Nika Shakarami was a 16-year-old Iranian girl who burned her headscarf in protest against the draconian laws and the brutal suppression of human rights by the Islamic regime in Iran. Then on September 20, Nika disappeared in Tehran after reportedly being followed by the country’s security forces. Her family accused the security forces of torturing and killing her, and secretly burying her body.
This is one of many crimes in the violent efforts of the Iranian government to suppress a growing and majority of Iranian citizens, who desperately want to live in a world where freedom and democracy reign supreme – not the ayatollah. The current protests in Iran are not just a simple outburst of anger, nor solely about the tragic killing of Mahsa Amini (who was detained and brutally beaten to death by Iran’s infamous morality police for breaking a law requiring women to wear a hijab). No, this reaction is the culmination of years and years of accumulated trauma and totalitarian rule.
With that in mind, it is vital to recognize the complexity of the situation. The Biden Administration has worked hard to make as great of an impact on this current situation as possible, such as issuing a general license for internet companies to circumvent existing sanctions and provide services that can help the population in Iran. Compared to the response to the 2009 protests in Iran, – when Washington was criticized for its inaction and cautious approach to the demonstrations surrounding Iran’s presidential election – the Administration has been quicker and far more reactive as things unfolded.
While the government-sanctioned violence has left over 180 people killed, including children, and thousands arrested, President Biden has made it clear that we stand with the Iranian women and all those that are rising up in the hopes of freedom.
Some might argue that a restrained response from the United States would be advisable, so as not to provide Tehran with excuses to label the demonstrations as instigated by foreign powers, and that the outright lack of Western support helps to shield the Iranian activists. But this would be short-sighted, and it would fail the expectations of the Iranian people.
On October 6, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Iranian officials for the continued violence against protestors, including important governmental figures and some high-level security officials. That list of sanctions for the current human rights abuses and tyrannic violence needs to be immediately broadened and expanded with key officials and institutions. Moreover, the U.S. can and should encourage the European Union and member states to follow suit, and fast. European nations and institutions, which are often and willfully blind to Iran’s behavior, cannot ignore the plight of the Iranian people now.
Very importantly, the women and students protesting on the ground must be assisted as they try to break through the government censorship on the Internet, including the targeted blocking of social media platforms. The U.S. can and should expand these efforts by assisting companies that provide internet services with the technical means to overcome the Internet blackout. More so, we can help to make these platforms as accessible as possible for all Iranians, including those that are not able to pay subscriptions and associated fees for communication apps and software.
In layman’s terms, we cannot continue to deal with Tehran like nothing is happening, and merely continue such patterns as business as usual. Rather, a bipartisan and bicameral group of members of Congress has already unveiled a principled resolution supporting the people fighting for their fundamental human rights. Now Congress should double down, especially by highlighting the need for international justice and accountability for all victims of Iran’s game.
Many leaders in Congress should be commended for their vocal objections to a revived nuclear deal with Iran. At this moment, it is clear that talks of reviving the JCPOA legitimize the theocratic regime – and moreover, the agreement itself provides Iran with sanctions relief and more resources to suppress its own people, leading to the increased export of terrorism and destabilization. Continuing to engage with Tehran now on this front sends the wrong signal to the world and relays a horrible message to the demonstrators – and whether some want to believe it or not, they are all listening and watching.
Amidst inaction, the Iranian security apparatus would feel emboldened to abduct, torture, and kill many more innocent women and girls like Nika. That is why we must be bold and show that we won’t allow the regime to continue undisturbed on this murderous path.