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Opinion What the U.S. must do to help the next wave of Iran protesters

A young Iranian walks next to a wall adorned with Iran's national flag in Tehran on Sept. 27. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Iranians’ protests over the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini — detained for improperly wearing her headscarf — have barreled into their second week. Women and now an increasing number of men are bravely defying a political order that has denied them their basic rights since its inception.

It’s a pivotal moment for Iran. It also ought to be one for the United States — an inflection point in how the country deals with a regime that consistently flouts international norms.

The rejection of the Islamic republic’s rule is not a new phenomenon, but the fearlessness of protesters and their willingness to call for the downfall of the political establishment and its leaders signals a new era of dissent that will not fade.

Yet as unflinching as these protesters are, it’s very likely that this particular uprising will be put down, given the regime’s record. President Ebrahim Raisi, who was implicated in the execution of thousands of dissidents, is responding just as you would expect: Deny the unrest, block its dissemination, arrest and kill demonstrators, blame foreign powers. Raisi all but ignored the protests during his time at the U.N. General Assembly last week in New York.

Jason Rezaian: What’s happening in Iran? Here’s what people there are saying.

In attempting to obscure the turmoil back home, though, Raisi inadvertently dealt a death blow to whatever credibility the putrid system he fronts still held in the eyes of the world. Perhaps the most clarifying moment of his visit to New York was his refusal to appear for a scheduled interview with journalist Christiane Amanpour because she refused to wear hijab; comparing that stunt with the current protests over head coverings in Iran should disabuse anyone who still thinks the Islamic republic and its values are compatible with life in the modern world.

But with the very real possibility that this wave of resistance will be put down, the United States needs to be ready to help the next one — and the one after that.

First, it’s time to reimagine the role of special presidential envoy for Iranian affairs. This is a high-level position that President Donald Trump created and that President Biden chose to maintain, but it has never been well utilized. The Trump administration used it to punish Iran and attempt to sow discord. Biden aimed it almost exclusively at reinvigorating the nuclear deal.

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Both missed the point. The envoy should be the nerve center for all issues related to Iran — engaging with national security, yes, but also with the Iranian diaspora community, a powerful constituency and source of the kind of granular human intelligence that is lacking after 43 years without U.S.-Iran diplomatic ties.

Next, Biden should continue easing sanctions against Iran on communications tools. Last week, the Treasury Department allowed technology firms to start selling to Iranians many long-restricted services and software in the name of helping people there resist “repressive internet censorship and surveillance tools deployed by the Iranian regime.” Right now, Iran’s government is routinely throttling connection speeds, filtering social media sites and messaging apps, and cutting off connectivity entirely at certain times of day.

This easing of sanctions will help with that, and more should be in order; these communications sanctions are part of a myopic approach that filters all Iran issues through the lens of countering nuclear development and other potential military threats through economic sanctions. Invariably, though, ordinary people and civil society end up suffering many of the severest impacts.

Finally, allowing for a flow of dissidents to resettle in the United States and streamlining the process for them to continue their work would be an easy and effective way to dramatically increase our understanding of the issues facing in-country Iranians. Few made it here following prolonged protests in 2017 and 2019 because Trump’s travel ban barred entry to all Iranians. For years before that, though, Iranians fled persecution in their homeland, usually with the goal of landing in this country.

Most leading Iran voices in the U.S. government and analyst world, however, haven’t been to the country in years — or ever. There is a fountain of knowledge from people with on-the-ground experience that will go untapped if new arrivals are too busy battling the bureaucracy and backlog standing between them and a simple work authorization. And that pool of knowledgeable dissidents will only grow: Following antigovernment protests in 2009, many exiled residents sought refuge in the United States, and that is likely happen again in the weeks and months ahead.

And once dissidents settle here, the government and policy institutions should convene them to help establish a course for the future of our Iran policy. This is one national security discussion that would benefit tremendously from honest public discourse. Besides, there is no longer any need to be covert about an attempt to destabilize Iran. Just look at the country now: It’s already happening.

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