Over the past six months, Iran has been shaken by nationwide protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. These protests have posed the most sustained and possibly existential threat to the country’s theocratic regime since its establishment in 1979.
Despite the regime’s violent crackdown, protests and strikes across Iran continue to be reported, and support for systemic change remains robust. Moreover, the protest movement has resulted in an unprecedented convergence of opposition groups both inside and outside Iran who are advocating for fundamental change and a transition to a new democratic system.
Maximum support for the Iranian protesters from democratic governments is essential to achieving a successful outcome for the Iranian people. The United States, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom have applied pressure by imposing new sanctions on Tehran in response to the regime’s violent crackdown on protests. Sanctions targeting human rights violators are helpful in ending impunity for those who commit these crimes.
However, democratic governments should further increase pressure on the Islamic Republic through targeted expulsions of Iranian diplomats and revoking entry, study and business visas for the family members of regime officials who have been living in luxury in Western countries while ordinary Iranians struggle with economic hardship.
There are growing calls for the E.U. and the U.K. to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity, but concerns in Brussels and London have prevented them from designating the entire organization so far.
An alternative option that may accelerate dissension within the regime would be to expand the scope of sanctions targeting current and former members of the IRGC leadership who are involved in human rights violations and to expose their corrupt business dealings.
In addition to sanctions, democratic governments can support protests in Iran in other ways. Encouraging tech companies to facilitate internet access inside Iran would enable protesters to communicate with each other and broadcast what is happening inside the country to the world, even during state-backed internet shutdowns.
In September of last year, as nationwide protests erupted, the Biden administration took an important step by providing sanctions exemptions for internet service providers that could assist Iranian protesters.
While pressure on the regime and its brutal security forces must continue to increase, further measures must be taken to ensure that sanctions do not impede protesters’ access to technology, people-to-people exchanges and collaboration between civil society organizations that can aid the Iranian people in their struggle for democracy.
Democracies worldwide can also do more to offer legal pathways to dissidents inside Iran who need to escape the country. Canada recently announced new measures that will help Iranians who are already in Canada extend their temporary status. However, there should be special programs to provide expedited asylum to those dissidents inside the country who are at risk of arrest, torture and execution.
Facilitating the creation and administration of funds to compensate Iranian workers and their families who go on strike is one of the most effective ways to support the Iranian people. Wholesale strikes by workers in key industries are widely seen as an effective method to paralyze the Iranian government and pave the way to democratic transition.
Although the Iranian diaspora has the capacity to raise the funds needed to support workers in Iran, setting up such a fund is likely to be complex due to severe restrictions on financial transactions with Iran because of sanctions. The United States and its allies should work closely with the Iranian diaspora to set up funds to support the strikers in a safe and secure way.
When it comes to supporting the protests in Iran, external assistance is crucial, but it must be done in a non-interventionist manner. Former Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, a prominent opposition figure, recently stressed that any foreign military intervention would be “destructive” and rejected by him and the majority of the Iranian people.
The Woman, Life, Freedom movement is an Iranian-led struggle and meaningful change can only come from within the country. Taking an interventionist stance risks playing into the Iranian government’s false narrative that the protests are orchestrated by the United States and Israel in an attempt to destabilize the regime because of its nuclear enrichment program and regional ambitions.
The protests in Iran have brought the Iranian people’s desire for fundamental change and a transition to a new democratic system to the forefront. Six months in, the West has applied considerable pressure on the Iranian regime. Now, it is essential to provide maximum support to the Iranian people.
Jonathan Harounoff is a British journalist based in New York City with bylines in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, The Forward and the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanHaroun1.
Bijan Ahmadi is executive director of the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, an international affairs think-tank based in Canada. Follow him on Twitter @AhmadiBijanFA.