No one was expecting the recent protests in Iran, which spread quickly across the country despite the absence of any clear or coordinated leadership. Tens of thousands of ordinary Iranians were motivated to join by their own extensive grievances, including bleak economic opportunities, unmet expectations in the wake of the nuclear deal, and a perception of widespread corruption.
Some protesters even made plain their discontent with Tehran’s rights-abusing political system as well.
For now, the demonstrations have subsided but there are serious concerns about how those who were arrested and remain in detention are being treated. There is an urgent need for an independent and comprehensive inquiry. There are also concerns about how these protests will impact U.S. policy toward Iran, sine President Trump was quick to note not only that “the world is watching” but that there will be “great support from the United States at the appropriate time.”
It is important for the White House to respond to major global events and vocalize support for people who protest peacefully against an abusive and unaccountable government. But support from the current White House rings hollow, in part because of how brazenly selective the president has been when promoting human rights. From Egypt to Turkey to the Philippines, Trump has warmly embraced autocratic leaders and gone silent on their deeply repressive actions. But in this case it’s been more than just selective engagement — it’s also been a question about intent, given Trump’s reluctance to renew the nuclear deal and clear interest to punish Iranian leaders.
Furthermore, when he visited Saudi Arabia last May, Trump did not comment on the absence of fundamental rights throughout the kingdom but instead assured Arab leaders that “we are not here to tell other people how to live.”
Double standards are nothing new in U.S. foreign policy, but rarely are they applied so boldly. In this particular case, such comments cannot be divorced from the high likelihood that they may exacerbate regional tensions and make large-scale abuse more likely. Meanwhile, back in the United States, Trump has issued a series of draconian executive orders blocking people from mostly Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, from coming to the United States.
Whatever the reason for Trump’s shift in tone, it is worth exploring how his administration might meaningfully promote fundamental rights in Iran.
First, get rid of the travel ban. The most essential show of support for the Iranian people would be to ditch the travel ban entirely so that Iranians — and those from other affected countries — no longer are subject to such onerous, blanket restrictions. In 2016, the State Department issued some 24,000 non-immigrant visas to Iranians — and there’s no evidence that Iranians who visit intend anything other than to make valuable contributions to American society and economy.
Second, work with others. The Trump administration should expand and strengthen cooperation with the United Nations’ human rights bodies and pursue other multilateral diplomatic efforts to engage on human rights concerns. The special rapporteur for Iran, an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, is a key initiative that the administration should support when it comes up for renewal this March.
This also creates an opportunity for the administration to engage constructively with the council, a body from which it has threatened to walk away. The United States, acting alone, can’t improve the human rights situation in Iran, but by working via the United Nations system and with other allies, it can lend important support to wider and more comprehensive impartial efforts that could provide the Iranian authorities a meaningful opportunity to engage on human rights issues.
Third, support access to the digital revolution in Iran. The United States has a comprehensive sanctions regime on Iran but, after years of advocacy, the Treasury Department has created exemptions so tech companies can provide the necessary tools to allow Iranian citizens to safely access the internet. Further assurances are needed given that America’s biggest tech companies are fearful of legal ramifications. The Treasury Department should issue new, clarified guidance and the White House should reach out directly to Google and others in Silicon Valley to encourage them to unequivocally take full advantage of these exemptions.