History is replete with missed opportunities.
If Gavrilo Princip had failed in his assassination attempt of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, perhaps World War I might never have erupted, and more than 17 million lives might have been spared. If Neville Chamberlain had a healthy degree of suspicion against Adolf Hitler’s machinations, World War II might have been averted, sparing the devastating loss of approximately 45 million lives.
Today, the opportunity lies before us to be able, once again, to save millions of lives and cripple one of the world’s most tyrannical, brutal regimes.
Thousands upon thousands of brave Iranians have risked their very lives, taking to the streets against their repressive theocracy. Yet most of the world remains profoundly ill-informed, and most American media outlets are glaringly silent. Even more upsetting is that the Biden administration has not uttered a single word about these valiant dissidents.
Demonstrations have broken out across Iran, on the streets of the Khuzestan region, in the port city of Bushehr, in Isfahan Provence, and in the capital of Tehran, covering at least 20 Iranian cities. The protesters have been ruthlessly beaten and carted off to the notorious Evin Prison, often never to be seen from or heard from again. We know that as of last week, at least 140 people have been killed in demonstrations. We know that the Iranian security forces have fired live ammunition into the crowd. Those who haven’t been killed and were unable to avoid the vicious arm of the paramilitary secret police, the Basij, have been carted off to prison to be raped, tortured and many forcibly “disappeared.”
This latest round of protests began shortly after May 3, when the government announced its intention to remove its subsidy of flour that had been in place for more than 200 years. The Iranian government had been relying on a Ukrainian supply of wheat that had threatened the supply chain and global prices, but because of an all-pervasive atmosphere of corruption and mismanagement, the people have taken to the streets to demonstrate in disgust and distrust.
On top of that, a building collapsed last week, killing dozens of people and trapping more than 80 people under the rubble.
The Iranian rial is among the most worthless units of currency in the world. Today, 42,350 Iranian rials are worth $1. Now, even pensioners have joined the demonstrations shouting, “The revolutionary government is a liar!” and demanding the resignation of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.”
What began as purely economic protests have morphed into rage against the regime, with thousands of people coming out to the streets chanting “We do not hate America! We hate the regime! Down with the regime! Down with Ebrahim Raisi! Death to Ali Khamenei!”
Even though this is a mass and popular uprising throughout the streets of many provinces of Iran, these protesters remain extremely vulnerable, yet they are still out on the streets. As opposed to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian regime now controls a powerful and brutal army. The notorious Basij is just one of five branches of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has usurped the Artesh, the Iranian army in sheer military power and economic might.
These demonstrators, with their amazing courage, should be assailed throughout the globe rather than met with the deafening silence of the Western media and the Biden administration.
As Cameron Khansarinia, the policy director of the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI), wrote to me recently, “One of the most important ongoing international developments the world is ignoring is the Iranian people’s brave movement for democracy. They are fighting, empty-handed, for their most fundamental rights against a regime that is firing live ammunition. The people are showing with their chants what they value. They often chant: ‘We did the revolution, what a mistake we made!’ and ‘Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, my life is only for Iran!’ Yet while the international media is ignoring it, it might just cause one of the most interesting developments the Middle East has seen in decades and no one seems prepared for it.”
The United States and its allies have put themselves in a diplomatic box; still, one answer to the dilemma lies on the streets of Iran.
It has long since been revealed that Iran has incrementally and slowly reached the breakout point in its nuclear-weapons program, and that—according to David Albright and Sarah Burkhard from the Institute for Science and International Security, as well as Andrea Stricker from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies—breakout time has been reduced to zero, and within 1.5 months, they can have three nuclear bombs.
Even the ever-patient head of the International Atomic Energy Administration, Rafael Grossi, announced last Thursday that, in direct violation of the 2015 nuclear deal, 27 cameras have been removed from the nuclear sites. He said that “removing cameras from these nuclear sites constitutes a fatal blow to hope of reviving the nuclear deal.” On CNN this past Sunday, he said: “ The less my inspectors and my analysts see what is happening in Iran, the less ability we have to know how much material they are enriching, how many centrifuges they are putting together. .. No one can go into an agreement without knowing what your baseline is … Normally, it is never a good thing when you tell international inspectors to go home.”
We all know what Iran’s intentions are. By not having the courage to acknowledge that the diplomacy has failed and that it is time to look at “Plan B,” Western powers are allowing nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of this brutal theocracy.
Wouldn’t we all be better off if they were in the hands of a rational, free and democratic Iran? Or even in the hands of a benign monarchy, such as was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had excellent ties with Israel and the United States?
When Iran Special Envoy Robert Malley testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 25, he said that “we are using all tools at are disposal.” But when questioned about the use of military force, he said that “we know the only solution is a diplomatic one” and that “a military strike is not an answer to Iran’s nuclear program.”
One extremely valuable tool that remains on the table that does not require the use of military force is to listen to and assist, in any way possible, the voices of these brave people on the streets.
Not to do so simply turns a deaf ear to the voices putting their very lives on the line to overthrow a dastardly regime—one that poses a serious threat to Israel, our Gulf allies, and ultimately, the United States. This constitutes a crime that crosses the boundaries into immorality, and one that threatens our own national security in the United States. It constitutes the nexus between morality and sound national strategy.
This should not be casually dismissed as just another missed opportunity. That would result in a missed opportunity of historic and fatal proportions, similar to those that led to our great world wars.
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.