We should support Iranians who want more representative and accountable governance. We must do it, though, in ways that don’t hinder their efforts. This is easier said than done.
Signaling our desire to help is critical, but so, too, is avoiding any move that might lead to a response even more brutal than the bloody one we’ve seen already.
That requires a light touch. And whatever else you might think of it, the Trump administration won’t be remembered for its subtlety.
Iran is a huge geopolitical and strategic issue. That was true even before the 1979 revolution that toppled the shah, when Tehran was a close U.S. ally. Today, the fact that the country is the United States' main adversary in the Middle East complicates the region’s many security concerns. So how we deal with Iran — and the aspirations of its people — is not a partisan issue.
So far, the Trump administration’s messaging and follow-through on Iran have been completely out of sync. That’s a pity. The current situation gives the United States an opportunity to do some real good; so far, it hasn’t managed to capitalize.
This past weekend, at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said she had met with Iran experts there and heard ideas about that would “shape and refine the ways in which we’re communicating to the protesters there.”
Specifically, Ortagus said that the State Department was trying to “crowdsource” information about the protests, “to find out what’s going on, to shine a light on the human rights abuses.” That’s a welcome step, but they must be mindful about the information they share and how they share it.
Iranians are already being singled out — individually and en masse — for collaborating with U.S. and other foreign actors during the protests. Washington should avoid any step that could be misconstrued to imply coordination with the protesters. Yet the administration doesn’t seem to realize this.
To name one example: Mohammad Mosaed, a local journalist who worked for Shargh, Iran’s leading pro-reform newspaper, was arrested soon after State Department officials and others shared one of his tweets about the Internet blackout:
Mosaed’s account has since been suspended.
The Iranian government’s decision to cut the entire country off from access to the Internet presents another thorny issue. The State Department’s Iran envoy, Brian Hook, said he had asked social media giants including Twitter and Instagram to block the accounts of Iran’s top officials. But that’s a relatively minor problem and a rhetorical one at that.
Special Representative for Iran Hook urges @Facebook, @instagram, and @Twitter to suspend the accounts of the Iranian regime’s leadership, who’ve shamelessly used social media to spew propaganda while shutting down the internet for ordinary Iranians. #Internet4Iran #IranProtests pic.twitter.com/8rMOdOtadC— Department of State (@StateDept) November 23, 2019
Undoing polices that have blocked Iranians in recent years from using basic online products like Amazon Web Services, Apple’s App Store or Google Business Solutions would make much more of a difference than getting Iran’s supreme leader off Twitter.
The biggest policy response to the Internet shutdown, though, has been the move to sanction Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister of information and communications technology. While that is a completely appropriate action, it’s unlikely to have much impact. It won’t free journalists or others jailed during the protests, nor would it be likely to affect Jahromi’s ability to do his job.
These measures demonstrate the limits of U.S. government influence at a moment of upheaval in a country which with it has no official relationship. In this particular case, it may well be that the community of independent human rights organizations is better-suited to monitor and admonish Tehran’s human rights abuses:
Exposing hypocrisy can be a powerful antidote to the anti-American proclamations of far-away authoritarians. It’s much less effective, though, when the counterpunch is seen as equally hypocritical or opportunistic. Right now, U.S.-imposed sanctions are choking the Iranian economy and are hampering the import of food and medicine, while a blanket travel ban prevents almost any Iranians from entering the United States.
In short, I’m suggesting that we begin to ease some of the punitive measures against Iran, many of which limit its people’s ability to strive for change.
We must now cultivate ways to enable and encourage Iranian civil society. Up to this point, we have only hurt them. No one can point to evidence that suggests otherwise. If you disagree, present the data.
We have learned a lot about Iran over the last two weeks, but we are still flailing.
Do we have the resources and capability to incite anger? Certainly. But can we facilitate positive change? That remains entirely unclear.