For eight years, President Barack Obama appeased the world’s top state sponsor of terror, a 42-year-old Islamist regime that abuses its people at home while stretching its imperialist tentacles throughout the region. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign reversed Obama’s policies, with straight talk about the brutal nature of the mafia state, cutting off its oil revenue, exposing its systemic corruption and funding of terror, killing of the regime’s terror master Qassem Soleimani, sanctioning of rights abusers, and offering expressions of solidarity with protesters, political prisoners, and the persecuted. These policies were naturally popular with the Iranian people. For them, the Trump years were a time of renewed hope for overthrowing the regime, despite also being a time of worsening economic conditions and state repression.
It was during the Trump maximum pressure campaign that the demands of the Iranian people—as manifested by protest slogans, dissident letters, social media discourse, and more—traversed unmistakably to an absolute opposition to the totality of the regime and the demand for its wholesale removal. Contrary to the warning of those who supported the Iran deal and opposed the maximum pressure strategy, crippling sanctions did not cause the people of Iran to rally behind the regime’s flag. It caused them to revolt against it.
The Iranian people proved the overwhelming consensus of Iran experts in the United States and Europe to be wrong. Not only did Iranians not protest against the United States or against international sanctions, they made clear in their protest slogans that their enemy is the regime, not America. As they had done before, when marching in the streets, most took care not to walk over the Israeli and American flags, rejecting four decades of ideological hatred forced upon them through constant indoctrination in schools and workplaces and through the government-controlled press. Dissidents who had just been released from prison even mustered the wherewithal to speak out in support of the Trump administration’s avalanche of financial pressure, refuting the pathetic band of diaspora apologists mobilized by the regime’s propagandist-in-chief, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Their argument was one of common sense: A terrorizing mafia state will use whatever funds it receives to secure its own survival, not to benefit the people it oppresses.
The Iranian people’s protests, strikes, and other acts of civil disobedience culminated in a nationwide uprising in November 2019, when Iranians in over 200 cities rallied against both so-called reformists and hardliners alike. Their nonviolent assemblies were met with brute force; more than 1,500 were shot to death in the streets and countless more taken into the dungeon for severe torture, rape, and psychological abuse. With rare exceptions, their families have been intimidated into silence. Protesters like champion wrestler Navid Afkari and Gonabadi Dervish Behnam Mahjoubi were killed following over a year of brutal beatings and other forms of torture and methodical dehumanization. Thousands still remain imprisoned, including Navid Afkari’s two brothers who went with him into the streets to protest.
The crushing of dissent in Iran coincides with the failure of democracy movements elsewhere. In contrast to the wave of transition from communism in Eastern Europe and racial apartheid in South Africa in the late 1980s, today, from Caracas to Hong Kong, the world is witnessing political regression: People are rising up as courageously as ever to win their universal rights, but are being successively crushed. More than ever, the world’s repressive regimes are transcending political ideology to shield, support, and learn from each other, usurping new opportunities made possible especially by technology for surveillance, censorship, disinformation, defamation, bullying, and thought control.
Still, the capacity of these regimes to sustain their rule may have more to do with the degraded will of the Free World to give solidarity to those fighting for freedom than it has to do with the power of undemocratic regimes. While large swaths of the Iranian public saw hope for joining the liberal world order under Trump’s Iran policy, Trump himself was a uniquely illiberal American president with no semblance of a Reaganesque vision for the human triumph over totalitarian evil. The same democratic liberties and institutions which the Iranian people sought to achieve with American support, Trump often seemed to threaten at home.
While admirably strict and effective in cordoning off an evil regime, Trump’s Iran policy also notably sanctioned rights abusers and made routine statements about right violations. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 conditions for the removal of sanctions on the Islamic Republic did not include free elections and transition to a democratic constitution or greater respect for human rights by the current regime. When protesters were massacred in November 2019, the response from the Trump administration was hesitant and muted.
Europeans have historically favored their trade ties over any principled foreign policy toward the Islamic Republic; even after the November 2019 massacre, the European Union and European governments were reluctant to speak about the widespread killings and torture, much less to shame the regime and impose penalties. Instead, Europeans used Trump as an excuse to disregard human rights in Iran while also shirking their responsibility to provide security to their own citizens within their own borders who were threatened by Iranian terror attacks. On the Chinese Communist Party and Putin, too, Europe has gone out of its way to placate anti-democratic regimes, rather than honor its own hard-won democratic commitments.
The irony of the free world’s post-Trump reality is that those who were motivated to safeguard freedom in America now have in Biden a president following a progressive playbook that treats democracy as just one political system among others. Dressed up as “realism,” the strange union of postmodern leftist ideology with Western corporate interests accepts at face value the sovereignty and legitimacy of the world’s most brutal and anti-American regimes, even when they commit genocide. The fable of American guilt is used to actualize undergraduate cultural relativism, which is in turn used as a tool to gain advantage by partisan political alignments. It is identity politics on the world stage, the prioritization of one Khashoggi killed by Saudi Arabia over 1,500 protesters killed by the Islamic Republic or 1 million Uighurs in Chinese concentration camps.
For the Iranian people, Biden’s repeat of Obama’s betrayals is made all the worse because of the open failures of the Iran deal—which the new administration is choosing to repeat nonetheless. Appeasement 2.0 is being led by the same Obama team that traded the aspirations for freedom of the Green Movement in Iran and later the people’s uprising against the dictator Bashar Assad in Syria for the phony “peace” of kicking the can of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program down the road for a few years under U.S. protection.
That Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and the Abraham Accords have provided America with tremendous leverage against its imperial enemy in the Middle East is a fact that is dismissed resentfully by the Biden administration. Reversing the Trump gains because they are Trump gains means more to the appeasers than protecting America or advancing American security interests in the region—let alone giving hope to the people who still look to America as a beacon of freedom.
In the short time since taking office, Biden has already snubbed Iranian dissidents who courageously wrote to him from inside Iran, some writing from prison, urging him to maintain sanctions and other pressures on the regime and to provide support and solidarity for their democratic struggle. Instead, their message was received as an inconvenience by a White House national security team staffed with some of the regime’s leading U.S.-based apologists. The administration then quickly provided other sweeteners to the regime, including the lifting of sanctions on their proxy in Yemen, the lifting of restrictions on its arms buying and selling, the lifting of U.S. opposition to an IMF loan, and the neutering of a pro-freedom public diplomacy initiative from the State Department, which went overnight from being a popular source of information on the regime’s repression and corruption to the butt of jokes among Iranian democracy activists. The initiative‘s Persian-language Twitter account has had a steep drop in followers since the U.S. election because of its canceling of real-time statements about the regime’s human rights abuses in favor of promotion of the Biden team’s appeasement measures. When angry Iranians on Twitter pushed the State Department into taking a stand about the regime’s torture and killing of Behnam Mahjoubi, it only raised their ire by saying he was “mistreated.”
Biden’s decided U-turn away from maximum pressure on the regime to a posture of maximum accommodation has been accompanied by silence about the regime’s escalation of its war against its own people, and anyone else who is unfortunate enough to fall within its reach. Biden’s policy of appeasement has been accompanied by large increases in the number of executions and deaths in custody of political prisoners, the taking of foreign hostages for ransom, and threats to kill dual nationals like Swedish Iranian researcher Ahmadreza Djalali. The new administration has, in effect, taken every opportunity to demonstrate to Iran’s thuggish theocracy that it will give in, even signaling that the regime’s holding of American hostages will not be an impediment to negotiations on the nuclear program.
The results of this policy of accommodation are clear. Khamenei has not hesitated to respond by intensifying belligerence by the Islamic Republic’s proxies, who shell American troops in Iraq. America’s other leading adversaries, particularly China and Russia, are also taking note; they do not expect to be confronted for their aggressions and can more easily plot to fill the vacuum left by the United States in the Middle East.
Repeating the recent tragic mistake of Obama’s Iran policy is not simply a foolish replay of the past. It is especially egregious because of the recent, momentous gains made toward a transformation of the region toward modern, rational friendship and cooperation between Arabs and Israelis. It is as if the new administration is closing its eyes to the realities of the region and to American security interests to instead pursue a policy whose symbolism is in fact its purpose. By using “foreign policy” to convey an ideological worldview to a U.S. domestic audience, 80 million Iranians are being treated as props by U.S. policymakers who pose as “progressives” while openly displaying their lack of interest in our common human fate.
Mariam Memarsadeghi is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a leading advocate for a democratic Iran.