On January 30, 2020, president of the Iran Policy Committee, Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan, spoke at a briefing – IRAN: What Next for U.S. Policy? – in the U.S. House of Representatives. Below is a transcript of Dr. Sheehan’s remarks at the event.
Good afternoon, everyone.
Thank you all for being here today. Thank you, Tom, (Tom Van Flein, Chief of Staff for Congressman Paul Gosar) for your kind introduction.
What Tom did not mention was that I actually first arrived on Capitol Hill in the mid -1990’s, twenty-plus years ago. I came to Washington as an intern for the great statesman from Florida, Senator Connie Mack. At the time, he was the third ranking member of the U.S. Senate. I admired him a great deal – particularly his willingness to work across the aisle. He did so in a spirit of bipartisanship and to seek common ground on important issues. My focus in those years was on international religious freedom – a topic that is still at issue around the globe.
But more than anything, I remember being in awe of this bicameral legislative body – the U.S. Congress. The buildings and the issues, the personalities and the history, and the importance of it all for the betterment of the human lives. I suspect that on your better days, you too are struck by this extraordinary institution that we gather in today.
As a faculty member that seeks to prepare public servants for careers in government, I’m still in awe of this institution. We may have our differences – and I know they seem particularly acute right now but we can never lose sight of the fact that many around the globe have no ability to contest their differences in open forums like the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate.
And, so, at the top of my remarks today, allow me to thank you for your service to our country. The issues that you choose to focus on have enormous consequences. Public policy is a noble endeavor and it matters. And this is particularly true when it comes to the matter before us today.
My task this afternoon is to speak to you about one of the most important and consequential issues of our time: U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. Let me be clear:
- Our collective decisions on Iran policy have peace and security implications for the U.S. and the world;
- Our collective decisions on Iran policy have consequences for regional stability in the Middle East;
- Our collective decisions on Iran policy have enormous significance for ordinary Iranians – a people that have suffered for far too long under the repressive authority of the ayatollahs.
Though the stakes are higher today and the consequences greater, for a number of reasons that we can discuss, the dangers posed by this regime are not new.
For more than four decades, global powers have born witness to the Islamic Republic’s:
- terrorism and repression,
- belligerence and hostilities,
- and fundamental disregard for human life.
Together we’ve witnessed the regime’s human rights abuses, hostage-takings, and proxy violence; we’ve seen arms shipments and the export of extremism.
But I can say with some degree of pride that, at least for the past fifteen years, the Iran Policy Committee, which was established in 2005, has been unwavering in its focus on educating the public about U.S. policy toward Iran, the regime’s malign activities, and the pro-democracy opposition.
Today you’ll hear me reference IPC scholarship undertaken by one of my colleagues, Professor Raymond Tanter – a scholar who served on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council during the Reagan White House and who taught for decades at the University of Michigan.
But just so there is no confusion: Under his watch, and now under mine, IPC was and continues to be a nonpartisan research organization.
This is because we strongly believe that U.S. policy on Iran need not be a partisan affair. This is so because the facts on Iran are not in dispute…
As the great Democrat from New York, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once memorably quipped: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
In setting the stage then, I’d like you to consider the following assessments by U.S. Government agencies and reputable non-profit organizations and their implications for policy:
- The State Department routinely chronicles the Islamic Republic’s destructive activities at home and abroad, both in government reports and via public statements.
The department has referred to the regime as “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” and called out Tehran for funding international terrorist groups.
One recent Country Report on Terrorism noted that Iran has spent nearly $1 billion dollars annually to “support terrorist groups that serve as its proxies and expand its malign influence across the globe.”
- The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, prepared by the Director of National Intelligence, flagged the Iranian regime’s regional ambitions and improved military capabilities and indicated that they will almost certainly threaten U.S. interests in the coming year.
The report specifically noted that in mid-2018, Belgium and Germany foiled an Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) plot to set off an explosive device at a gathering of the Iranian opposition in Paris—an event that I and many U.S. officials attended.
- Amnesty International, the world’s largest grassroots human rights organization, regularly condemns the regime’s disregard for human rights and has continued to be outspoken in 2019 and 2020.
Read Amnesty’s press releases and you’ll see myriad references to the regime’s brutal campaign of repression, massacres of protestors, arbitrary detentions, torture, and use of execution.
In recent months, Amnesty has been particularly critical in chastising the regime for arresting and detaining thousands of protesters.
- Freedom House, another nonpartisan NGO with a sterling reputation, again ranked Iran as among the “least free” in the world in their latest report.
How did they arrive as this conclusion?
Simply by examining the regime’s suppression of political rights, denial of civil liberties, and dismissal of fundamental freedoms.
- Transparency International, a watchdog agency that ranks countries according to their level of corruption, also paints a grim picture and, in its latest report, listed the country as among the most corrupt in the world.
- And, finally, the Index of Economic Freedom, an annual index maintained by the Heritage Foundation, again ranked the country in the bottom tier of 162 countries when it comes to economic liberalization.
These are not partisan assessments.
These are dispassionate, evidence-based observations and metrics.
Collectively, these assessments suggest a regime that is threatening the world and its own citizens, disregarding human rights, suppressing civil liberties, embracing corruption, strangling the marketplace, and therein threatening basic standards of living.
The critical questions become: What can be done and how should U.S. officials proceed?
To answer these questions, we must first acknowledge that the regime has reached an inflection point. Allow me to say a few words about the recent protests in Iran and their implications for U.S. policy:
A massive, months-long anti-regime uprising in Iran, that began in November, has revealed deep divisions between the Iranian people and the country’s ruling theocracy.
At the height of the uprising, in November and December 2019, the regime in Iran:
- killed more than 1,500;
- inured more than 4,000;
- and arrested more than 12, 000 people.
But in spite of the regime’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators, the protesters shook the Iranian regime to its core.
Media outlets around the world were quick to report on the massive demonstrations but what many journalists failed to note is that recent protests took on a more anti-government tone than at any point in recent memory.
It is clear to me that what we are witnessing is a new age of defiance in Iran.
Slogans such as “death to the dictator” are being chanted in the streets and leaving little doubt about the public’s appetite for regime change.
Protesters are openly blaming and challenging the IRGC, the regime’s power base for decades.
Iranians are chanting ‘No to oppressor, be it the Shah, or the supreme leader,’ and drawing a line between the past and the present and looking toward a democratic future.
Scholars, like myself, are increasingly concluding that the tide has turned against the clerics and the Iranian regime is facing crises from all directions.
The regime now faces greater pressure from both inside and outside its borders than at any point since its inception in 1979.
The broad discontent on the Iranian street will not evaporate simply because unrest has been put down by suppressive forces.
I am prepared to predict today that continued widespread protests will persist so long as this regime is left intact.
Which brings me to a key take-away for leaders in this body:
Senior U.S. officials would be wise to acknowledge that Iran’s theocratic rulers do not represent the Iranian people…
…and U.S. officials should formally recognize the people’s desire to topple the religious dictatorship that rules over them.
Supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom and democracy could further catapult the demonstrations.
Now in making these declarations, I realize that I am inserting myself into a larger debate between two opposing camps.
There are some here in Washington that believe that there is a military solution to the Iran threat.
I do not share this conviction.
There are some here in Washington that believe that diplomatic engagement is a feasible alternative.
Allow me to suggest a new way of thinking about the challenges posed by Iran.
For too long, U.S. officials have accepted the false dichotomy between kinetic military action and unending diplomatic engagement.
These are not the only options when it comes to Iran.
Neither war or appeasement is the answer.
After 9-11, I became one of the first scholars to embark on what was called evidence-based counterterrorism policy.
What I found, with a degree of empirical certainty based on quantitative analysis, was that preemptive force has unintended consequences and sometimes make worse the problems it is meant to solve.
But neither was I convinced that the appeasement of rogue regimes was sufficient to curtail the problem of terrorism.
I began studying the Iranian opposition and one group stood out to me as highly organized and immensely capable: The National Council of Resistance of Iran, led by Maryam Rajavi, and its largest opposition group, the MEK.
I have now studied these organizations for more than a decade, written extensively about their trials and tribulations, and can say with absolute certainty that if ever there was a movement that could spearhead regime change from within, this is it.
The NCRI and the MEK are widely regarded as the most credible alternative to clerical rule.
Whereas some oppositionists represent only incremental change, the NCRI and the MEK stand for real change.
Since November alone, MEK Resistance Units have used their organizing prowess to spearhead upwards of 790 individual protests in more than 190 cities across the country.
I encourage every U.S. official to review the NCRI’s 10-Point Plan, which features the establishment of a free and fair elections, secular governance, legal protections for women and minorities, and calls for a non-nuclear republic that is at peace with her neighbors and world powers.
With a platform like this, is it any wonder that an IPC study undertaken several years ago found that Tehran pays more attention to the NCRI and the MEK than all other opposition groups combined.
We know that in recent months, senior Iranian officials – including the Supreme Leader himself – has publicly credited the movement with leading and organizing the 2019 uprising that crippled the regime from within.
This summer, after years of studying the movement from afar, I had the great privilege of joining a bipartisan delegation of senior U.S. officials who embarked on a fact-finding mission at Ashraf 3, the MEK’s new home in Albania.
Our U.S. delegation included four-star generals, Democrats and Republicans, independents, liberals, conservatives, foreign policy experts, sitting members of Congress, former cabinet members, ambassadors, intelligence experts, military officers, governors, academics, and noted human rights advocates.
During our trip we gathered firsthand insights about the principal opposition to clerical rule.
We concluded what scholars have long understood but policymakers have been reluctant to acknowledge:
The ayatollahs are not permanent fixture of the Middle East landscape;
The regime fears internal threats more than it does external pressure;
And freedom in Iran is within reach.
What our delegation witnessed was truly extraordinary and deeply promising.
We saw with our own eyes a cohesive, organized political opposition movement, with a long history of struggle against fundamentalism and dictatorship, guided by gifted female leadership, with a well-defined political platform, and an intricate network of passionate supporters inside Iran and across the globe. It was like looking into Iran’s democratic future.
During our visit with residents of Ashraf 3 we encountered evidence of both horrific acts of tyranny by the regime…
We walked through exhibits and toured a museum that displayed in painstaking detail the regime’s abuses.
…but we also witnessed valiant acts of resistance and courage by the people of Iran.
Our observations are more important than ever before – and particularly for your work in the U.S. Congress.
For decades, Washington has regrettably ignored the most vital aspect of an effective Iran policy:
The Iranian people themselves.
During our visit we were given unfettered access to the camp’s facilities and residents.
I want to share one brief story with you that exemplifies what we saw during our 5-day stay.
Several of us had attended large gatherings – sometimes involving more than 100,000 Iranians in Europe – but many of us had never met the actual residents of Ashraf for whom we had long spoken out.
After a long day of speeches, panel discussions, and media appearances in Albania, the members of our delegation were invited to a dinner that was hosted by the young woman at Ashraf 3.
The women we encountered that night were gracious and intelligent, cosmopolitan and independent, confident and deeply committed.
The woman we encountered told stories of the unspeakable horrors they and their families had encountered at the hands of ayatollahs.
They spoke of the regime’s torture and executions, human rights abuses and violence.
But these women didn’t want our pity. They wanted solidarity.
We witnessed their bravery, courage, resilience, and their abiding commitment to the cause of freedom.
I will never forget that night.
All of us were inspired and humbled by what we saw. And each of us was reminded that evening that U.S. policy has human consequences.
Following our trip, I went to the American delegation and I told them that I want to write a book about what I had witnessed over the course of 5 days with the opposition.
The leaders of the American delegation looked me in the eyes and said:
We want you to write a book about what WE ALL SAW!
That book – titled Iran’s Resurgent Resistance – is now officially in print and we have courtesy copies for everyone that is in attendance here today.
I am immensely grateful to have received valuable contributions to the book from a bipartisan group of senior officials:
Senator Joe Lieberman wrote the book’s Preface;
Senator Robert Torricelli and Ambassador Robert Joseph, a former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, wrote the book’s Foreword;
Colonel Wesley Martin, Senior Antiterrorism Officer for All Coalition Forces – Iraq, wrote the book’s Afterword.
And the book has received strong endorsements from officials like former FBI Director Louis Freeh and First Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.
I hope all of you will have an opportunity to read it and that you will share it with your legislative colleagues, as well.
At the outset of my remarks I noted that public policy has consequences.
I dedicated this book to those struggling for freedom in Iran and around the world.
And I’m here to implore each of you not to sit on the sidelines or be neutral observers.
None of us can afford to pretend like the evidence that I’ve outlined today does not exist.
Though there are many reasons the world to be concerned with Tehran’s violent arc of influence…
…nothing compares to the horrors experienced by the Iranian people at the hands of their own rulers.
For forty years, U.S. officials have been hesitant to challenge the regime’s status as a fixture of the Middle East landscape based on the false assumption that there is no viable alternative to clerical rule.
But with domestic unrest reaching an acute stage and demonstrations reaching a fever pitch, the falsity of this assumption has been laid bare.
Moreover, this book demonstrates that there is a democratic alternative for Iran and it has moved the existing regime closer to overthrown than ever before.
Each of us is involved in public policy – whether as scholars or as public servants – to make a difference.
At this defining moment, U.S. officials must speak with one voice.
We must do everything we can to exert pressure on Tehran’s repressive institutions by protecting and supporting Iran’s pro-democracy opposition.
If there are ways for us to work together on this important endeavor, I hope you will seek me out.
Because whether it’s providing assessments of Iran policy issues, preparing briefs for the officials you serve, considering legislative opportunities, or co-authoring op-eds, I believe we have important work that we can do across party lines to uphold the cause of freedom and improve the human condition.
Thank you for joining me here today.
I look forward to your questions and comments.