The recent protests in Iran may be petering out, but the White House is ramping up its response to them. Last week, in tandem with his most recent decision to prolong the controversial 2015 Iran nuclear deal for another three months, President Trump opened a new front against the Islamic Republic by levying fresh human rights sanctions on a number of key regime figures and institutions.
The targets included Sadegh Amoli Larijani, the powerful head of Iran's Judiciary, who was blacklisted for "for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, the commission of serious human rights abuses against persons in Iran or Iranian citizens or residents." Sanctioned, too, were institutions like Iran's "Supreme Council of Cyberspace" and the cyberwarfare arm of Iran's clerical army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, both of which were complicit in limiting access to the internet during Iran's unrest.
The designations are noteworthy for at least three reasons.
First, they represent a fulfillment of administration promises. In the heyday of the uprising that swept over the Islamic Republic early in the new year, the Trump administration warned Iran's ayatollahs that they would face "consequences" if they tried to put down the demonstrations. The Iranian regime, however, did just that, launching a coordinated campaign of repression that has left nearly 4,000 behind bars to date and resulted in multiple incidents of torture and extrajudicial killing. The administration's new sanctions are clearly intended as penalties for this repressive conduct.
Second, the measures mark a notable evolution in administration thinking. Up until now, the White House has paid little attention to the plight of the Iranian people. Indeed, the Trump administration's "comprehensive" Iran strategy, unveiled by the president with considerable fanfare last fall, focused overwhelmingly on the regional and strategic threat posed by the Islamic Republic, and not on the Iranian regime's repressive domestic practices. By contrast, the latest tranche of sanctions reflects a new and welcome understanding of the transformative potential of Iran's "human terrain" and the need to support opposition forces there.
Lastly, the administration's fresh focus on human rights reflects a growing appetite for such pressure on the part of the American people. That sentiment is captured in a new survey by McLaughlin & Associates, which asked 1,000 likely general election voters whether they "approve or disapprove of the United States verbally supporting the right of Iranians to peacefully demonstrate against their regime and re-imposing economic sanctions to stop the regime from killing and imprisoning innocent Iranians." The results were unequivocal. "Approval to re-impose sanctions receives majority support in every region of the country," the study found. In fact, a healthy majority of respondents – 63 percent – supported the notion of new pressure specifically targeting the Iranian regime for its human rights abuses.
This sentiment, moreover, stretches across party lines. "Republicans support re-imposing sanctions 71%-12%; independents support 63%-14% and Democrats support as well 57%-20%," the McLaughlin study notes. In other words, in today's hyperpartisan political atmosphere, turning up the heat on the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism is one of the few foreign policy issues that both the Left and the Right can agree upon.
Which is why last week's human rights measures won't end up being an isolated incident. Rather, in the wake of the recent protests in Iran, the Trump administration appears to have grasped the fact that, ultimately, the future of the country will be decided on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities. It also seems to have understood that, when it comes to Iran's future, perhaps the most important role the United States can play is to stop the Iranian regime from preventing such forces from coalescing.