Washington Should Help Iranians Achieve a Democratic Iran
Shervin Hajipour’s song “Baraye” is the anthem of Iran’s ‘women, life, freedom’ protest movement. It gives voice to Iranians protesting their government. This month, Jill Biden presented Hajipour with the Grammy for Best Song for Social Change. That night, Iranians blasted the song from cars and apartment windows as they flooded the streets to celebrate. Hajipour posted, “We won.”
Symbols matter. The First Lady’s role in presenting the Grammy was a deft act of diplomacy and support for the protest movement. The U.S. should build on this success and go further: It should support the demands of the Iranian people today and leave open the possibility of nuclear negotiations for some future date.
The combination of civil unrest and nuclear escalation in Iran presents a policy dilemma. Iran continues to enrich uranium to record levels and fund non-state actors who destabilize the region. Meanwhile, the regime violently suppresses peaceful demonstrators advocating for a democratic Iran. Pursuing a nuclear deal with Tehran undermines the Iranian people’s call for regime change but advancing the protest movement risks nuclear escalation by a regime still very much in power.
It is time for the administration to choose. It is time to amplify Iranian voices of freedom and increase their ability to connect with the West.
Iranians mark their new year in March on the first day of Spring. This celebration, called Norouz, offers an opportunity to renew American-Iranian diplomacy. Norouz predates the Islamic Republic and symbolizes enduring values the regime has sought to suppress. The White House should signal a change in approach to the Iranian people by hosting a Norouz event at the White House with Iranian artists, activists, and academics.
Thereafter, Secretary of State Antony Blinken should meet regularly with activists, expanding the conversation to include experts in Middle East security, conflict resolution, and gender politics. These meetings would allow the State Department to track the welfare of the Iranian people, provide an ongoing platform for their demands, and help them develop practical solutions to their leadership challenges.
The U.S. should also expand free, open Internet access for Iranians. It should build on current cyber initiatives, including sanction waivers for tech companies. Greater access will help sustain dialogue between domestic and diaspora communities and safeguard international monitoring of human rights violations.
Finally, the administration should increase Persian-language programming on U.S. government-sponsored media outlets and reinstate a Persian-language spokesperson. This diplomat would address the Iranian people regularly in Persian through interviews on outlets like the Voice of America and BBC Farsi to offer diverse perspectives and elevate the democratic reforms Iranians are demanding.
The Islamic Republic has refused to re-enter the nuclear deal or even sit in the same room as U.S. negotiators. Instead, it draws closer to Russia and actively undermines U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The best chance for diplomacy lies not in improving relations with the regime, but with the Iranian people.
President Obama chose a muted response to Iranian demonstrations in 2009 because he worried it would close the door to nuclear negotiations and undermine the legitimacy of the protests. He has since expressed regret for that decision: “In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. Every time we see a flash, a glimmer of hope, of people longing for freedom, I think we have to point it out. We have to shine a spotlight on it. We have to express some solidarity.”
In Iran, protesters chant: “They lie to us that our enemy is America. Our enemy is here.” Sanctions have hollowed out the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of its people. Protesters are tortured, raped, and executed daily. They continue to risk their lives because they feel they have nothing left to lose. The U.S. will fuel the regime’s anti-Western propaganda if we ignore the people’s calls for the freedoms we cherish.
The U.S. must capitalize on this rare moment when the will of the Iranian people aligns with the enduring U.S. foreign policy goal to champion democracy. Finding common ground between Iranian and Western cultures will help heal wounds from decades past. Building bridges now will support diplomatic efforts in the future. The Iranian people yearn to breathe free. As the torchbearer of democracy, the United States must help light their way.