Russia and Iran, two of the world’s most deeply entrenched autocracies, both led by megalomaniacs, are facing serious anti-regime unrest. Russians have fled the country to avoid conscription into Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and protests against Iran’s clerical regime are in their second month.
The chasm that separates U.S. and European policy towards these respective regimes is as unseemly as it is strategically unsound. The Western allies must apply their Russia playbook to Iran or risk charges of double standards or, worse still, enabling the Iranian regime’s continued rule.
First, the West must isolate the Iranian regime just as it isolated Russia in the weeks after it invaded Ukraine. For example, in April, the U.N. General Assembly struck a blow to Moscow’s sense of prestige by suspending it from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Iran, on the other hand, continues to be a member of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, despite the bloody oppression of its female population. The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died in detention after she was brutally beaten for alleged violations of the country’s strict dress code, sparked the current protest movement. But she is by no means alone. Iranian authorities have battered to death young female protesters like 16-year-old Nika Shakarami, who was found with her nose and skull broken.
Recently, the U.S. announced its intention to work with allies and partners to remove the Islamic republic from the Commission on the Status of Women. However, the Western allies must go much further than this.
Around 400 Russian diplomats have been expelled from Washington and European capitals since Russia invaded Ukraine. According to Foreign Policy, at least 24 out of 30 NATO member states have asked Russian officials to leave their posts.
No Iranian diplomats have been expelled from Europe. Nor has any action been taken against Iran’s Mission to the United Nations in New York City. While the German Foreign Ministry has announced important visa restrictions and the suspension of bilateral dialogue with Iran on economic and energy issues, other European powers have not taken such measures.
This is especially striking in the wake of Iran’s recent cyberattack on critical infrastructure in NATO member Albania, compounded by Iran’s decision to supply lethal drones and potentially missiles to Russia for use against Ukraine. Iranian instructors are reportedly on the ground in Ukraine teaching Russian forces.
European governments withdrew their ambassadors from Iran and restricted official visits in 1989, mere days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the death of British-Iranian author Salman Rushdie. Fast forward to 2022, and European countries still have not downgraded their diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Moreover, tools of economic isolation that are being used against Russia are not being used against Iran. Sweeping sanctions have been imposed on Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine. For example, the U.S. sanctioned hundreds of members of Russia’s parliament and the EU sanctioned 351 Russian lawmakers in Feb. 2022 alone. Multilateral sectoral sanctions followed.
Iran has escaped similar accountability. Recently, Britain levied a mere eight token designations—its first human rights sanctions on Iran since 2013—on Iranian entities and officials that likely have no assets outside Iran. The E.U. has announced just 15 designations.
The E.U. and Britain also sanctioned a handful of Iranian officials and a single company over Tehran’s supply of drones to Russia. More E.U. sanctions are reportedly in the planning stages, but their sluggish pace and piecemeal nature stand in stark contrast to the swift and comprehensive punishment of Russia.
The difference between the West’s responses to Russia and Iran is particularly striking when one compares how Western governments have dealt with the two countries’ respective leaders. The U.S. and Europe have enacted strong personal sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin, the leader of a nuclear-armed power. But they have yet to personally sanction Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of an aspiring nuclear power.
Khamenei has a record of crimes against humanity at home and abroad that goes back decades. He and the entities he controls should be multilaterally sanctioned under Magnitsky Act authorities that target human rights abusers and corruption. Aside from being designated by the U.S. under Executive Order 13876, Khamenei has never been held accountable for his crimes. Sanctions have risen no higher than his lieutenants, even though he is the one who gives the orders. That needs to change.
The Iranian people have seen the protests taking place across the U.S. and Europe in support of their uprising against the Islamic republic. They are watching to see if Western governments also support them, or if the West is content to offer lukewarm encouragement that rattles the regime but fails to shake loose its iron grip on the country.
At this inflection point, the U.S. and its European allies need to get on the right side of history by moving on from business as usual.
Jonathan Harounoff is a British journalist based in New York. His work has been featured in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanHaroun1.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). His research focuses on Iranian leadership dynamics, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s proxy and partner network. Follow him on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.