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What the US can do to help shift the balance of power from tyranny to freedom in Russia, Iran

The Hill logo The Hill 11/17/2022 Gary M. Shiffman, Opinion Contributor
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Iranian police open fire at Tehran metro station and beat women on train.” Disturbing headlines like this caused me to think about Iran and Russia, and what can be done to support these victims of tyranny.  

In March, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inept invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, with reports of more than 13,000 people arrested. The protests inspired Marina Ovsyannikova, a Russian journalist, to undertake an amazingly brave act of defiance on Russia’s most-watched news program. “Stop all this madness,” she said of the invasion. “Don’t be afraid of anything. They can’t imprison us all.” 

She was right. She was brave. For this, she was detained for 14 hours and put on house arrest, facing up to 10 years in prison. Last month, she fled the country. 

In September, following increasingly intense protests against the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody, detained by “morality police” for not properly wearing the hijab. More than 14,000 protesters have already been arrested since her killing.

What can the U.S. do to help shift the balance of power away from tyranny and toward freedom? 

Ovsyannikova’s insight is universal: The leader cannot imprison everyone. In March I proposed that free people around the world supporting the mass demonstrations in Russia could bring an end to Putin’s abusive power. When between 250,000 and 2 million people rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship ended. In Iran today, the people in the street need to hear the support of the United States and the free people of the world. 

I’ve spent my career studying organized violence, and I see more parallels than differences in Russia and Iran today. In both Tehran and Moscow, those with the power to govern use coercion to retain that power. While one leader uses religion and the other uses blood and soil nationalism to justify and market atrocities, there is nothing uniquely Russian nor Islamic about evil acts. People have engaged in killing, torture and imprisonment to hold on to power around the world for all of recorded human history. 

Coercion happens when those in power believe they can get away with it. The narrative is all that matters. Putin still acts as if he believes he can succeed; that he can arrest enough so that he does not need to imprison all. Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be signaling doubt, which expands his vulnerability.  

It comes down to behavioral science: People take actions based on expected outcomes. Why do so many people gamble at Las Vegas-style casinos when it’s clear they have a better chance of losing than winning? Because Las Vegas sells possibility; the casinos, with their flashing lights and signs announcing jackpot winners, let one believe that “you might be the one to beat the odds.” Why don’t more people protest on Red Square in Moscow? Because Putin sells the story: “If you challenge me, you will lose and I will win.” True or not, the expectation that the dictator will win prevents the mass uprising. 

The way to change the outcome is to change expectations. U.S. policy, politicians and global celebrities can play an important role in advancing freedom. But in Iran, President Biden hasn’t openly backed regime change, the narrative of the Iranian street. Instead, he seems to choose to try to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The irony is this: Because he does not trust Khamenei, he seeks a promise from Khamenei. The best way to prevent nuclear weapons in Iran is to have a liberal representative and friendly government in Iran. Regime change. Standing with the street protesters and opposing those killing women because they refuse to cover their hair. 

The people of both countries need to hear and feel the support of the American people as they march. This doesn’t mean sending U.S. military personnel; it means acknowledging those courageous enough to stand up against tyranny. This isn’t just a task for President Biden and the political leaders in the U.S. and around the world. It’s also a task for celebrities, the media and social media influencers.

Each of us can help by talking around the dinner table with family and friends. Yes, acknowledge the evil of Putin’s behavior, and the outrages of the Ayatollah’s morality police. But more importantly, let’s say the names of those fighting for fundamental freedoms. I am starting here. Mahsa Amini. Marina Ovsyannikova. 

Gary M. Shiffman, Ph.D., is a Gulf War veteran, a former chief of staff of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He is the founder of Giant Oak and Consilient and author of “The Economics of Violence: How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency, and Terrorism.”

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