“One of the most famous cycling studios in the United States is called ‘SoulCycle,'” the US State Department‘s Persian-language Instagram account (@USABehFarsi) wrote on May 12, just as the protests were spreading to dozens of cities and towns across Iran. The protests, which began as early as May 6, were first prompted by the government of Ebrahim Raisi which raised the prices of important staples, including wheat, chicken, cooking oil and eggs, to cut subsidies in an economy already plagued by mismanagement, corruption and US sanctions.
While it’s understandable that the Joe Biden administration would want to part ways with its predecessor – who often pointed the finger at Iran for his criticism of human rights abuses while giving a pass to other autocratic states — it took six days after nationwide protests began and nine days after internet outages were documented for State Department spokesman Ned Price to issue any type of statement. “The Iranian people have the right to hold their government to account. We support their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression online and offline, without fear of violence or reprisal,” Price said. post on his official Twitter account on May 16. (Within hours, @USBehFarsi would post a Persian translation of his comments.)
No other high-level US official has commented on the unrest that has led to the deaths of at least six protesters and dozens of arrests, as well as internet shutdowns and disruptions in southern provinces where the protests were more widespread.
What has become clear since the Biden administration took office in January 2021 is that its primary interest in Iran is containing its nuclear advances. Talks on restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015, which have lasted for more than a year in Vienna, have apparently stalled over the refusal of the United States to unconditionally lift the foreign terrorist designation. Revolutionary Guards by the Donald Trump administration. Corps (IRGC). Despite sensitivities around reviving the deal, the Biden administration should not tiptoe on other issues relating to Iran, especially human rights — including freedom of speech. Internet – an issue that the administration highlighted with regard to other countries and which was supposed to be foreign policy. priority.
With this in mind, the Biden administration can take several steps that will raise awareness of human rights abuses in Iran and work with the private sector to directly address censorship of the internet, which Iranians use for economic gain, entertainment and sociopolitical.
First, the administration must expand its portfolio of Iranian policies to better reflect the realities on the ground. While many Iranians celebrated the JCPOA as if the country had won a World Cup qualifier, many no longer see the deal – which the Trump administration scrapped in 2018 despite not having it. not violated – as having the same potential and recognize that their problems go far beyond the United States. economic sanctions and is their leadership. This is evident in chants long heard at protests, including: “We don’t want religious power” and “No to Gaza and Lebanon!” My life is for Iran! – a reference to how the Islamic Republic spends its meager resources on its proxies.
While protests have actually normalized in recent years, when unlawful force and near-total internet shutdowns occur anywhere, the United States should always speak out against these rights violations, especially in repressive countries like Iran. In 2020, Amnesty International reported, in reference to anti-government protests in November 2019 initially sparked by a fuel price hike, during which security forces arrested and killed thousands, “authorities deliberately blocked internet access inside Iran, hiding the true extent of the horrific human rights violation.” violations they were committing across the country. This impunity is what many fear when internet shutdowns and disruptions occur.
President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken should always personally condemn internet shutdowns and disruptions and the use of violence against protesters, even via tweet, as such messages are quickly shared in Iran on social media and messaging apps (once internet services are back online). Former President Donald Trump has regularly tweeted about the widespread protests in Iran, sometimes even in Persian. During the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement, President Barack Obama condemned the “threats, beatings and imprisonments” of protesters.
There is no doubt that the Iranian government will and has accused the United States of interfering in Iranian affairs, including issuing a harsh response to Price’s comments. But Tehran will, no matter what the Biden administration says. There are also numerous instances where the Iranian government has commented critically on the unrest in the United States, most recently during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
Iranians inside and outside Iran want to be heard, judging by countless social media accounts, including the activist collective @1500tasvir, which uses social media as ‘technology of accountability’ to draw attention to what is happening in the country. This information helps human rights organizations and the international community document abuses and killings.
A louder reaction to Iran would go a long way in showing Iranians that their plight is recognized.
As part of a more coherent approach to human rights in Iran, internet freedom should also be considered. The Biden administration should, at the very least, begin discussions with Silicon Valley companies on how to provide unfettered internet access to Iranians in the event of a prolonged internet outage or disruption. This avenue should be particularly explored before the so-called “protection bill” is potentially passed by the Iranian parliament. Under this legislation, Iran would criminalize VPNs to “protect” Iranians from Western and other non-Islamic online content. Many Iranians see such a drastic action as isolating Iran and making it another North Korea. The most damning consequence of the bill is that it would create a national information network – a home Internet separate from the real Internet – effectively cutting Iranians off from contact with the outside world.
While some Trump-era officials, like former deputy national security adviser Victoria Coates, have recently suggested using Elon Musk’s Starlink project is not feasible. Satellite internet company must win authorized permission from the local government to access the infrastructure, as was the case in Ukraine.
Finally, more funding is needed to promote internet freedom. The Trump administration, despite its opposition to the Iranian government, withheld $20 million in funding for the Washington-based Open Technology Fund (OTF), an organization that helps activists, including Iranians, circumvent censorship on Internet. More attention and money should be invested in such programs, including circumvention tools like Psiphon, because internet shutdowns are not unique to Iran. In 2021, Access Now and #KeepItOn recorded 182 internet shutdowns in thirty-four countries.
Keeping Iran’s nuclear program under control is an important national security issue for the United States. However, having a coherent and workable approach to Iran is what the Biden administration needs to stay the course on its human rights agenda. Now is a good starting point.
Holly Dagres is editor of the Atlantic Council IranSource blog and non-resident senior researcher of Middle East programs. She also manages The Iranian newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @hdagres.
Wed 27 Oct 2021
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