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US must affirm Iranians’ demands: Freedom, not the Islamic Republic

The Hill logo The Hill 12/2/2022 Alan Goldsmith, opinion contributor
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For eight weeks, Iranians have taken the streets with a basic rallying cry: “Woman, life, freedom!” Tehran cannot and never will heed that call — the regime is built on misogyny, killing, and tyranny. That’s why protesters have chanted “[Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei will be overthrown this bloody year!”, “Death to Khamenei!”, and “Death to the dictator!” It is time for the U.S. to endorse what the Iranian people want: The end of the “Islamic Republic” and the establishment of a free democracy.

Supporting those goals does not require military intervention.

The U.S. can and should help Iranians by, for example, continuing to facilitate internet access for protesters facing the regime-imposed cyber blackout; sanctioning more Iranian human rights abusers — particularly those at the top giving the orders, Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi — and synchronizing our lists of sanctions targets with those of other countries; encouraging our allies to downgrade their relations with the regime, including by withdrawing their ambassadors and ordering Iranian envoys to leave; and ending nuclear negotiations with Tehran that have produced no results, bought precious time for the regime to develop a nuclear weapons capability, and legitimize a government murdering innocents in the streets.

But the U.S. also needs to publicly recognize and affirm what Iranians are actually demanding. The Biden administration has yet to do so consistently.

To the president’s credit, he has made some positive comments. “[W]e stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights,” he said at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, just days after the protests began. Good. But the next step is to recognize how Iranians want those rights secured. There, unfortunately, the administration sends mixed messages.

On Oct. 22, for example, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley tweeted, “Marchers in Washington and cities around the world are showing their support for the Iranian people, who continue to peacefully demonstrate for their government to respect their dignity and human rights.”

Malley, facing a storm of criticism from Iranians for his mischaracterization, said his tweet “was poorly worded.” However, the administration, afraid of being perceived as supporting regime change, chose to bend over backwards to avoid describing what the protesters want. “It is not up to me; it is not up to the U.S. government what the brave women and men who have been demonstrating in Iran want,” Malley said. “It is up to them.”

Likewise, in a press briefing on Oct. 24, State Department spokesperson Ned Price repeatedly refused to simply acknowledge what Iranian protesters are asking for. “It’s not for us to interpret what the people of Iran are asking for,” he said. “It is up to them to be very clear with their voice, with their own government and with the world, to state what they are asking for.”

However, the Iranian people have been clear about what they are asking for, and the administration has created a straw man. The U.S. need not interpret anything — just recognize and support Iranians’ legitimate demands.

As a journalist asked Price at that briefing, “[L]et’s say that if I walk down the street carrying a sign saying… oranges are bad; they should be banned — what would you say that my message is?” In response, however, Price dodged again, protesting, “I am not the spokesperson for oranges.”

Thankfully, on Nov. 3, President Biden himself spoke clearly. The president, speaking to a rally where some attendees held up smartphones with “Free Iran” on their screens, said, off the cuff, “Don’t worry, we’re gonna free Iran. They’re gonna free themselves pretty soon.”

Unfortunately, the administration then backpedaled from the simple meaning and intent of Biden’s comments — that the U.S. supported the emergence of a liberal democracy in place of the Iranian regime.

“He was expressing, again, our solidarity with [the protesters],” said NSC spokesman John Kirby. But how can the U.S. truly express solidarity with protesters while remaining silent on, or mischaracterizing, what those same protesters are demanding?

Ned Price did the latter on Nov. 10, saying Iranians were “peacefully demonstrating, taking to the streets, to call for the reforms that they’re demanding” (emphasis added).

Wrong. Iranians are chanting “Death to Khamenei!” not “Reform by Khamenei!”

Try this, instead: “The Iranian people want a new, free, democratic political system, with legitimate leaders who respect their rights. The U.S. supports their aspirations, with words and with actions.” Is that so hard?

Alan Goldsmith works for United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He previously served as a professional staff member for the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is on Twitter @AlanGoldsmith.

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