Crafting a U.S.-Iran Policy After the 2020 Election

A nonpartisan approach in Congress is essential for forming a cohesive long-term policy for the country.

By Ivan Sascha Sheehan and Ramesh Sepehrrad Oct. 29, 2020

WITH RECORD NUMBERS OF Americans actively casting their ballots to decide who will assume the presidency of the United States and serve as their elected representatives in both of houses of Congress – and with domestic concerns from COVID-19 to the economy and social unrest dominating headlines – it is easy to lose sight of looming foreign policy challenges that await U.S. leaders in 2021.

While Donald Trump or Joe Biden will face a range of global issues over the next four years, no security challenge is more urgent than the continued threat posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The five recommendations outlined below constitute a nonpartisan vision for sound policymaking on Iran in 2021 and beyond:

1. Prioritize the Iranian People, Not Their Leaders

U.S. policy on Iran must prioritize the people of Iran and their relentless pursuit of freedom. For too long, U.S. officials treated the authoritarian regime in Tehran as a fixture of the Middle East landscape and overestimated the use of negotiations as a tool for ensuring Iran’s compliance with international norms and containing the regime’s belligerence. Though there is disagreement about many of the actions taken by the current occupant of the White House, even those critical of the Trump administration acknowledge that the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign and, particularly the imposition of sanctions, have been effective “in the narrow sense of causing deep economic pain on Iran.”

State Department efforts to champion the voices of protesters have also emboldened the country’s domestic population and its expatriate community – both widely recognized as the worst victims of the regime’s political violence – by unleashing pro-democracy forces. U.S. officials should remain committed to facilitating conditions that weaken the regime through external pressure and must not return to a defensive posture under the next administration.

2. Emphasize Human Rights in Iran

Iran’s human rights record should be the principal focus of U.S. policy in 2021 and beyond. Naming and shaming those involved in arrests, torture, and executions – including the regime’s political, judicial, and security officials – is necessary to prevent further violence, including the execution of oppositionists who constitute the most credible architects of change in Tehran. To this end, U.S. officials should work with U.N. and European allies to facilitate international fact-finding missions to seek truth and justice for the victims of massacres that took place in 1988, 1999, 2009, and most recently in November 2018, when upwards of 1,500 protesters were executed for engaging in demonstrations against the ruling theocracy.

As called for in a bipartisan 2018 U.S. Senate Resolution, the U.S. should “work with the international community to ensure that violations of human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with and regarding Iran.” U.S. officials can begin by assembling a comprehensive list of Iranian officials who remain in power after having ordered or participated in political violence against their own people or against foreign targets – including Americans. Should the U.S. fail to hold these individuals accountable for their support of terrorism and human rights abuses, Tehran’s leaders will only be emboldened.

3. Enforce Sanctions Imposed on the Iranian Regime

The continued enforcement and full implementation of all sanctions designed to target regime officials, entities, and regional networks is imperative to ensure Iranian compliance with international laws and maintain U.S. national security interests. This will require sustained and deliberate attention by U.S. officials. The U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for Iran, Elliot Abrams, is correct that “foreign ministers do not decide to follow U.S. sanctions. It is up to tens of thousands or 50,000 corporate executives, corporate bankers’ and financial institutions’ lawyers who look at the issue and say, we are not going to take the risk.”

4. Bypass the Iran Lobby, Curtail Tehran’s Echo Chamber

Discredited talking points espoused by Tehran’s well-organized Washington lobby and attacks on pro-democracy dissidents undermine U.S. officials’ ability to access credible information. Oppositionists in Washington and around the world can be enlisted to uncover useful insights that could inform U.S. policy toward Iran since American policymakers and dissidents alike are victimized by disinformation amplified in a pro-Tehran echo chamber.

As Maryam Rajavi, head of Iran’s main opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), rightly notes: “The front companies, cultural and educational centers, religious associations and so-called mosques that are funded and supported by the Iranian regime are all centers that sustain the regime’s espionage and terrorist activities, and they must be exposed and closed down.” The next administration can benefit from a level and unbiased playing field offered to Iranian opposition groups in various outlets overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, particularly those that offer news and programming via radio, television, and the Internet. Curtailing the Iranian regime’s influence operations will serve U.S. security interests and undermine efforts to promote instability by ensuring access to reliable information.

5. Support Iran’s Pro-Democracy Activists

Formal and sustained engagement with Iran’s internal resistance should be established and technical aid and support for pro-democracy activists inside Iran should be prioritized to ensure that individuals engaged in uprisings can evade surveillance and censorship, connect, campaign, and mobilize domestically and internationally to topple the regime from within.

Iran’s theocratic leaders have a decadeslong history of using both overt and covert tactics to undermine U.S. interests, expand the regime’s violent arc of influence, and export fundamentalism. The next U.S. president will face a hostile regime bent on the pursuit of conventional and unconventional weapons, committed to instability operations that undermine U.S. security interests, engaged in continued suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations, and intent on subverting opposition to clerical rule at all cost.

U.S. elections are seldom referendums on foreign policy but the next American president – whomever it is – will undoubtedly be judged by how well they manage foreign affairs. An effective and muscular Iran policy will be of paramount importance.