In light of the recent demonstrations in Iranian cities, one might think the Donald Trump administration would want to link Monday’s re-implementation of sanctions to the struggles of Iran’s freedom movement.
After all, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month detailed the corruption of the current regime in Tehran in a speech at the Reagan Library in California. In May, the Treasury Department implemented sanctions against Evin Prison, the dungeon where many demonstrators and activists end up after the Iranian authorities arrest them. As a senior US official told reporters Monday morning, “the Iranian people should not suffer because of their regime’s hegemonic ambitions.”
And yet the new punishments announced by the Treasury are blunt weapons that punish the entire Iranian economy, as opposed to more narrow measures that punish the regime. They bar any third party from transactions with Iranian entities involving gold, precious metals, aluminum, steel and coal. They prohibit any foreign commercial aviation sales to Iran.
These sanctions will no doubt further destabilize Iran’s already wobbling economy. They will accomplish an important objective in depriving Iran’s treasury of the funds it uses to finance its proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. But in the process, average Iranians will suffer, too. This is why many dissidents, such as the Nobel laureate Shirin Abadi, have opposed these kinds of sanctions before.
The US should consider some more targeted alternatives. One that almost all Iranian democracy advocates support is re-imposing penalties on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. The IRIB is the umbrella organization that controls the regime’s domestic and foreign propaganda. Last month, it was back in the news for broadcasting another forced confession -- this time a teenager who posted a video of herself dancing without wearing a head scarf.
More than 50 Iranian dissidents living abroad have signed a petition calling for Washington to re-impose the sanctions on the broadcaster. When I asked a senior US official Monday whether there were any plans to do so, the official engaged in a bit of gaslighting, saying, “the IRIB is already sanctioned, and I have no comment beyond that.” This is only true in the narrowest sense. Technically, the IRIB has been under sanctions since 2012. But since 2013, the State Department has steadily waived those measures, in part because of an agreement with Iran forged by the Barack Obama administration whereby Iran would stop jamming outside satellite networks in exchange for skirting the sanctions on its broadcasting arm.
Going after IRIB is just one way the president could align his administration’s policies with the current uprising in Iran. For example, Trump could reiterate what Pompeo said last week as he laid out conditions for a meeting between Trump and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, which included Tehran making “fundamental changes” in how it treats its people. A good start would be advocating the release of political prisoners such as Abdolfattah Soltani, a human rights lawyer who was temporarily furloughed this month to attend his daughter’s funeral. The US should also publicly back the dissidents’ calls for a referendum on the powers of Iran’s supreme leader.
The point of Trump’s demanding domestic reforms is not that it will spur the regime to act. Rather, it’s an important signal to the Iranian people, whose lives will become even harder as the re-imposed sanctions take effect. Along these lines, the administration should publicize the arrests of demonstrators in the last week, and impose travel bans and asset freezes on the senior Iranian security officials who ordered their detentions.
Another target should be the Telecommunication Company of Iran, which plays a large role in suppressing dissent. As the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has documented, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps effectively control TCI, which in 2012 purchased powerful technology from China that allows it to monitor the communications of activists. Designating TCI would pressure technology companies from Europe and elsewhere to cut ties with the Iranian Big Brother.
Such measures are not just ways to make the Trump administration feel good. They help make good on the promise of Trump’s and Pompeo’s own statements of solidarity. Despite the long odds against them, Iranians from all walks of life continue to protest the regime. They are the best allies the Western world has against a government that seeks to terrorize its neighbors into submission. One day, their movement will succeed -- and they will remember what the US and its allies did to help them.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. -- Ed.