The core of the Biden administration’s strategy on Iran appears simply to do the opposite of former President Donald Trump.
Trump walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? Then the goal must be to rejoin it rather than address its fundamental flaws.
Trump embraced "maximum pressure" to compel behavioral change in Tehran? Then step one for the Biden team must be to flood Iran with sanctions relief. Never mind the inconvenient truth that, in the Islamic Republic, there is a direct correlation between trade and terrorism thanks to the Revolutionary Guards’ stranglehold over most industries.
If liberals want to be successful on Iran issues, they should change their tack. Rather than define themselves as doing the opposite of the Republicans, they should instead be true to their stated principles of supporting labor, protecting the environment, and defending human rights.
It has now been more than 15 years since President George W. Bush missed Iran’s Lech Walesa moment when bus drivers defied their government to form the Islamic Republic’s first independent trade union. Today, unionism is a growing force in Iran, one that leader Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Hossein Salami each fear.
On Monday, teachers went on strike across Iran to demand basic rights. From a nuclear strategy standpoint, encouraging unionization should be a no-brainer, for every dollar that the Revolutionary Guards must pay textile factory or sugar cane workers is a dollar they cannot invest in ballistic missiles or nuclear centrifuges. If a general strike paralyzes Iran’s oil fields where workers face unsafe conditions and poor living standards, then there is no oil for Tehran to sell to Beijing or Pyongyang. That American and European labor organizations support workers everywhere except for Iran should lead to some liberal soul-searching.
Even more than organized labor, what the Iranian leadership increasingly fears is environmental activism. It is the one issue that can unite Iranians across class, ethnicity, religion, and political trend. This is why security forces often arrest environmentalists on trumped-up espionage charges. Protests erupted last month in Isfahan, where the main river, on the banks of which I used to study Persian and chat with picnickers as a student, ran dry after years of environmental mismanagement. The oil-producing region along the Persian Gulf is a powder keg as residents rebel against massive pollution. Again, there is a nuclear angle. The Bushehr nuclear plant is built in an earthquake zone. Should a quake level Bushehr, not only might it become the next Chernobyl, but the trade winds would blow the radioactive cloud across the Persian Gulf toward Qatar and then up the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia and into southern Iraq. Such a scenario is more a question of when rather than if. And yet, rather than defend Iran’s environment or environmentalists, American organizations remain silent.
Too often, liberals subordinate real human rights advocacy for the promise of diplomatic progress. Three decades ago, the German foreign minister proposed a critical engagement: Europe would end its isolation of Iran but would tie trade and relations with Tehran’s willingness to talk about human rights. It took less than a year, however, for Germany to drop the critical component in pursuit of German business contracts. Twelve years ago, President Barack Obama was largely silent as Iranians rose up against massive election fraud; to speak, he feared, could undermine diplomacy.
As for Special Envoy Rob Malley, his steadfast belief in the good of Iran’s leaders has made him the diplomatic equivalent of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football only to always wind up flat on his back. If the Biden team truly believes in the power of human rights, it should do what Trump, Obama, and Bush did not: Truly put the promotion of the Iranian people’s rights at the center of policy advocacy. After all, the problem with Iran has never been the Iranian people but rather the regime that oppresses them.
Should Biden’s team put principle above politics, they may find they can achieve their elusive breakthrough on Iran regardless of what the Iranian regime may want.
Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.