’s regional policies.”

Analysts say the outcry against Iran‘s foreign policy comes with a sobering twist because of Mr. Raisi’s inauguration Thursday. The next president is widely expected to push for a dramatic expansion, not a pulling-back, of adventurist foreign policy.

The 60-year-old cleric and protege of Ayatollah Khamenei has used confrontational rhetoric toward the West, particularly the United States, since his election in June against a severely stripped-down field of “acceptable” candidates. Mr. Raisi also has a history of supporting violent suppression of dissent in Iran. Critics repeatedly cite his role in the 1988 mass executions of Iranian political prisoners while rising through the regime’s ranks early in his career.

When it comes to Iran‘s foreign policy, Mr. Raisi “brings the same policies of supporting bad guys abroad rather than spending money on infrastructure at home,” said Norman Roule, a retired CIA official who focused on the Middle East during his 34-year career with the spy agency.

As a result, tensions between the Iranian public and the Iranian regime are expected to grow once Mr. Raisi takes office.

“His diversion of Iranian resources to external proxies, as well as his reliance on a foreign policy that results in sanctions on Iran and the isolation of Iran from international economies, means that the conditions that produced the demonstrations that have been taking place are almost certainly likely to continue to increase,” Mr. Roule, now a nonresident fellow with the Belfer Center at Harvard University, told The Washington Times.

“This is going to be a defining moment early in Raisi’s administration because how he handles these events will tell you a lot about how he will satisfy legitimate grievances of the Iranian people,” Mr. Roule said. “Right now, there is no evidence that the regime is going to shift policies to address these grievances. Instead, they’re likely to double down on the policies that produced them.”

What’s more, Mr. Roule said, the Iranian regime “knows that a spark could create a blaze of unrest, and therefore, it will devote considerable resources to containing these protests and identifying and neutralizing their leadership.”

Shooting at protesters

Iranian leaders last week were accused of openly firing on protesters in southwest Khuzestan province. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on July 22 noting reports that three protesters had been killed and that “Iranian authorities appear to have used excessive force against demonstrators in southwestern Iran protesting lack of access to water.”

Iranian authorities have sharply denied the reports, but an umbrella group of Iranian exile dissident groups said the protests are more extensive and violent than the regime has acknowledged.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, citing its sources inside the country, said protests had broken out in the capital and dozens of other Iranian cities. It said police had killed at least 12 demonstrators and arrested scores of others in Khuzestan and elsewhere.

The Associated Press reported that dozens of Iranians marched in Tehran on July 26. Online videos showed protesters marching down Jomhuri Islami Avenue — “Islamic Republic Avenue” in Farsi — and calling on police to support them. Although the protests were peaceful, the news agency said, several demonstrators shouted, “Death to the dictator.”

Reports of a violent crackdown and reports that the regime was cutting internet access across Iran spurred the Biden administration to speak out. The State Department issued a statement Wednesday citing “disturbing reports that security forces fired on protesters, resulting in multiple deaths.”

“We condemn the use of violence against peaceful protesters,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in the statement, which stopped short of specifically blaming the Iranian regime for shooting at demonstrators. U.S. officials “urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression and to freely access information, including via the internet,” Mr. Price said.

The Iranian people “are now putting a spotlight not only on their unmet needs but also their unfulfilled aspirations for respect for human rights — rights to which individuals the world over are entitled.”

Biden’s ‘missed opportunity’

Despite the domestic unrest, the Biden administration is pursuing “indirect” talks with Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that President Trump repudiated in 2018. Iran is demanding that the U.S. lift harsh economic sanctions that Mr. Trump reimposed after quitting the deal.

Months of talks toward such a restoration have not produced a deal. Iran‘s supreme leader has called Washington “stubborn” for seeking to raise the issue of Tehran‘s missiles and regional influence during talks with other nations that were party to the nuclear deal.

Mr. Biden campaigned on reviving the deal he helped negotiate during the Obama administration, but critics say his national security team is missing a chance to support the protests in Iran.

“Not standing up for the protests and aiding them, and just waiting so long to talk about the situation and being lackluster when you do talk about it amounts to a missed opportunity to align America’s national security strategy with American ideals in a place where those two things can and should be aligned,” Mr. Ben Taleblu said.

“Iranian protesters are literally grabbing the third rail with both hands and putting the regime in their [sights], and it is happening not only as a new hard-line government is coming to power in Tehran, but also at a moment when Washington has been relatively silent about the protests,” he said. “Washington is barely noticing the growing chasm between state and society in Iran.”

Mr. Ben Taleblu said the Biden administration‘s approach remains “nuclear-centric” and essentially ignores the popular protests by “over-focusing on the nuclear issue in a way that could trade away U.S. leverage through sanctions relief for this regime.”

He said the Biden administration should respond with a “targeted sanctions campaign” that reaches beyond top leadership and hits “political, judicial or security forces in specific Iranian cities where violent crackdowns are occurring.”

“This would show solidarity with the Iranian people,” Mr. Ben Taleblu said.

The Biden administration, he said, should also “establish some sort of public-private group to make sure Iranians have the communications technology they need to communicate with each other, as well as to share information about the uprising with audiences abroad.”

“In my reading of it, the Biden administration has expressed outrage over the internet being cut by the Iranian regime, but it’s unclear what the administration is doing about it,” he said.

Mr. Roule generally agreed but said the onus right now is on the Iranian regime more than anyone else and that Tehran‘s actions confirm the Trump administration‘s narrative that the regime is interested only in confrontation with the U.S. and its regional allies.

“The storyline you’re watching is that the Iranian people have legitimate grievances and are rejecting their government’s regional adventurism, but the Iranian government is making no changes,” he said.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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