Time for Plan B on Iran
Why America should focus on security, freedom, and long-term prosperity – not resuscitating a moribund nuclear deal
Last Saturday, January 7, the Iranian government executed two men for their participation in protests against the ruling religious regime – bringing the total number of protestors murdered by the Islamic Republic to four. At least nine more Iranians, ages ranging from nineteen to fifty-three, face execution for taking part in the anti-regime demonstrations that began last September after the death of a young woman in police custody for allegedly violating the regime’s mandatory religious dress codes.
At the same time, Tehran and its allies have launched a diplomatic campaign against the French satirical rag Charlie Hebdo for cartoons that took aim at the regime’s geriatric leaders in support of Iranian protestors. It continues to mount a worldwide campaign to kidnap or assassinate Iranian dissidents, including in those living in the United States and other democracies.
The regime’s support for Russia’s war on Ukraine continues apace, with Iranian-designed and -built kamikaze drones playing a leading role in Moscow’s end-year offensive against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Moscow also reportedly wants Iranian-made ballistic missiles as well, though there’s been no public confirmation that a deal for these weapons has been made.
For its part, the Biden administration’s Iran policy remains focused on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran through talks with the regime – though mainly through inertia more than anything else. President Biden himself acknowledged as much in December, when he remarked the agreement is “dead” though “we are not gonna announce it.” In other words, the administration’s Plan A for Iran – resuscitating the nuclear agreement – has fallen through and it has yet to formulate a Plan B.
Events since last September will define this new approach, one that focusesmore strongly on the wider menace the regime presents to freedom and security around the world. This approach would address the intertwined threats Tehran poses to liberal values and security while offering the potential for greater prosperity via stronger economic integration with the region and the world beyond oil exports.
What would this Plan B look like? Here are three main pillars for a new approach:
Security and Sanctions
The United States already has a wide array of measures in place to deter and impose costs on the Iranian regime’s ability to sow chaos in the Middle East and around the world, ranging from economic sanctions to continued U.S. military deployments in the Middle East. With the nuclear deal moribund and Iran able to supply kamikaze drones to Russia, however, these measures will need to be made more robust. Already, the Biden administration redoubled its efforts to deny Iran critical components needed to build drones for Moscow – many of which come from the United States or its NATO allies. On the nuclear issue, sabotage - primarily through cyber-operations like the Stuxnet worm deployed in 2010 - may well be the best available option absent an unexpected and unlikely diplomatic about-face by Tehran. In both cases, the United States will need to find a way to cooperate closely with a hard-right and illiberal Israeli government on matters of mutual strategic interest - and make sure this new government doesn’t take actions that ultimately harm these shared interests.
Unlike the United States, moreover, many European nations retain formal diplomatic relations and economic ties with Iran. That gives these governments greater potential leverage against Tehran, leverage they’ve proven reluctant to use until the eruption of anti-regime protests and the regime’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine late last year. The European Union slapped new human rights sanctions on Iran in December, and its member states are seriously considering sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – with a number of voices like Germany’s foreign minister already coming out in support of such a move.
Support for Liberal Values and Basic Freedoms
Iran’s support to Russia’s war, its backing of terrorist groups, and its global campaign against dissidents all show that the threat Tehran poses to international security and stability can’t be disentangled from the threat it poses to liberal values and basic freedoms around the world.
Iranian-American activists like Masih Alinejad and U.S.-based human rights organizations like the Center for Human Rights in Iran have called for a fundamental reconsideration of existing diplomatic relationships between democratic governments, particularly in Europe, and the Iranian regime. Here, the United States can play an important coordinating role and encourage its European allies to think more seriously about the shape and nature of their formal diplomatic relations with Tehran. However, the threat of a full-blown diplomatic rupture remains one card the European Union and its member nations can play to stop the continued execution of protestors by the regime – one that will likely fail and require the sort of break these governments have only recently begun to contemplate.
Similarly, the United States can organize a focused campaign to expel Iran from international bodies that deal with human rights and basic freedoms. Last December’s expulsion of Iran from the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women was an important if ultimately symbolic step forward, but it can’t be the last one. Along with its allies and partners around the world, the United States should work to remove Iran from any other similar bodies and deny it membership on others where it seeks to be elected. They can also support international efforts to hold the regime to account for its violations of basic rights and freedoms, such as the UN Human Rights Commission’s appointment of a three-woman fact-finding mission into Iran’s repression of anti-regime protests.
Finally, the United States should devise more concrete ways to support ordinary Iranians demanding basic freedoms – starting with internet access. Right now, the United States is forced to rely on fickle private sector types like the terminally-online Elon Musk to provide satellite internet services that allow ordinary Iranians to evade regime firewalls. A U.S. government program to supply satellite internet terminals to ordinary Iranians would do as much to support their aspirations for freedom as any sanctions against regime officials or diplomatic maneuvering against the regime in international institutions. Other moves have been proposed by human rights advocates, including U.S. government funding to allow private companies to provide various telecommunications tools and services free-of-charge to ordinary Iranians – and thereby not run afoul of U.S. sanctions that would otherwise prevent the necessary financial transactions.
An alternative long-term vision of regional cooperation and prosperity
Yesterday marked the first meeting of the Negev Forum Working Groups in Abu Dhabi, a diplomatic conclave that will give Israel, the United States and a number of Arab nations with formal diplomatic ties with Israel the opportunity to talk about greater regional cooperation on issues like clean energy, tourism, and health care. It’s an example of what might be possible when regional conflicts and disputes subside enough for governments, if not peoples, to sit down and talk about issues of mutual interest. Iranian participation in anything like Negev Forum remains an extremely remote prospect, but the United States, European Union, and regional governments alike should begin laying the groundwork for bringing Iran into these sorts of discussions over the long term.
The past decade has seen the regime in Tehran become a critical member of the loose, informal worldwide coalition against democracy and liberal values. It joined up with Russia to rescue the brutal Assad regime in Syria in the 2010s, and now provides crucial support to the Russian war against Ukraine – at the same time it tries to silence demands for freedom at home. It’s a partnership that was forged in Syria, where both Moscow and Tehran worked together to save the brutal Assad regime in Damascus.
In other words, the regime remains a menace to freedom at home and abroad, and it needs to be treated as such until the Iranian government reflects the will and aspirations of the Iranian people. For its part, the United States needs a more coherent and consistent approach to Iran that recognizes the 2015 nuclear deal is dead and focuses squarely on more urgent challenges. The door to a new nuclear deal should remain open, of course, and American diplomats should still talk with Tehran about certain issues – most notably to secure the release of Americans held hostage by the regime.
Above all else, though, the United States and the Biden administration need to send a clear signal that America will stand by those who fight for their own freedom and contain the chaos spread from the regime in Tehran.