The Biden administration has found itself in another awkward diplomatic moment of its own making. In pursuing its nuclear talks with Iran—which include discussions of loosening sanctions—the administration is ignoring the Iranian people protesting against the same regime.
These protests broke out after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died nearly a month ago after enduring brutal police violence for her violation of the regime’s strict head-covering law.
The administration has no excuse for failing the brave Iranians demonstrating against the regime. President Joe Biden’s Iran policy enables a human rights abuser while strengthening and emboldening a top adversary of the United States and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. The Biden approach of offering repeated concessions to Iran in the hopes that it would agree to a deal that will not even stop its nuclear ambitions is a dangerous path. Proceeding with negotiations with the Iranian regime at a time when it brutally suppresses the Iranian people is dangerously naïve.
If the Biden administration is serious about helping the Iranian people, it should stop negotiations and reinstitute the “maximum pressure” campaign that was successfully instituted under former President Donald Trump. That policy correctly notes that the various threats posed by Iran—from its nuclear ambitions to its support for terrorism to its violations of human rights—emanate from the ideological worldview of the regime.
The Biden administration’s response to the current wave of protests was to sanction Iran’s “morality police,” which enforces the Iranian government’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. For Iranians, the Biden administration’s move is probably meaningless. It is clearly aimed at generating a talking point for friendly media, indicating that the White House stands with the Iranian people. The administration’s overall policy towards Iran sends a different message. It ignores the plight of the Iranian people as it continues negotiations with the regime.
This is not the first time the Iranian people have taken to the streets only to be failed by a left-wing U.S. administration. In 2009, before the Arab Spring took shape in the Middle East, Iran faced its own popular uprising during the Green Revolution. Then-President Barack Obama, who called for the toppling of longtime leaders and democratic elections during the Arab Spring, mysteriously did little regarding Iran. His motive, it became clear several years later, was to win the favor of the Iranian government so it would agree to his Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal, which provided extensive sanctions relief.
Today’s protests come at a potentially pivotal time, especially with Iranian oil workers joining the protests with the chant “we will destroy everything we built,” thus jeopardizing the regime’s main economic lifeline.
Human rights are not in tension with American national security but part and parcel of ensuring it. Creatively and consistently addressing that aspect of national security helps us achieve peace for ourselves and others. That is why, for example, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which instituted tariffs on Soviet grain in return for granting its Jews permission to leave the country scored an important symbolic point in the Cold War. It demonstrated that the Soviet system was unable to deliver a free and prosperous future for its citizens.
The Trump administration demonstrated that human rights must be both integrated into an overall national security policy and part of a consistent application of that policy. For example, the Trump administration sanctioned Chinese officials and their proxies over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and made a point of calling them a “genocide.” The administration took similar action on Hong Kong. And, of course, there was the “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian government. These and other examples illustrate the point that the protection of human rights is not only the morally correct course of action but also a strategically necessary one, especially when it comes to confronting an adversary.
The most important questions are who America stands up to and what America stands for. When it comes to its approach to Iran, the Biden team is tragically unable to answer either.
Jacob Olidort is a historian of the Middle East who served as an advisor in the office of former Vice President Mike Pence. He currently serves as the director of the Center for American Security and the Center’s Middle East Peace Project at the America First Policy Institute.