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This is not the time to appease Iran

Iranians are risking their lives to bring down their theocratic regime

Artillery Row

For the past two weeks, Iran has been engulfed in anti-government protests — and the affected localities increase by the day. Predictably enough, the regime has responded with its usual brutal repression, killing activists. 

Several deaths have been reported but, to slow the pace at which information can be shared within and beyond the country’s borders, reports suggest that internet access was cut in certain areas while the uprising was in its infancy.

In November 2019, the last time internet access was obstructed on this scale, the Iranian regime opened fire on crowds of peaceful protesters all over the country, killing 1,500. In the aftermath, activists were subjected to indefinite detention and systematic torture, in many cases lasting several months. 

Outspoken, visible opposition has been growing for years

Details of the crackdown obtained by the PMOI/MEK opposition were quickly shared by the pro-democracy coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.  

The death toll was later confirmed by Reuters, citing multiple sources inside the Iranian regime. To this day, the international community has done little to hold the perpetrators of those killings to account. In the present context, this has naturally increased the risk of history repeating itself.

To make matters worse, there are suggestions that the White House may scale down the pressure on the very institution which was primarily responsible for the 2019 crackdown: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In recent months, as a prerequisite for any agreement to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Iranian regime has demanded that this hardline paramilitary organization be taken off the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Although the Biden administration has issued no statement signalling its intention to comply with that demand, it has not ruled it out either. It would be a colossal mistake to even so much as leave the door open for such delisting, especially now. 

Approximately three months have passed since the officials in Vienna, negotiating the restoration of the deal, announced that a draft agreement was nearly completed and just on the verge of implementation. 

But it’s crystal clear that Iran’s priority is to give a free hand to its repressive institutions, not to secure a deal to lift the sanctions targeting its nuclear programme. Once and for all, the US government must make it known that such delisting is off the table. 

Given Tehran’s stubborn obduracy this would almost certainly entail accepting the collapse of the Vienna talks, and thus of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action itself.

But, in any event, this is not a regime whose word counts for anything. If the choice comes down to letting the Vienna talks collapse or legitimising the IRGC, we would be foolish to blink — especially at this historic moment. 

Not only would our steadfast refusal preserve the consequences of terrorist designation (which has led to the severing of virtually all financial exchanges with IRGC-linked entities) but would send a timely and vital message of support to the Iranian people. They have always been the main victims of that organization’s brutality, and this would boost the morale of those brave vociferous citizens who daily risk their lives by standing up to the ayatollahs.

Outspoken, visible opposition has been growing for years, even in the wake of the 2019 mass killings and protracted torture. That crackdown was itself a sign of the Iranian regime’s desperation and underlying weakness. 

There are clear steps the US and its allies can take to minimise bloodshed

On 16 May, when he visited Ashraf 3, the headquarters of the MEK in Albania, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accurately endorsed that assessment, concluding that: “The regime is clearly at its weakest point in decades.” 

Pompeo cited recurring uprisings. He pointed to the electoral boycott that saw the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic when authorities moved to install the ultra-hardline cleric and mass executioner, Ebrahim Raisi, as president. 

Pompeo went on to say that Raisi was appointed for one purpose, but “he has failed to crush uprisings in Iran or break the noble spirit of dissent within the Iranian people”.

That situation is reflected in the slogans defining the current protest movement, many of which take explicit aim at the president, as well as at the supreme leader and the very structure of the ruling system. 

It has become increasingly clear since at least the end of 2017, that the vast majority of Iran’s population are enthusiastically in favour of regime change and are even willing to risk their lives in pursuit of that aim.

On the occasion of Pompeo’s visit to Albania, Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran said: “We can and must free Iran, the Middle East and the world of the evil of the nuclear mullahs.”

The admirable Mrs. Rajavi went on to emphasise that although Iran’s future must be determined by the Iranian people alone, there are clear steps the US and its allies can take to minimise bloodshed during this and all subsequent Iranian uprisings. These will make sure that their progress is impeded as little as possible.

She called for comprehensive sanctions and international isolation of the religious Theocratic dictatorship. She is right and should be heeded. 

A hard-headed approach helps the Iranian people but also serves the national security of the West. Given the bleak record of the ayatollahs for the past four decades, it is long overdue. 

David Alton of Liverpool is a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence.

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