The U.S., its allies and individuals across the globe are struggling to support protesters in Iran in what observers say is a make-or-break moment that could tip the scales for regime change in Tehran.
President Biden said in early November that “we’re gonna free Iran. They’re gonna free themselves pretty soon.”
But outside experts say U.S. policy focused on diplomacy with Tehran over its nuclear program, and the disunity within and outside Iran, puts the favor in the hands of the nation’s current government.
“The problem is not only the foreign policy decisions of the U.S. There’s no united front on the end of the protest movement, there’s no leadership,” said Ceng Sagnic, chief analyst of TAM-C Solutions, a multinational private intelligence company.
Iran’s leaders have attempted to brutally suppress demonstrators that originally took to the streets protesting the death of Mahsa Amini, after she died in custody of the country’s “morality police.” Amini was detained for allegedly wearing her headscarf incorrectly.
Since then, protests have grown to include calls for the downfall of the country’s Islamic rulers.
At least 14,000 people are reported to have been arrested and hundreds are believed to have died in the demonstrations, including dozens of children. The youngest victim is believed to be nine years old.
“The Iranian government and the regime as a whole has the potential power to suppress the protest movement,” Sagnic said.
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley reacted to a recent CNN investigation saying that it documented “unspeakable acts of sexual violence by Iranian officials in detention centers.”
“It’s a reminder of what is at stake for the Iranian people – and of the lengths to which the regime will go in its futile attempt to silence dissent,” he tweeted.
The U.S., European Union and United Kingdom have imposed sanctions on individuals and entities they have identified as responsible for the violent crackdown on protesters. They’ve sought to ease restrictions on internet access to aid protesters who have had their service cut off.
Member-states of the United Nations are looking for ways to condemn and isolate the Islamic Republic, the ruling government of which came to power in 1979 following a revolution.
Outside Iran, individuals are working to maintain support for the protesters globally.
The Iranian national soccer team stayed silent when their national anthem played at the World Cup in Qatar, widely viewed as a sign of support for the protesters. Solidarity protests in Berlin, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., last month brought together tens of thousands of the Iranian diaspora and their supporters.
Shayda Gangi, an Iranian American living in D.C., helped launch an exhibit in Georgetown displaying protest art created over the past two months in an effort to keep attention on the struggle of the people of Iran.
“All these articles being written, all the people who come to these exhibits, and showcase this work, is so important and it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, which is to raise awareness and keep the spotlight on Iran,” she told The Hill.
The exhibit, which ran for three days, featured more than 100 pieces from artists all over the world, including Iranians living abroad, Italian and Israeli artists, and at least one artist from inside Iran, who sent her work with great secrecy, quickly deleting communication and even blocking the organizers at one point as a security precaution, Gangi said.
“I tried to put myself in her shoes and think, ‘would I do the same thing?’” Gangi said. “And I don’t know. She was scared and is in Iran, and it’s dangerous, but even with all of that, she was so happy to contribute to this event, and to do what she could do and to send her artwork to be shown.”
Sherry Hakimi, an Iranian American activist and founder and executive director of a nonprofit focused on gender equality, was one of five Iranian women invited to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top State Department officials in October to offer their advice on how the U.S. could best support protesters.
“I appreciate that senior U.S. leaders have been listening to the calls made by Iranians and Iranian Americans alike,” she told The Hill, but said governments need to be more innovative in how they think about aiding the protesters.
“These are unprecedented times – this is the first female-led revolution – so meeting the moment requires unprecedented measures.”
Hakimi said that on top of sanctions and efforts to hold the Islamic Republic accountable at the United Nations, countries should focus on providing health care assistance because injured protesters risk arrest if they seek care at a hospital.
“I want to see more health care-focused aid being sent to Iran, whether that’s through the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, or some other organization or mechanism. There are parts of Iran where people are no longer able to seek treatment, because the regime has made it impossible — either hospitals won’t treat them or if they do go to a hospital they can risk arrest, which makes things worse,” she said.
“To me, that seems like one of the most basic things.”
Human rights groups and news reports have documented accounts from protesters that they are avoiding hospitals for fear of arrest from security forces, and that the Iranian government is using ambulances to infiltrate protests and detain demonstrators.
The danger for protesters seeking medical help was echoed by Cameron Khansarinia, policy director for the nonprofit and nonpartisan National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI), which also helped sponsor the art exhibit in Georgetown.
“Protesting in Iran is not like protesting in any other country,” he said, referencing the extreme tactics of targeting protesters, the use of live ammunition, detentions, allegations of torture and killings.
NUFDI is advocating for the U.S. and other governments to explore setting up a “strike fund” to distribute the Islamic Republic’s frozen assets abroad among protesters who have their livelihoods threatened by the government.
“So providing, at least, a small modicum of financial support to allow these workers to go on strike and allow their families to have bread at the end of the day … are very tangible means by which a foreign government could empower the Iranian people,” he said, calling for governments to devise a “mechanism” to deliver such cash.
Khansarinia, like others interviewed for this article, described the protests as unprecedented for their massive scale in the face of extreme violence by security authorities.
The Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization has documented at least 416 people killed, and that includes 51 children. The rights group is also pointing to the government “systematically and disproportionately” targeting minorities in Iran, in particular in the “Baluch and Kurdish ethnic regions.”
The tactic is aimed at seeking to delegitimize the protests as an ethnic, separatist movement, private intelligence analyst Sagnic said.
“By increasing the oppression in the Kurdish areas, violent tactics, striking Kurdish Peshmerga bases in Iraq, trying to make it more an ethnic issue, something that separates Kurdish groups from the rest of Iran, which is a successful tactic, to be honest,” he said.
Gangi, who helped organize the Georgetown art exhibit, said that she feels this moment is different because of the scale of support from the international community.
“This is by far, in my personal experience following these things throughout the years, this is the first time I’ve seen this much support from not just the Iranian community and not just within Iran, but the global community,” she said.
“With what they’re doing within Iran, with the internet shutdowns, and all the violence — what we’re seeing outside is a small percentage of what’s happening there. I would really just ask everyone to continue to do what they’re doing, and keep the light on, on Iran.”