The murder of 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini by Iran’s morality police for violating the country’s head-covering code has sparked unprecedented and (so far) unrelenting militant protests against the dictatorship of the Islamic Republic.
Protesters have paid a steep price: At least 326 have been killed to date by Iranian security forces, some 15,000 have been arrested and thousands have reportedly been sentenced to death. Yet unrest continues unabated countrywide.
The United States should seize this opportunity to support regime change in the world’s most belligerent country—run by terrorists hellbent on developing nuclear weapons and sowing global jihad. This requires a strategy that places Iran’s leaders under strong economic, communications, diplomatic and military pressure.
Above all, it’s time for the Biden administration to shift gears away from appeasement of the Iranian regime and toward strong measures—a vigorous, coherent strategy that both creates pain for the regime and fortifies the resistance inside Iran and internationally.
Several indicators on the ground encourage an assertive American strategy now.
First, public support of these protests seems greater and more widespread than ever—spanning a wide range of ethnic, age and regional groups, as well both religious and secular sectors.
Second, unlike previous Iranian resistance movements, this one is being boldly led by women, with a focus on fundamental civil rights—women’s rights—rather than on more general economic or political issues.
Finally, we haven’t seen such inspiring courage in the face of massive police crackdowns and huge personal risk by protesters in the past.
On the other hand, Iran’s current uprising needs help if it is to continue…let alone succeed in replacing the theocracy with more enlightened leadership. Indeed, despite encouraging factors, the movement lacks necessary features it still needs to accomplish a meaningful result.
If President Biden truly cares about the Iranian people—as he forcefully articulated recently—he will focus on facilitating several missing elements for a successful insurrection.
Above all, the current effort lacks any prominent internal leadership. So far we’ve seen no cracks in the Iranian leadership—no one willing to oppose the ruling hierarchy and facilitate the transition to a new regime.
While the United States clearly cannot parachute an “inside” leader into Iran, perhaps our intelligence—or that of Israel—can identify those willing to break ranks, to whom we can provide covert support. Every successful revolution has insiders who first secretly, then openly promote it.
Likewise, the insurgents lack forceful, respected leadership outside Iran. Where is their Nelson Mandela, their Aung San Suu Kyi? Again, such people may not exist currently in Iran’s movement, but strategically it behooves the United States to support those capable of outside leadership.
The last ingredient for a successful revolution, of course, is the military and security forces going over to the side of the insurgents. This happened in Iran’s own revolution in 1979 and again in Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011. It’s unlikely that the United States or its allies can precipitate such a turning point, but we can be ready when and if it occurs.
When we consider U.S. options, however, we need also to avoid the stigma of outside instigation. This is exactly the kind of foreign influence Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei already blames for the unrest. Ham-handed efforts to facilitate the revolt directly would surely backfire in Iran and on the world stage.
However, there are five aggressive steps the United States can—and should—take strategically now to support the protesters…without risking the label of “outside agitator”:
1. Stop the Iran nuclear negotiations definitively. These talks were doomed from the start, and the State Department now admits they’re going nowhere. If the United States and European nations make a show of canceling the negotiations, it will send a loud message of condemnation to Iran and of support to the protesters.
2. Force open communications in Iranian society. The United States has wisely already licensed SpaceX’s Starlink satellite to operate in Iran. But an initiative to produce and provide more Starlink terminals is needed, especially as the regime further blocks free-flowing information. On the other side, Western powers should actively engage in cyber-warfare to disrupt Iran’s efforts to censor websites and close down communications networks.
3. Ramp up sanctions and other economic pressure. While President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign did not stop the mullahs’ nuclear quest, it pinched them hard and continues to erode their popularity as Iran’s economy sank deeper. Many remaining agencies and individuals in the ruling apparatus are vulnerable to additional sanctions and penalties—which should be exercised immediately.
This would include restoration of the “snapback” provisions of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, which the United States and several European nations have begun—but which the Biden administration withdrew. All JCPOA participants should enforce the snapback sanctions.
4. Banish Iranian participation in international organizations and forums. Iran should be designated persona non grata in U.N. agencies, such as the Commission on the Status of Women, and banned from participation in sporting events, scientific forums and academic meetings. Visas should be canceled for all Iranian elites—including those for more than 90,000 children of powerful Iranians studying in the United States, European and other countries.
5. Demonstrate U.S. military readiness. The Biden administration has obsessively resisted any hint of military threat toward Iran during recent nuclear negotiations. But that was before talks failed and the current Iranian insurrection began. The United States and our regional allies should fortify military assets in the Gulf of Hormuz and be ready to shut down Iranian shipping traffic if necessary.
Above all, Washington needs a strategy that forcefully reduces Iran’s ability to wreak havoc in the Middle East—and cripples its ability to stifle dissent against its authoritarian regime.
The United States has a moral and material interest in seeing the mullahs’ iron grip on the throats of the Iranian people broken. It should implement a broad, assertive strategy of resistance that supports Iranians’ bid for freedom.
Remember, too, that while the United States should explore and exercise many options short of military conflict, preserving a military option is always the most reliable to ensure diplomatic success.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.