Iran has captured the international spotlight in recent weeks, as Iranian citizens are undertaking mass demonstrations following the detainment and killing of 22 year-old Mahsa Amini by Iran’s “morality police” for wearing an inappropriate head covering. As the Iranian people’s popular unrest mounts, so too does the regime’s repression – with Iranian police killing hundreds of protestors since the uprising’s outset. Amidst an already tenuous Middle Eastern landscape, the Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker joins GJIA to discuss how the United States should navigate these protests and the regime’s brutal crackdown.
GJIA: Protests have swept Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran on September 13th. President Biden has stated his support for the protestors’ cause, though hasn’t changed American policy beyond instituting limited sanctions. Indeed, just this week, former President Obama admitted he made a mistake by not supporting Iranian protestors more forcefully during the so-called Green Revolution of 2009. With this in mind, should the Biden administration be doing more to support the protestors? As the senior official overseeing this region under the last administration, what would your policy be?
DS: The Iranian people are fed up with their tyrannical regime, and the protests go beyond the hijab. This is about authoritarian theocracy. And yet, this regime has any number of tools at its disposal to quell these protests, and has shown a will—like Assad—to kill its way out of the problem. But I don’t think these sentiments are going away. A large proportion of the population is protesting.
So it is incumbent on the US government to get behind these people. Groups like the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) who were advising Obama in 2009 warned against the so-called “Kiss of Death,” that US provision of support for the protestors, or at the least, rhetorical backing would tarnish the demonstrators. I think that’s exactly wrong. These people want our support, and it should go beyond rhetorical support. It should be some sort of material support, whether that is helping these people to maintain internet connections through Starlink or other technologies. We should be sanctioning not only these morality police who murder Iranian women, but also taking strong measures to ensure that not only the regime, but the sons and daughters of the regime, aren’t coming to the United States or attending American or European universities.
Most importantly, we should not be freeing up billions of dollars of cash for the Iranian regime that will enable them to buy more bullets to kill protesters. This is not the time to be alleviating sanctions or talking about a nuclear deal with this country. We should be talking about snapback.
The United States has several other ongoing strategic entanglements with Iran. The administration hopes to renegotiate the JCPOA despite talks currently being at a standstill. Iran’s adversarial presence in Syria and its proxy presence in Yemen are continuing to stymie American interests. In Iraq, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has bombarded Kurdish opposition groups and successfully undermined the recent Iraqi election, preventing the formation of a sovereign government in Baghdad. With all these issues at play affecting America’s strategic interest, where should Iran’s internal human rights violations rank within the US’s foreign policy priorities? Can the United States press the regime forcefully in favor of the protests without sacrificing strategic goals on other issues with Iran?
Any administration has to deal with all of these issues simultaneously. Additionally, Washington has to deal with Ukraine and the growing challenges posed by China. Every administration comes in and says that they can walk and chew gum at the same time, and invariably, they face bandwidth issues. It was my view that the Biden administration dropped the ball on Iraq, not paying attention to government formation until ten months after the Iraqi elections, and ended up with the Iranians with a much-strengthened position in Baghdad. Now, maybe that is part of an overall policy shift— that the administration wants to downgrade its involvement in the Middle East—but these are still critical issues for us and our partners. We have to be engaged one way or another on the ground, push back on Iranian proxies, and help our allies and partners in the region to more effectively push back on these proxies. And if you’re not doing that in Iraq, I don’t see where you’re doing it in the region at all.
The right policy involves not only sanctions, but putting pressure on our friends to take steps themselves to weed out corruption, develop energy independence, and limit their dependency on Iran. It’s a question of how committed we are, and how much of a policy priority the Middle East is.
I think it was Bernard Lewis who said, as a great power “we don’t just have double standards, we have multiple standards.” So we have to weigh where human rights fits in, in terms of our bilateral relationship with any particular country. Should we be harder on our partners than our adversaries in terms of human rights? This is a question that policymakers have to deal with, but human rights should certainly be a priority with Iran.
Zooming out on the broader regional picture, this week President Biden announced a “reassessment of US ties with Saudi Arabia” in light of its decision to cut oil production through OPEC+. Do you think this complicates the US’s ability to consolidate an anti-Iranian coalition in the Middle East?
The United States is doing some work via CENTCOM to try and facilitate cooperation between our allies in terms of intelligence sharing, development of a common air picture, and a regional air defense system. We have a very important, long-lasting relationship with Saudi Arabia. There had been ongoing communication between the United States and Saudi Arabia; the OPEC+ decision to cut oil production was not a surprise for the administration. They had been informed beforehand.
So I think this is a disagreement, but one that is not insurmountable. For the past two years, the President had a policy to make the future king of Saudi Arabia into a regional and international pariah. The President said there was no socially redeeming value in the government of Saudi Arabia, so it takes more than one visit to the country to repair the damage that has been done.
I think it’s incumbent on this administration not to cut its nose to spite its face. I know they’re disappointed in Riyadh, but canceling regional meetings regarding the building of a common air defense picture and a shared regional missile defense system is counterproductive. Saudi Arabia is going to be an important partner going forward, and we cannot take them for for granted. There are many choices out there, but they would certainly prefer to be a partner of the United States. They are an increasingly confident foreign policy actor, and I think we need to mature our relationship.
Of course, the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on its own people protesting these past few weeks represents a systemic violation of human and women’s rights embedded deeply within the Islamic Republic. However, some would argue the same could be said of the Saudi regime, which has imprisoned female activists, murdered American journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and has surveilled and targeted its own citizens while abroad. Is this a double standard which hinders the US’s ability to legitimately claim to stand up for human rights in the Middle East, as it ignores one of the region’s biggest violators of human rights?
I do not agree with the nature of the question. I think human rights in Iran are atrocious. The trajectory, however, in Saudi Arabia is very different. There’s no more morality police in Saudi Arabia. Men and women can walk together without being harassed in Saudi Arabia, unrelated men and women can go to a coffee shop together. Women can drive. These are innovations that have been implemented by MBS.
As to whether Saudi Arabia still has problems, the answer is yes. There are certainly women that are under house arrest. There are dissidents abroad who have been targeted. But I do not believe that human rights in Saudi Arabia are not demonstrably worse than those in Egypt. We give Egypt $1-$1.3 billion a year. They are a major non-NATO ally. We have to put this in context. You have one of the most autocratic governments in the region in Iran, that hangs gay people from cranes, kills its dissidents abroad, and funds multiple proxy militias that kill Americans and its regional partners.. We’ve seen some problematic behavior from Saudi Arabia, but I do not believe it rises to that level.
Finally, in the Biden administration’s recently outlined National Security Strategy, the administration signaled that it is focused squarely on China and Russia and beginning to disengage militarily with the Middle East, as we’ve seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do you think this is the right move for American strategic interests? Or does it risk seeing the United States lose crucial influence in the Middle East?
Clearly, China is the major challenge facing United States going forward. This administration, like the last administration, has really started to implement the Pivot to Asia to focus on the challenge posed by China and the PRC. I think this is going to be a fundamental of US policy going forward for all administrations.
If that means that we’re leaving the Middle East, I don’t think that’s wise. I think we should leave some residual forces and equipment, and work with our allies to help improve their capabilities so they can do more by themselves with less US support. But we have to be present. We’ve seen that when we’re not present, not only can bad things happen, but our allies and our partners start to hedge. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has had China build a military port in their country, and China reportedly built a ballistic missile factory in Saudi Arabia..
I think it’s important that we still are the partner of choice. We have to show that we’re committed. What that looks like is up to the administration to ascertain, but I think for our partners and allies – they know it when they see it.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Interview conducted by Uri Guttman
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David Schenker is the Director of the Program on Arab Politics for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From June 2019 to January 2021, he served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, where he oversaw U.S policy and diplomacy for 18 countries in the Middle East. He has authored multiple books, including most recently, “Beyond Islamists and Autocrats: Prospects for Political Reform Post Arab Spring (2017).”
In recent years, economic relations between the United States and China have become increasingly strained due to a range of issues, including concerns over human rights violations and political tensions.