America’s Role in the Latest Iran Protests

Beginning in late December, protests in cities and towns have rocked Iran. Spurred by a stagnant economy coupled with a repressive regime, the protests reflect Iranians’ growing discontent with President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khomeini’s theocratic government and their economic agenda. With an economy characterized by inefficiency and international disdain, Iran has experienced high levels of inflation, unemployment, and inequality. In his reelection bid last May, President Rouhani promised to address these economic concerns. While economic growth has increased during his tenure, Rouhani has been unable to address poverty rates, and his most recent budget suggested cuts in gas subsidies coupled with increased funding for overseas expansion programs, like Iranian-backed forces in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. As a result, Iranians fear concerns about their economic standing might have simply been election rhetoric rather than a meaningful commitment. (For a comprehensive explanation of the Iranian protests, click here.)

In the past weeks, President Trump has responded to Iranian unrest via Twitter. Voicing support for the protesters and highlighting international concern (“the world is watching”), President Trump has rightly argued that the Iranian regime has suppressed basic human rights and utilized government revenue to fund an expensive overseas expansion campaign. As a result of its support for Shia fighters throughout the Middle East, Iran has found itself at odds with Saudi Arabia, and by extension, the United States. Obviously, a weakened Iran would be beneficial to America’s geopolitical strategy in the Middle East, and it might seem tempting for the United States to openly support the Iranian protesters as a way to bolster America’s own standing in the region. But if the history of American involvement in the Middle East has taught us anything, it is that the United States should be wary of actively intervening in the affairs of other sovereign states. Rather, the United States should remain cautious, utilizing its premier role on the global stage to promote human rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech; this is how the United States can make the most impact in Iran.

In response to increasingly intense protests, Iran has blocked applications like Telegram, Instagram, and other social media sites. Since the internet can democratize communication and information, the regime has blocked citizens’ access to it. Not only does this decision suppress political dissent, but it is also a grave miscarriage of human rights. These rights, the cornerstones of free and open societies, include freedom of speech and assembly. As humans have evolved and technology has changed, these basic rights have evolved as well. People are now imbued with the right to self expression on the world wide web and the right to assemble with like-minded individuals digitally. Any attempt to mute these rights perverts the societal contract that binds a state with its citizens. If the United States is to take a stand in regards to the recent Iranian protests, its involvement should be limited to the promotion of human rights in the region. It is unclear how long these protests will last nor is it clear how much change will occur. However, Iran’s disregard for basic rights will be consistent. For the United States to make the most impact in response to these protests, the conversation must center on the promotion of human rights.

The centerpiece of this human rights campaign should be global involvement, beginning with the United Nations. At the beginning of January, the United States called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to address the Iranian protests. While U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley argued the unrest in the country could result in further instability, other nations opposed active UN involvement in a matter viewed as internal. Summing up this ideology, Russia urged the body to “let Iran deal with its own problems.” Even U.S. allies voiced their concerns about early intervention. France’s Francois Delattre argued that since the protests did not pose an international threat to peace and security, they were not a matter for the Security Council. As a result, America’s attempt to draw multinational institutions into Iran failed.

However, the UN still has the ability to take action; the issue just needs be framed as a human rights crisis rather than as a security emergency. French caution emerged because the protests did not pose an international threat to peace. By presenting the protests as a human rights crisis before the UN’s General Assembly, the United States could garner the international support to justifiably condemn Iran. Moreover, a UN resolution should be introduced that criticizes the suspension of human rights like the freedom to express and assemble over the internet, especially in Iran. This resolution would help frame the issue in Iran as one regarding human rights. In presenting it to the UN General Assembly, the U.S. would be able to foster international support against Iran, legitimizing its role as a moral force in the region while also revving up international pressure on the Iranian regime.   

In keeping with the attempt to address the human rights abuses in Iran, the United States could then turn to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the ‘Iranian Nuclear Deal.’ While the JCPOA lifted sanctions in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program, additional clauses of the agreement allow the United States to take measures against the Iranian government for non-nuclear transgressions. Coupled with the General Assembly’s condemnation of the suspension of human rights in Iran, additional U.S. sanctions targeting human rights abuses in Iran would be justified. Further, lawmakers could include stipulations in these sanctions that promise to relax these measures should Iran re-allow access to the internet, messaging services, and social media to facilitate communication, assembly, and expression. This would leave the Iranian regime with a choice: allow worse economic conditions for its citizens during a time of economic hardship or re-open access to the internet. Although it is difficult to say how Iran would react to these additional sanctions, the combination of international criticism and economic pressures is the best way to induce Iran to promote human rights. The inclusion of a multinational institution like the United Nations ensures condemnation will come from the wider global community while economic sanctions will be the stick that punishes Iran’s abuses.

The United States admittedly has an inconsistent record when it comes to supporting human rights, especially in the Middle East. The U.S. supported the Iranian Pahlavi Dynasty in the 1970’s despite the Shah’s use of secret police, torture, and executions. Currently, the U.S. supports the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia in spite of Saudi Arabia’s shoddy record on women’s rights and criminal justice. As a result, contemporary American attempts to promote human rights might appear opportunistic or disingenuous. However, the United States has also helped foster a global community underpinned by multinational institutions (like the UN) that prioritize human rights. Now more than ever, the United States needs to utilize its own creations to enforce global standards that respect individuals’ recognized rights. Initial attempts to do so may seem disingenuous. But until the U.S. actually makes the effort to promote human rights, these attempts will always seem opportunistic. The only way to break this perception is to take action one time, genuinely mean it, and then repeat. Iran is as good a place as any to start, because as President Trump tweeted, “the world is watching.”