Getting real on Iran

Why the U.S. can't brush off Tehran's repression at home and abroad

Earlier this week, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment that charged four Iranian intelligence operatives with conspiracy to abduct the New York-based Iranian-American journalist and activist Masih Alinejad. A fierce critic of the Iranian regime and in particular its mandatory veiling laws, Alinejad – a U.S. citizen – had been subject to an increasingly vicious campaign of online harassment and intimidation presumably orchestrated by regime organs. It’s the latest in a string of Iranian actions that leaves little doubt about the fundamental nature of the regime and its intentions.

Equally important, it’s a reminder that America cannot simply pull back from the world and expect things to work out in favor or either our interests or our values. After some two decades of heavy military involvement in the Middle East, there’s no doubt that most Americans have grown exhausted with the region and would simply like to put it in the nation’s rearview mirror. For many on the left of America’s political spectrum, however, that’s meant giving Iran an tacit if unintentional pass for repression at home and the export of terror abroad – even as they harshly and justifiably criticize the actions and abuses of American regional partners like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

But Tehran’s own track record in recent years – and particularly since President Biden’s inauguration – makes clear that there’s nothing to be gained from giving the regime the benefit of doubt. Nor that the regime has any interest in any sort of accommodation that respects the interests of American regional partners and helps stabilize the Middle East as a whole. 

On twooccasions since taking office, for instance, Biden ordered air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria believed responsible for attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. U.S. Navy ships continue to seize Iranian arms shipments bound for the Houthis in Yemen, while Tehran maintains its support of the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran has also dragged its feet on diplomacy to revive the 2015 nuclear deal – most recently, the regime has stated it won’t return to indirect talks with the United States and European Union until a new hardline government takes office in August.

In mainstream Democratic foreign policy circles, moreover, an unspoken assumption exists that American criticism of Iran’s domestic human rights record or attempts to counter its destabilizing actions in the region will inevitably scupper diplomacy with Tehran on U.S. priorities like the nuclear issue. But there’s little evidence to suggest that more outspoken rhetoric or proactive policy against Iran’s human rights abuses or support for terrorists will torpedo diplomacy; given the regime’s baseline of hostility toward the United States, it’s hard to see how it would. As a result, American diplomats and policymakers effectively tie their own hands when it comes to Iran policy – giving the regime in Tehran a veto that it doesn’t even seem willing to use.

That’s certainly the case with regard to the Alinejad kidnapping plot, where the Biden administration’s chief negotiator quickly and clearly signaled its intent to press forward with nuclear talks despite the regime’s attempt to capture an American citizen in the United States. On a certain level that makes sense; it’s certainly possible for the United States to negotiate with a country on one subject while opposing it on virtually all other fronts. After all, that’s what the United States repeatedly did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War – and that’s the approach Biden administration seems to be taking now with China and climate change.

But an attempt to abduct an American citizen from her home in Brooklyn and take her to Iran where she’d most likely face execution represents something else entirely. It’s not an action the Biden administration can or should just brush off in hopes of reviving the nuclear deal, as seems to be the case at the moment.

More broadly, the United States – and the American center-left in particular – needs to take a more realistic view of the regime Tehran. It’s unlikely to change its fundamental outlook and policies any time soon; certainly not before the country’s current supreme leader passes from the scene. Diplomacy remains a critical pathway to resolve outstanding concerns like Iran’s nuclear program, but it’s important to remain aware of its limits. While Iran may negotiate restraints on its nuclear program to relieve severe pressure on its domestic economy, it’s unlikely to pursue any agreement to, say, limit its ballistic missile program or curtail its support for terrorist groups around the Middle East – and the regime’s incoming hardline president has explicitly said as much.

Most importantly, it’s unlikely the Iranian regime will refrain from repression at home – or its repeated attempts over decades to extend that repression abroad. Nor will it give up its policy of taking hostages to extort concessions from foreign governments. 

After the nuclear issue, America’s policy toward Iran should focus squarely on Tehran’s apparatus of repression at home and, crucially, abroad. That priority should encompass everything from Iran’s attempt to kidnap an American citizen from her home in Brooklyn to the regime’s support for militias around the Middle East that assassinate their rivals and critics. None of this requires or entails direct U.S. military action or a large U.S. military presence in the Middle East itself. But it does require a willingness to challenge Tehran politically and diplomatically when necessary.

In short, it’s time to recognize the regime in Tehran for what it is – a gangster state that actively opposes basic freedoms and human rights around the world, including in the United States itself.