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Popular protests, violent crackdown put Biden Iran policy to the test

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 now spread to several major cities and begun featuring 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 again 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 being violently suppressed. With new 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 enough to shake the foundations of the increasingly stressed Islamic system.

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“The regime has to worry at this point, because this is a confirmation of an ongoing trend in which seemingly non-political 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 continuing to pump billions of dollars into an adventurist foreign policy that includes funding and providing weapons for militant proxies in places like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Yemen.

It’s a gripe that echoes Washington‘s own complaints about the regime — complaints the former Trump administration sought to put on the front-burner by pulling out of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal on grounds it dangerously ignored Iran‘s growing non-nuclear military arsenal and its backing of anti-U.S. allies in the region.
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The Biden administration has generally agreed with that argument, but has argued 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 currently gripping Iran.

But 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, laying down a marker for the new president as he takes office in Tehran.

Targeting Iran‘s foreign policy

Videos of demonstrations last week in Tehran and other Iranian cities showed protesters voicing slogans not only against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but also chanting things like, “No Gaza, no Lebanon, I sacrifice my soul for Iran,” 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 Mideast affairs, noted in an article on Thursday that the slogan has resurfaced in almost all anti-government protests in Iran since the 2009 Green Revolution, a series of popular protests following a disputed election that nearly toppled the regime. The message, according to Al-Monitor, has “served as sharp criticism against the Islamic Republic’s regional policies.”

Analysts say its reappearance now comes with a sobering twist, since the current round of protests are occurring ahead of the August 5 inauguration of Mr. Raisi, who is widely expected to push for a dramatic expansion — not a pulling back — of Iran‘s adventurist foreign policy.

The 60-year-old cleric and protege of Supreme Leader Khamenei has used confrontational rhetoric toward the West and the United States since being elected in June against a severely stripped-down field of “acceptable” candidates. He also has a history of supporting violent suppression of dissent in Iran, and critics repeatedly cite his role in the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners in the country 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, the 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 non-resident 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 added, 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 of three protesters being killed and asserting 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 charged the protests are more extensive and violent than the regime has admitted.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, citing its sources inside the country, claimed protests had broken out in the capital and dozens of Iranian cities, with at least 12 demonstrators killed by police and scores of arrests in Khuzestan and elsewhere.

The Associated Press reported that dozens of Iranians had marched in Tehran on July 26 and cited online videos showing protesters marching down Jomhuri Islami Avenue — “Islamic Republic Avenue” in Farsi — and calling on police to support them. While the protests were peaceful, the news agency reported that several demonstrators shouted: “Death to the Dictator!”

Reports of a violent crackdown, as well as reports that the regime has begun cutting internet access across Iran spurred the Biden administration to speak out finally on the developments.

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’

The domestic unrest comes as the Biden administration pursues “indirect” talks with Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump repudiated in 2018. Iran is demanding the U.S. drop harsh economic sanctions Mr. Trump reimposed in quitting the deal.

Months of talks toward such a restoration have yet to produce 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 whiffing on a chance to stand up for 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 to align America’s national security strategy with American ideals in a place where those two things can and should be aligned,” according to Mr. Ben Taleblu.

“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 hardline 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 added that the Biden administration‘s approach remains “nuclear-centric,” essentially ignoring 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 argued that the Biden administration should come forward with a “targeted sanctions campaign” in response to the current crackdown in Iran — a campaign that reaches beyond regime top leadership to level sanctions “against 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, adding that the Biden administration 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 that the onus right now is on the Iranian regime more than anyone else and that Tehran‘s recent actions only serve to confirm the Trump administration‘s narrative that the regime was only interested 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.

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