Panelists discuss the implications of the recent human rights protests in Iran for the nation’s domestic political regime, U.S.-Iran relations, and the wider Middle East geopolitical landscape.
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BUECHE: Good evening. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Carrie Bueche and I’m the director of Washington meetings here at CFR.
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And I’d like to turn things over to our moderator, Henry Rome, who’s a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
ROME: Thanks very much, Carrie. And good evening, everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Young Professionals Briefing, “After the Protests: Human Rights in Iran.” I’m Henry Rome, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.
On stage with me and virtually, we have three fantastic speakers. The first, Nazanin Boniadi— who, if you follow Iran, you know who she is. If you don’t follow Iran, there’s a good chance you also know who she is, given her acting career—ambassador for Amnesty International UK, and also a CFR member.
On screen, we have Suzanne Kianpour, who is being a trooper up very late—or very early, I should say—in Dubai. She is the creator and host of Women Building Peace on the BBC, an adjunct senior fellow at the Middle East Security program at the Center for New American Security, and a CFR term member.
And finally, onstage, we have Alex Vatanka, the director of the Iran program and senior fellow at the Black Sea program at the Middle East Institute.
Why don’t we start off here. I think, around this time of year, Jews celebrate Passover, and you ask, why is this night different from every other night? And when we talk about the protests in Iran over the past seven months, I want to start off asking each panelist, why were these protests different from other protests that we’ve seen in Iran? And what is the trajectory looking like over the next seven months?
So, Nazanin, please.
BONIADI: Thanks for having me, it’s great to be here with you all.
You know, Iranians are no strangers to mass protests. We’ve had them—they’ve had them in the country once every decade: the 1990 student protests, the 2009 Green movement, and the Bloody November protests of 2019.
But I think what sets this uprising, this revolution, this woman, life, freedom revolution apart, is the fact that the spark in the engine has been women. Of course, the spark of it being Mahsa Amini’s murder in custody because of violations, supposed violations of compulsory hijab. But also, the first group of people who really galvanized
Iranian society at large to this pro-democracy movement were women and girls taking to the streets, taking off their compulsory hijabs, burning their hijabs, cutting their hair in protest, dancing in the streets, girls as young as twelve saying, we don’t want an Islamic republic, while unveiling.
It’s really unprecedented. Their courage was contagious, and what it did is it galvanized Iranian society at large, as I mentioned. All marginalized groups across, you know, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, LGBTQ, students, labor unions, you name it, all sectors of society coming together in what has become a broad-based, pro-democracy revolution.
Suzanne, over to you. Same question.
KIANPOUR: So, I echo Nazanin’s sentiments, that what makes this time different, knowing that protests are not—Iran is no stranger to protests—what makes this time different is, in fact, that it is being led by women.
I wrote about this in my Politico piece called “The Women of Iran Are Not Backing Down,” which I actually interviewed Nazanin for, in that piece. And I talked about how, in the early days after the murder of Mahsa Amini, I was speaking to a U.S. intelligence official about how the people that they were speaking to inside Iran were all saying that this time felt different. And this official, who was an expert on Iran, said, oh, we’ve seen this so many times. And I said this time is different, precisely because the women are leading it.
And now, you know, we’re obviously—you know, this started in September, and now it’s April. And I do constantly get asked, well, what’s going to happen? It seems things have died down. But these acts of defiance against the authorities continue, to the point where, you know, the authorities feel the need to up the surveillance methods that they have towards tracking down women who are not abiding by the hijab law—which, again, isn’t actually anything new. I wrote about this in my piece, as well. A woman told me about a time that she was sitting behind the traffic light, and her hijab fell down. And a couple of weeks later, she got summoned down to the police station, being told that her—you know, she hadn’t abided by the hijab laws, and that if she did it again, she would end up in prison. And this was before the Mahsa Amini murder, and the subsequent protests.
So, what we’re seeing is a continuation of what’s been happening. It’s just the world is now paying attention to it. So, I don’t think that—I don’t see this dying down.
ROME: Got it.
And Alex, do you agree?
VATANKA: Sure. I do. And thank you for inviting me. It’s great to be here.
I think Nazanin and Suzanne have pretty much laid the ground really nicely. There isn’t much for me to say in terms of what’s going on in Iranian society.
You know, I do—as someone who’s been watching Iran daily for the last twenty-some years—and I’m originally from Iran, although I can’t go back, as you can imagine—but as somebody who watches that place, I do have this burning question: How long can this regime stay the course?
And let me just put this issue of forced veil in context. As far as I know, there are two countries in the world right now where you have the law on forced veil: the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Now, I can guarantee you, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei does not want to compare to the Taliban in Afghanistan. But that’s where he is. That’s what the regime has become. And I can tell you, the Iranian society of 85 million people—this huge country in the Middle East, the size of Alaska, three times the size of France—is not, in terms of its civil society, in terms of the aspiration of the people—the Taliban next door is not their role model. And Islamic Republic rulers know this very well.
Now, the irony then is, you have the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shia theocracy, in power since 1979, billions of dollars literally every month, in terms of income, where they could go out there and tell the young, listen, you know, this is our religious narrative, why don’t you join the bandwagon? And they’ve tried, and they’ve repeatedly, for forty-four years, failed.
So instead, what they’ve managed to do is, Iranian youth are leaving religion, in many cases, converting to other religions. Christianity is probably—if I was in the business of spreading the Gospel, I would say Iran is fertile ground. Because politicized religion in that—in that country has turned the youth, certainly, off. And we’re talking about Gen Z generation, 7-8 million people. This is a formidable class of people who are just politically maturing, so they’re not going to go anywhere.
And what you have, Henry, is you have this sort of—it’s almost comical. Ayatollah Khamenei, this eighty-three-year-old supreme leader, who is supposedly God’s man on Earth—and I’m not going to sit there and question that. But what I do question is, in order for him to force the veil on women, he is relying on technology, surveillance technology coming in from Communist China, or techniques that they’re learning from the Russian Orthodox Christian system that Vladimir Putin today represents. I don’t see how this is going to be lasting.
I see—basically, what I think is going on, in terms of Khamenei, there’s one driver behind all of this: staying power. Suppress, suppress, suppress. If you give up on the forced veil, tomorrow, they’ll ask you, why don’t you, you know, compromise with the Americans? Or, God forbid, why don’t you recognize Israel? And the list of things that people will demand will be so long, that by the time the system is done compromising, there is no Islamic Republic left.
That’s why I think—they know Iranians don’t put—want to put on the veil. You know, you go to Iran, you go to any sort of society, people don’t put on the veil, just because that is how our society is today. It was different a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, even. But I think—this is, for me, is, can you stay the course? And I—we can get into it, Henry, there are a lot of ways of measuring it. But I’m doubtful the regime can sustain being in power for much longer.
ROME: Yeah. Thank you.
And I want to stay on the point about mandatory hijab. And Alex—and Suzanne mentioned, as well—the use of technology, and the ways that the government is evolving in its ways of enforcing that.
And I want to turn to Suzanne, actually, to go back to a comment you made, about using traffic cams to enforce. And this, at least based on the latest comments out of Iran, is the new kind of model, of using technology, using cameras and other surveillance equipment, and then denying women services, if they’re—if they are—if they are caught not abiding by the mandatory hijab.
So I was curious, Suzanne, if you could talk a little about that, as well as how you see the kind of protest evolving, when it’s transitioning from a kind of confrontation with the morality police as a—as a flashpoint, to a more bureaucratized, systematized way of enforcing these restrictions.
KIANPOUR: Well, look, they are trying to make it as difficult as possible for the women of Iran to not abide by the hijab law. I mean, just today, Iranian state TV was reporting that women who don’t wear the hijab will not
be allowed to take the metro, which, obviously, a lot of women need to take the metro in order to go to work, and sustain their families, in some cases. So, they’re making things as difficult as they possibly can.
I mean, but conversations that I’ve been having have evolved around all kinds of questions, like, OK, if they have this increased technology to use facial recognition to catch women who aren’t wearing hijab, then why aren’t they using that same advanced technology to use CCTV to catch the people who are responsible for the schoolgirl poisonings? Which, just on Sunday, there were—nine schools were reported attacked. So you know, people are seeing this, and they’re just not really buying the propaganda anymore, on a larger scale.
And I mean—and it’s always—for me, it’s interesting, the reactions from the men. I got a message when this story broke, about the—installing the cameras, from an Iranian man who goes back and forth in the region. He’s a businessman. And I’m going to read his text. He said, they have children scavenging for food in garbage, girls becoming prostitutes because they can’t find a job, genius university graduates risking their lives to escape the country. But no, by all means, let’s install surveillance cameras to arrest women not wearing hijab.
So, the kind of hypocrisy is not lost on the public. And therefore, yes, there is clearly—it’s clear that there is concern about maintaining power. So, when you’re concerned about your—the strength of your control of power, let’s crack down on the women. So, they’re basically showing their hand, in terms of how insecure they feel about how strong they are, as a government.
ROME: Thank you.
And Nazanin, I want to pivot a bit to questions of U.S. policy. I think we have a lot of either current or aspiring U.S. policymakers in the room, or—and watching online.
And the kind of U.S. government’s viewpoint on this is that it can do kind of two things at once: It can support human rights in Iran by levying sanctions against human rights abusers, calling attention to Iranian abuses, while at the same time, attempting to counter Iran’s nuclear program by conducting negotiations with the regime, that would ultimately result—if they were to succeed—in the unfreezing of numerous economic resources for the government.
Do you see both of those goals as attainable? Or rather, are they in conflict, from your point of view?
BONIADI: Let’s answer it this way—it’s a great question. I think, you know, we’ve now had a forty-four-year case study on the Islamic Republic. And what has become abundantly clear is, you know, as Bill Clinton, former President Bill Clinton said, there’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America. The opposite of that is true about Iran. The very pillars of the system ensure that its wrongs cannot be made right.
So, the idea of reform in Iran is one that’s dead. Even former reformist Mousavi—who is under house arrest and was head of the reform revolution of 2009—has said that the reform movement is dead, that this regime is not reformable.
So, with that in mind, I think this idea that you can negotiate with this regime, that you can trust this regime, also is dead. If it doesn’t—this regime doesn’t have any legitimacy with its own people. So, while there are historic cases of managing arms control deals, say, with Soviet Russia, while condemning the Soviets in the Reagan era, I think, in this moment, the difference is that you have a regime that is illegitimate in the eyes of its people, and is irreformable. And what do you do with that? You have mass uprisings for democracy in Iran.
It isn’t a nuclear Iran that the U.S. and the West is fearful of; it’s a—it’s a nuclear Islamic Republic. And so, if the goal of the people of Iran is—if the aspirations are a secular democracy, the safest way, the best thing,
outcome, for the world, for the international community, is to have a secular, democratic Iran. And I think the safest bet for us is to invest in civil society in Iran to attain that goal.
ROME: Got it.
Alex, do you want to—do you want to add to that?
VATANKA: I share the hope, absolutely. And you know, you can answer that question—me, as the Iranian-born fellow, who wants to be able to jump on a direct flight from Dulles to Tehran and go up to the Caspian, where I used to go and learn to swim; me as the American citizen, who needs to prioritize what America needs to invest in—I mean, you’d get different answers.
So, I would say this, though. I agree, to the extent that certainly, a secular, democratic Iran would be almost—at least, an opportunity to reverse the damage the Islamic Republic did to the Middle East since 1979, when it brought about the Islamist model, the militant Islamist model that Khomeini brought. I think a secular, democratic Iran today could do a lot to help to reverse that process, to undo as much of the damage. Because I think, fundamentally, it has been damaging to the region.
But I’ve been working on Iran in D.C. for seventeen years. I can tell you—and I would love to hear you because I think you’ve done it for a long time, too, and all of us—but where is that consistent American policy on Iran? I don’t see it. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat, or a Republican.
Unfortunately, in this town, in this country, foreign policy has become so partisan. So, you’d get an answer from a Democrat on what to do with Iran, they defend the 2015 nuclear deal. And if you’re a Republican, you defend President Trump’s maximum pressure. And both of them had major flaws in them, right? But it becomes almost a tribal issue. And that’s the big problem this country has, I see, as a—as a naturalized citizen. So I have to be careful, I get emotional, I get. But you would hope that when it comes to American national interests out there, there are some basic, core issues that Democrats, Republicans, would agree on. I don’t see that on Iran. Maximum pressure was the opposite of the previous Democratic administration had achieved. And unless you get to a point where you can agree, what is it that we want to get out of an Iran deal—and God knows, the United States has had plenty of time to come up with a solution since 1979, right? And it doesn’t happen. And today, it’s not going to happen, I’ll tell you what, because American public opinion, the last thing they want to know is to go on and pick up another fight in the Middle East.
So, I think, actually, we’re kind of getting to a point where we’re going to accept a nuclear Iran. We’re not going to say it; they’re not going to produce a weapon; but they’re going to become a Japan, of sorts. They’re going to have everything in place if they want to weaponize, and we’re not going to do anything about it as long as they don’t embarrass the United States publicly. Because right now, the U.S. is busy in Ukraine; the U.S. is going to be busy, plenty, with Taiwan and China.
So, I don’t want to, you know, be the guy with a—with a pessimistic view on this. I share the sentiment, but I really don’t see folks in this town spending a lot of hours thinking, how do we come up with a genius Iran policy, where we get what we want in the long term? I wish they did, but I don’t see it.
I want to turn to Suzanne in just a second, and ask about the view from where you are, from the region.
But I want to ask Alex—just picking up on the point about Iran’s external environment right now. And I think what we’ve been talking about has been very much about the internal turmoil. But I could make a case that the external environment that Iran faces in the region right now is actually quite constructive, from its point of view, from a normalization deal detente, as it were, with Saudi Arabia; Israel is consumed with its own crises;
the United States is focused on China and Russia; Europe is focused very closely at home. Am I wrong? Is Iran looking outwards in a—in a—in a stronger position than it has been in a little while?
VATANKA: You know, that’s what the Iranian foreign ministry is putting out there every day, how wonderful things are going. To me, Iran is isolated. To me, Iran is punching way below its potential. It should be twenty—top twenty economy in the world; it’s not. It shouldn’t be the second-most sanctioned country in the world today after Russia; it is. It shouldn’t be a country where—you know, 1979, Iranians around the world were the kind of folks you would see in a place like Washington, D.C. universities: they all studied to go home, because that’s where we wanted to live. Today, you got a 6-7 million diaspora of Iranians around the world.
I always joke, we say we’ve overtaken the Lebanese and the Armenians in becoming the biggest diaspora from the Middle East. We’re almost becoming Irish, in terms of the numbers that we’re sending out, right? (Laughter.)
So, why? Why do people leave? Because things aren’t great at home. And that has been true for a long time. This is a country that literally sits on trillions of dollars of just oil and gas, never mind everything else they have. And they’re not using it.
So, no, I think there are—Henry, they have friends, friends like Russia, which is a direct competitor for Iranian oil and gas markets, friends like China, that gets Iranian oil happily at a 10 percent discount, because why wouldn’t you take that 10 percent discount? So, they’re looking after themselves. Yes, there’s the anti-Americanism that brings Russia, and China, and others, Venezuelas of this world, together. But this is not exactly creating jobs for the Iranians back home, who are getting on boats to flee the country to as far away as Australia. That, to me, suggests a failed foreign policy.
And I’ll tell you what: Unless they fix their foreign policy, their economy is never going to be fixed. You cannot be the Japan of this world economically if you have the foreign policy of North Korea, right? You got to make bridges to the rest of the world. You’ve got to deal with the nuclear issue, you’ve got to talk to Washington. You got to talk to the Europeans. Russia and China will help Iran—a cliche, if you don’t mind—help Iran survive, but if you want to thrive, if you’re Iran, that’s not enough.
ROME: I like the idea of—you often hear the Japan model in a nonproliferation context, but there is the other part of the Japan model, which is having an integrated and prosperous country.
Suzanne, you’ve reported from across the region, and you’re there now. Could you share a bit about the kind of regional view of either the protests or just kind of Iran’s regional activities, as it stands today?
KIANPOUR: Well, it’s interesting—to follow on, kind of, Alex’s point, about the diaspora. I mean, I—there’s obviously a lot of Iranians here in Dubai. And I often hear people say that part of Dubai’s success is precisely because of the failures in Iran. I mean, I am literally sitting seventy kilometers from the other side of the Persian Gulf from Iran. That’s like the distance between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
But—so further on that, kind of taking a wider look at where we are in the region, I mean, obviously, the Iran-Saudi detente, so to speak, kind of took people by surprise. When I had conversations with people familiar with, kind of, the—close to the Saudi foreign minister, who were quite hawkish until now, when it came to Iran—so it seemed like a bit of a sudden turn, right? They said, look, it’s—it all comes down to Saudi national security. And so, you know, for whatever reason, they decided that it was time to kind of bury the hatchet with Iran, and try and find a bit of stability and peace in the region.
But I agree with Alex, in the sense that Iran still is isolated. I don’t think—I haven’t seen so far any indication that this is anything more than just a kind of thawing of relations between Saudi and Iran. It doesn’t—it doesn’t look like they are necessarily becoming friends, like, there’s still very much a lot of suspicion.
But it’s also really interesting. When I have been in Saudi in the past couple of months—and I have to add that these questions are asked in kind of hushed tones—but they often ask, kind of, it must be really difficult, or is it really difficult for the Iranian people to see Saudi Arabia flourishing in departments like art and culture, when Iran has such a rich of history of culture?
And, I mean, the answer is yes.
So—I mean, it’s an interesting time, being here right now. And we’ll kind of see how things develop, particularly with the kind of burgeoning Saudi-Israel security relationship, that they don’t publicly admit, but we know is kind of percolating behind the scenes. So, we’ll see what that means with Iran and Israel’s shadow war, a topic of a long—hour-long documentary that I presented, you all should look up, Out of the Shadows, very interesting comments from former head of the Mossad in there about their continued operations in Iran. Yeah, so I would say stay tuned.
ROME: Got it. Got it.
Just a warning that we’re going to start turning to the audience for questions in just a moment. So, get your questions together, and get them sorted in your head, both here and online.
But I wanted to ask just before we head there, Nazanin, the—Alex mentioned the kind of Democrat-Republican split on this, and you’ve been extremely active in meeting with senior U.S. officials, and all over the world, really.
But just focusing on the U.S., what have you noticed, or what has—have your observations surprised you, about how, kind of, U.S. officials look at Iran, or folks from different sides of the aisle? Have you had any kind of interesting takeaways from the past seven months, or so?
BONIADI: Well, I mean, I’ve been in this space for fifteen years. And I agree with Alex in the sense that this—the Iran issue is very—it’s very polarized.
BONIADI: And, you know, I think, at the end of the day, it’s become more of a, dare I say it—a Republican issue. You know, this sort of fighting for democracy is something that has sort of become partisan, in a way. And everyone has political expediency. Both sides of the aisle are fighting for their own, sort of—as you said—protecting the nuclear deal, reviving the nuclear deal, and the other side, maximum pressure, right?
So, it shouldn’t be. This shouldn’t be one side or the other. What I’ve found is with this administration, there’s been a real willingness to help. Whether that’s materialized as fast as we’d like is another issue, but we’re still working on it. But a number of things have come about, and I’d like to touch on, which is, when I met with the administration in October, soon after that, we had an Arria-Formula session at the U.N. Security Council, at which I spoke. That really resonated with the people inside Iran.
We also asked for the Islamic republic to be kicked off the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. We were told that that would not be possible; it’s unprecedented. It was unprecedented. And yet, I think the Iranian community came together, and made it possible. And that was something that was asked for by the people, women’s rights defenders, inside Iran. It wasn’t something we outside, or the U.S. administration, spearheaded. And of course, there was the U.N. Human Rights Security Council fact-finding mission that got approved, and we’re waiting to see the outcome of that.
So, there have been positive steps, and unprecedented steps, that have taken place. And what it’s done, for me, is it’s brought both sides together for the first time. This is no longer just a, you know, well, this side wants, you
know—essentially, a lot of people said, you just want to go to war with Iran, and this side just wants to appease Iran. And now, we find a coming-together of both sides, hopefully, with the understanding that the main thing that we should all focus on is exactly what our Founding Fathers here focused on, which is, basically, human rights and our rights to freedom and democracy.
ROME: All right.
Let’s turn to the room first for questions. Just a reminder that this whole meeting and your questions are on the record.
All right. We have a hand raised right up front.
Q: Good afternoon, or good evening, everyone. So, my name is Nick DeMassi. I’m with American University. I also work at the Treasury Department.
So, my question refers to a comment that Suzanne made earlier about propaganda, although it’s directed at any of you. So, these protests, a couple of you have referenced that they may seem different now than past ones. So, what is the role of government propaganda in these protests? Because when I hear propaganda, these days, it does make me think a lot about Russia. So, is it similar to what may be going on in Russia, in terms of government propaganda trying to influence the narrative? And how does it matter that Iran is probably more connected to the outside world than it was in past protests?
KIANPOUR: I can start.
ROME: Thank you. Suzanne, please.
KIANPOUR: I’ll start on this, because I actually came across a rather interesting video on Instagram, because, you know, if the Green revolution of 2009 was the Twitter revolution, this revolution, Woman, Life, Freedom, is definitely an Instagram revolution. And the Iranian regime has picked up on that. And now, they’re kind of doing their sort of counter-narratives.
And so, I saw this video, which was basically a chadari woman—so, a woman in the kind of full black veils—transforming into a ninja. And so, it was supposed to be kind of emblematic of a powerful woman, so a woman in hijab is powerful, which I had never seen that before. I thought that was interesting.
But I do have to—kind of in line with—I mean, propaganda is effectively—is government messaging, or any kind of messaging, any message that you want to put across to the world, or to your people, or to influence the lever.
And I also wrote about this in my piece, about a conversation I had with a very senior regime official, one who is familiar with the supreme leader’s thinking, who had actually told the supreme leader this, that they needed to evolve their thinking on how they approach women, and forcing women to wear hijab, which is something we’ve seen reporting on this, that there were members of the government that said that hijab should not be mandatory.
But the kind of—I guess, in line with the propaganda, is that if we don’t force women to wear hijab, they’ll be more inclined to wear hijab, because the Iranian woman is najeeb, which is, like, “chaste.” I guess that’s the translation.
So, it’s a—I mean, propaganda and messaging and their form of public diplomacy is a major part of how they have governed for the last forty-four years.
ROME: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.
Alex, Nazanin, anything to add?
VATANKA: Very quickly—I mean, on hijab, I—you know, there’s lots of money being spent by the Iranian national TV and radio. I mean, nobody really watches it. One of the reasons—(inaudible)—Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, there are lots of reasons why they decided to talk. But one of the Iranian demands is that, you know, you stop supporting Iranian Farsi, or Persian language media operations, because they were so successful. Iranians don’t want their own state-run TV, except if you are a member of the about 10, 15 percent of Iranians who still support this regime. And we can break down, if people are interested, in what that 10, 15 percent stands for. But my point is, the propaganda on issues like culture, social issues, is not working.
Where I would be more mindful, certainly if I’m sitting in Washington and watching Iranian operations as part of a bigger operation being conducted by what we call today, in this town, the anti-democracies, the authoritarian regimes, you see a lot of overlap of what the Russians, the Chinese, and others are doing. You saw that—for example, take the last big example, the pandemic. I mean, if you were out there following the narrative on what the pandemic was about, the role of the United States, all the conspiracies, theories out there, the Russian, the Chinese, and the Iranian talking points at times were almost as if somebody wrote it just in three different languages.
So you’re going to watch out for the propaganda side of things, but just don’t think it’s working so well for the Iranian regime at home, because the Iranian people have had to listen to it for forty-four years, and they know how to ignore it.
We will stay in the room, please raise your hand.
VATANKA: What’s the alternative, Henry? (Laughter.)
ROME: You’ll have to deal with my questions for longer.
Q: Hello, I’m Lilli Posner from the National Endowment for Democracy.
And my question is, right, authoritarian regimes, dictatorships, they’re very brittle. They look super strong until that moment when they aren’t.
So what, in your estimation—and I—obviously, you can’t predict the future—what would be the thing to make it crumble? Is it a grassroots initiative like the one we just saw? Is it elite fracture? Is it some sort of foreign policy-related event, all of the above? But how do you think, right—what is the breaking point that lets Iran become the secular democracy we would all like to see it be?
ROME: That’s a great question. Nazanin.
BONIADI: Yeah. I think—I think what’s needed is, of course, pressure from below—which is what you’re seeing, people taking to the streets—and fissures at the top. We are seeing fissures. People think we’re not
seeing fissures. We are seeing fissures. There was a great piece by Vice News showing that the Basij—actually, there are members of the Basij that are defecting. What happens to them is that they get sent off to undisclosed locations and probably tortured. And unfortunately, that’s what’s happening, as with any dissident, or anyone who raises their voice in opposition to what the regime is doing.
But I think—really, I think, I’d like to focus, really, on the female element here, because history shows us that every time women have been a central part of these—participate in a central way in these movements, the chance of them succeeding is higher. In fact, there was a great piece in Foreign Affairs on, when—Iranian women on the frontlines—just last year, that talked about this.
And I think the margin between success and failure, obviously, is very slim. And what—the responsibility that we have, as the international community, is to tip that in favor of the protestors. And of course, there’s a number of ways we can do that: ensuring internet access; you know, some people would say, designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization; ensuring that the regime and their cronies don’t have safe havens in the West; and a number of other measures. Some people have suggested strike funds, and how we can circumvent, maybe, the sanctions in order to provide that to people inside Iran, or provide exemptions.
And—but really, the regime has lost legitimacy with its own people. What it’s doing in the region, trying to normalize its relationship with Saudi Arabia, maybe have China replace U.S. influence in the region, really doesn’t—that legitimacy cannot be conferred to it by outside powers.
So, I think, if we can manage, as the international community, to at least tip that balance in favor of the protestors, the—I don’t think this regime really has a leg to stand on.
VATANKA: No, I just would add—because I think you mentioned the military option—or maybe not the military option, but a foreign option—I don’t see a foreign option, in terms of bringing about democracy, in the sense of a military campaign. I don’t envisage—nor do I think the Iranian opposition wants Iraq-style, 2003 U.S. boots on the ground. This country has—we need two generations to sort of digest what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq before we do anything like that again. That’s my personal opinion. This country’s done for that kind of nation-building.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t do anything. You can still help the Iranian civil society. I mean, sometimes, I hear people—and I won’t name names, or even mention the factions they come from—but you know, you’re either appeasing, or you want war. And that is just such a wrong way of looking at this, such a complicated issue. You can—how can you say the Iranians who live outside of Iran really don’t matter, because only the ones who live in Iran matter? The ones in Iran matter, but the ones who live outside, many times, they left for a reason, right?
VATANKA: And some of them left, not forty-four years ago, but four weeks ago. They are emotionally invested; they want to go back. And the idea that you don’t listen to them, I think, is wrong.
And then you can look for ways to give them a voice, because they are oftentimes the bridge between the people of Iran who can speak, or, you know, behind the wall, if you will, and the rest of the world.
International pressure matters. Embarrassing the regime—you know, let’s for a second not talk about the macro-level, big change. Let’s talk about small, baby steps. For the longest time, the Iranian regime refused to allow women, after ’79, to enter stadiums to watch men play soccer, football. God forbid, these guys are showing their legs. That’s too provocative, right? So the regime said no.
FIFA, the international football federation, puts pressure: If you don’t change your rules on that issue, women being able to come to a stadium, we’re going to kick you out of FIFA entirely, and you’re not going to come to the men’s World Cup anymore. And the regime does a quick cost-benefit calculation—all those young, angry men, if they’re told, our team’s not going to go to the World Cup because—so what do they do? They let women into the stadium.
And I can go on. There are—there are examples of this, where pressure does matter. So, I think that at least, let’s not maybe think about the big, shaking up the system entirely to its core, but think about maybe smaller, baby steps toward changing the regime.
I’ll say this final point, Henry, because the regime’s top echelon—Khamenei’s eighty-three, he’s going to be eighty-four soon—that first generation of the Iranian Revolutionaries who created the system back in 1979, they’re either dying or already dead. You have to also, as part of your multifront campaign, give the second generation, in case the regime stays, different choices. Listen, you can go this way, and this is what’s going to happen to you, or you can listen to your own people. For a second, change your course of action, and just listen to them, and you’ll see what they want is very different from what you’re doing.
So, that’s the sort of thing I think, if the U.S. was creative, and the U.S. can be creative, you could come up with, in terms of policy instruments.
BONIADI: Can I just add one more thing?
ROME: Yes, please.
BONIADI: I think—to echo what you said, increasing the political cost of persecution, and rewarding defections.
BONIADI: So, if we can find a way to do that in our foreign policy, that’s the winning ticket. And I think that’s where we—the coming together of both parties on this issue in the past six months has been pivotal to veer away from appeasement and from that idea of, sort of, warmongering, or whatever else we want to call it.
ROME: Suzanne, I want to give you a chance to jump in, if you wanted to add anything on this question. Otherwise, we’ll turn to the next question.
KIANPOUR: Yeah, I mean, I think Nazanin and Alex have, you know, covered most bases.
I mean, I think I am often asked, you know, as a journalist, what do you hear that the Iranian people want? And the most—the two most—the answers that I get most often are, one, please don’t let the world forget about us, so continue to tell our stories and be our voice, and that’s really key. And they’re not necessarily asking for, you know, the kind of intervention that, you know, people assume that the diaspora wants. You know, they don’t—most don’t want war.
And the other, however, is, you know, they say, oh, you go to the White House; well, ask Biden—some of them call him Ayatollah Biden, because they’re, you know, not happy with him—(laughter)—they say, ask Ayatollah Biden why he’s supporting the regime. And I ask, well, what do you mean by that? What are you expecting him to do? And they say, well, you know, regime officials have their money outside of the country, and their family members are living large outside of the country. And at the beginning of the protests, there were a lot of, you
know, Instagram pictures circulating of daughters of, you know, female daughters of regime officials in various places around the world, kind of wearing what they wouldn’t be able to wear in Iran.
So, it’s the kind of accountability that the people of Iran are looking for. And I think that is something that, if the U.S. wants to maintain credibility when it comes to Iranian foreign policy, that’s what the people are looking for.
ROME: Great. All right. Do we have anybody online? Or no. We’ll stay in the room.
Right up—right up here.
Q: Thank you so much. My name is Pascal. I’m with the Council for Inclusive Capitalism.
You spoke to the role that advocates, policymakers, geopolitical forces can play. What about the role of corporations?
ROME: A very good question about, yeah, how do—how do corporations play into this? Who wants to—who wants to take this one?
VATANKA: Do you want to go?
But look, forty-four years after the revolution came about—in terms of Western corporations, if I could just focus on that—their footprint is limited today. So, you know, there are no major—as far as I know—major presence by multinationals.
So, Iran’s biggest trading partner today is China. One third of its overall trade goes to China. Russia is fast becoming a pretty significant trading partner, even though there isn’t really much of a convergence, because they are essentially playing the same field for oil and gas market, but because both of them are sanctioned, there’s good reason for them to collaborate.
And you know, I could bore you with all sorts of projects that are going on. Henry, you know this. One of Putin’s top advisers was just in Tehran for the sixth—no, fifth time in six months, to create this so-called north-south corridor, linking the Indian Ocean through Iran to Russia.
So, there are things like that happening. But these are relatively speaking, on a—on a small scale.
Let me give you an example, to my mind, what a multinational is about. Iran has the world’s largest natural gas field in the world. About 15 percent, if I remember my numbers right,15 percent of the world’s natural gas is in this one field in the middle of the Persian Gulf. And it’s shared with the country of Qatar, tiny Qatar, which is, you know, why Qatar is so fabulously wealthy. What are the Qataris doing? They’re bringing all the top players—multinationals, the Exxons and so on, the Shells—and they’re getting that gas out, and they’re become—they’re the second largest LNG exporter after the United States in the world today.
Where is Iranian LNG exports? Wild guess: Doesn’t exist, right? So, what the regime’s foreign policy is doing in terms of putting sanctions on itself, putting off investors, is that they have delayed projects that, right now, would have been resulting in billions of dollars in windfall. So, that’s one way of looking at the question.
But I mean, look, the short answer to your question, in terms of whether the corporations have—Western corporations have the sway and ability to come in and shape policy—no. And that’s very much deliberate. That’s why Khamenei, in 2015, when the nuclear deal was signed, said, yes, we have the nuclear deal signed. But in the first speech he gave right after that, but no American corporations, because that’s the soft way for
them to come in, and next thing you know, America’s going to bring about regime change, right? That’s the way Khamenei thinks.
So, he’s happy to give up the billions of dollars or just rely on the Chinese, but he has this inner suspicion that whatever the U.S. says, U.S. has one ultimate goal, to bring his regime down. And that’s why they’re so reluctant to go there and let their corporations in, they meaning the United States and the West.
BONIADI: I think a great example of that was the vaccines. I mean, Pfizer—
VATANKA: Right, the vaccines.
BONIADI: The denial of Pfizer vaccines in Iran. He wanted Iran to make its own vaccines because, you know, he didn’t trust—even though the people needed it.
ROME: Yeah. Suzanne, do you want to chime in on this?
KIANPOUR: Well, I mean, the—you know, the Islamic Republic is a revolutionary state. And a revolutionary state needs an enemy. And well, corporations are part of the enemy. So I’ve had conversations with people within big corporations who have wanted to help, and wanted to find ways inside Iran, obviously. But their options are limited.
All right. Who else? Otherwise I’ll have to keep asking questions, and our panelists don’t want that.
ROME: Yes, right up front.
Q: Sure, hi. I’m Ameya Hadap. I’m with the Atlantic Council, and I work on climate and energy issues.
So, my question is about external geopolitical factors. So, my personal read on Iran’s geopolitical situation is that in the past couple of months, been on a—partially has been on a backfoot. In energy markets, as you mentioned, China used to buy—continues to buy Iranian oil, steep discounts. But they’re doing so for sanctioned Russian oil now, often undercutting Iranian oil at its price point, taking tankers off the market and serving as a backstop to the entire Russian economy, in some cases. And at the same time, seems to me that China’s engagement with Saudi Arabia and the GCC is ramping up considerably, a lot of pageantry, a lot of formality, statements and summits, really laying out the red carpet there.
So, given China’s potential—if not realignment—increased engagement across the entire region on energy and other issues, while Saudi Arabia turns away from the U.S. as it’s decarbonizing and focusing on human rights, do you see that as, maybe a decade or two down the line, an opportunity for the United States to step in and say, Iran’s partners, historical partners, their commitment is flagging, maybe it’s—there’s some work to be done here.
VATANKA: Look, no doubt in my mind, if Iran was the secular democracy, then it would have a major pendulum swing back to where it used to be. I mean, China today is the biggest trading partner. It used to be
Germany. The Europeans used to be some of the biggest trading partners. And if you go back before 1979, the United States was a big one too.
But let me—let me take the bigger issue you raised about this U.S.-China competition in the Middle East, because obviously this is in the news. Let’s not kid ourselves. What happened on the tenth of March in Beijing, when the Chinese managed to get the Iranians and the Saudis together, was something that all three parties were interested in, for their different reasons, to poke the United States in the eye. You’re not that important anymore, pal, right? That was the message. You’re not that important. You’re declining. You’ve got demographic issues; you’ve got all sorts of internal issues; God knows what. This is what Khamenei has been preaching for a long time, and others too.
So, there’s a lot of symbolic value, but I also hear people in this town say, you know, the Chinese in the 1980s got ballistic missiles—I mean, the Saudis got Chinese ballistic missiles quietly, and we told them about it. But that didn’t result in Saudi Arabia pivoting away from the United States. In other words, that, yes, sometimes Saudi Arabia gets upset and they will do things that we will find unfriendly, but that doesn’t mean that anybody, even China, is ready right now to replace the United States—which is, basically, fifty-some thousand American troops in bases across the region, from Syria all the way to Oman. This is investment that’s taken decades, after the Second World War, for the United States to build up. Nobody can come in and replace it. Even if the United States wanted to replace itself, and get itself out and pivot to Asia, China is not ready to come in and take that role.
What China is doing right now, if you, for example, look—they’re primarily interested in energy security. And I’m not a China expert so I’ve got to be careful what I say, but what they’re doing is, since they get about 50 percent of their oil—which is far less than the Japanese get; they get 95 percent of their oil from the Persian Gulf—energy security for economies is key, right?
So, what the Chinese are doing very gradually, since 2017, with the buildup base in Djibouti, they got the base, Gwadar, in Pakistan, they might have a base in Oman, so trying to find a way to make themselves into a more powerful naval force, in the event that they have to protect their commercial interests. But that’s a long-term project that China will need a lot of time, and politically, needs to be committed to it. I’m not even sure if the Chinese want to—want to go there. But that’s—I see that as a long-term threat.
But I do want to say this one thing, as well. This country has too long—and there’s a perception problem in the region—when I go to the region, and I do quite a bit of that, I hear, the U.S. keeps talking about Sunnis and Shias, and Persians and Arabs, and Turks and Kurds. U.S. is sort of pitting us against each other to sell us these expensive military platforms. That’s not what the region needs. The region needs factories that create jobs for young people, so they don’t join radical groups. That’s what China is doing. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has been— what, born in 2013, and already has spent about $900 billion—they’re actually at least pretending they’re creating jobs; they’re building ports and so on. A lot of it is not true, but that’s what they’re—the messaging is working for them.
The United States cannot just be a security guarantor. It needs to play a role as an economic force for good for the region. That’s what the corporations—to the question before—come in. Find ways to make money in the Middle East, that’ll win-win: Americans win, American corporations, American workers, and those people in the region are not just buying an expensive military platform that sits in the desert and nobody knows how to maintain it. And you know, it’s a waste of their resources.
So, there needs to be thinking along these lines to deal with, specifically, the China challenge, because that’s where they’re coming at. They’re invested—as Henry knows much better than me—in places like Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in anything from ports, to refineries, to—and where’s the United States in that? And there needs to be a U.S. presence.
ROME: I like how you tied in the first question about government propaganda in your answer there about the Chinese. That was good.
There’s a question in the back, I believe.
Q: Thank you. Thank you so much. My name is Emily Hartman Rogers and I work at the State Department, mostly on Africa policy, but also on civil society organization programming.
And I’m wondering, what, in your opinion, should the United States be doing to better support the civil society organizations that are most active on the ground? Because, I mean, it’s my experience that that’s where the change comes from, particularly in spaces like this.
So, I’m wondering what opportunities we are leaving out and what we should be doing to capitalize on them.
ROME: Very good question. Who wants—Nazanin, do you want to start?
BONIADI: Sure. I’m happy to take that.
I mean, a number of us have come together in the diaspora—I want to echo what Alex said earlier, about not sort of sidelining the diaspora in these conversations, because every dissident that’s found refuge has found refuge outside of Iran, right? I mean, the brain drain is real. The best and the brightest of Iranian society are either in prison or they’ve been basically exiled, is what people are saying inside. They’re either persecuted or they’re sent away from Iran.
So, I would encourage every lawmaker across the world to engage with the diaspora, because we essentially—for example, I just had a conversation with prominent dissidents in Iran just yesterday. I’m constantly in touch with them. They can’t—we are basically the conduit, right, between them and Western lawmakers.
So, I would really encourage lawmakers—for forty-four years, they’ve engaged with the Islamic Republic and the officials—this year at both the World Economic Forum and the Munich Security Conference, we had a presence as opposition voices. The tide is shifting, and I would say that there needs to be more of that. We need to engage with opposition voices and really listen to what the people inside are saying, because that’s all we’re doing, is we’re delivering those messages.
And what I’m hearing from civil society, and dissidents in particular, inside Iran is, yes, there are few people on the streets right now, because honestly, how can anyone sustain more than seven months of being shot in the eye, shot in the heart, being imprisoned, raped, sent to psychological reconditioning centers, what have you, executed?
So, what they’re doing is they’re regrouping and there will be more. There will be another uprising, because these uprisings started—really, they started in December 2017, these anti-compulsory hijab protests that have turned into much more than that.
The only thing that came in the way of that was the pandemic. The break that you saw, the extended break was the pandemic. Otherwise, there have been constant uprisings since December 2017. What we need to do is, you know, we’ve spent so much money here in America for pro-democracy causes, but when the moment arrives that the people of that country are rising up and taking all the risks to fight for that freedom, we don’t have the next step in place.
So, we really have to have that next step, is, why are we funding these pro-democracy movements and whatever we’re doing, to advocate for democracy overseas? But then we don’t have the plan in place when that moment
arises. So, internet access is key. And everyone inside Iran I speak to—who I speak to is saying, please, we need to stay connected to you. But more importantly, we need to stay connected to each other to be able to organize. I don’t think that’s something that should be dismissed lightly. That is a request that I think will make or break the next uprising in Iran.
ROME: Let me turn to Alex and then Suzanne. And we’re running out of time here, so I guess we’ll give you a chance to make your final—
VATANKA: Let Suzanne go first.
ROME: Okay, Suzanne, please.
KIANPOUR: I think, in terms of the question of what can be done, obviously, as a journalist, I can’t really be advising. I’m supposed to remain impartial and objective. But I will say, um, you know, perception, and the kind of American exceptionalism from the region—American exceptionalism—the perception of American exceptionalism, rather, is kind of in trouble.
And I just wanted to—I know this isn’t answering this question, necessarily, but I wanted to go back to what Alex was saying about the role of China in the region. I mean, here, I know that we say that, oh, Khamenei is always talking about how America has all these issues internally, and that’s really a part of his messaging and propaganda, so to speak. But it actually is starting to cut through. I mean, I’m—I—every time I open my mouth, it becomes very clear that I’m American. And so, people suddenly have all kinds of opinions about America. And a lot of it is about our domestic concerns. And America is starting to lose a bit of credibility.
And I think—so, that’s something to keep in mind as an American diplomat, you know, working at the State Department and, you know, coming up with ways to help civil society in other countries, is that the domestic turmoil does translate abroad.
ROME: Alex, do you have the final word?
VATANKA: Oh. (Laughs.)
ROME: No pressure.
VATANKA: No pressure. No, It won’t be anything beautiful to remember.
But just very quickly, in terms of State Department, I—you know, I guess the first challenge is to decide which way, fundamentally, is the Iran policy going. And you tell me. I don’t know where it’s going. Coexist, change behavior of the Islamic Republic, or find ways to bring it down. I don’t know if that is, you know, a choice that—the way I just laid it on the ground, oftentimes that’s how we discuss it. But certainly when it comes to key policymaking, if you don’t know that, if you are the United States, that’s going to shape everything that comes from State Department and other government agencies in this country, which in turns—which in turn, that lack of decisiveness is exactly why the countries in the Gulf are turning and saying, you know what? We can’t wait for the Americans. They don’t have an Iran policy. Let me cut a deal with the Iranians. That’s what the Saudis just did, right?
The Americans are good at one thing: sanctions. Put sanctions on it. It’s cheap. It doesn’t cost anything for them. In fact, it does. It does cost American corporations a lot because you lose market share. But anyway, sanctions can do—be very productive—effective, but not alone, right? Not alone. And I think—So, my fundamental point is you got to have, at some point, hopefully soon, something that starts looking like a coherent policy, where you need to make a decision: Is the Iranian nuclear issue the one thing we care about? Do we want to invest in the future of that country that we know will be pro-Western, if the people of Iran
actually had free elections where they could vote for what they want? That’s the sort of debate that needs to be—to be had.
But I can also tell you—and this is my final word—easier to say what not to do. I mean, I sometimes get invited to events where people talk about ethnic groups in Iran. Shouldn’t we arm them? And I’m literally scratching my head and saying, are you serious? I mean, Iran is a multiethnic and imperial state with five thousand years of history. We have dozens and dozens of ethnic groups. The idea that the United States should go in there and arm a group of ethnic minorities somewhere in the country—that’s not a substitute for American policy. That will just give people in the region more reason to doubt and say, the Americans are just scheming, right? The Americans—so, there are things that are easy to say to State Department, to Pentagon, others. That’s not what you want to do.
You want to—you know, one thing on the Iranian opposition. One thing that we could try and do— they’re beautiful people. A lot of good ideas. But, boy, sometimes they don’t get along and talk. (Laughter.) Maybe. Maybe since—
BODIAN: We’re trying to change things.
VATANKA: I know. We try—(laughter)—I know. I know. I know. I know. I know. And you’re doing a fabulous job.
BODIANI: Thank you.
VATANKA: But it starts with steps like that.
But look, I mean, fundamentally, if I could leave you with a hopeful note, I look at Iran as a country that has been striving for democracy literally since 1906. Over a hundred years ago, they had a constitutional revolution where women were involved, right? This is not a country that was created by some colonial power, or they don’t know who they are, or where they’re going. This is a civil society, a rich culture, a rich people. They know exactly what they want, but they are dealing with their suppressive system right now. The suppression right now is in their way. But the civil society is not going to go anywhere. And Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the generals and the Revolutionary Guards know it. And if I had to guess, that keeps them up late at night these days.
BODIANI: Can I add one thing?
ROME: Sure, sure.
BODIANI: Sanctions are great. Enforcing sanctions are very important. We can’t just announce sanctions left, right, and center. How about we really enforce the ones that we need to, you know, in a very strategic way so that we’re actually targeting those rights abusers.
VATANKA: Right. Right. Absolutely.
ROME: Well, just one final note. Please note that the video and transcript of this briefing will be posted on the CFR website. If anyone wants to rewatch what’s been a really fascinating conversation. Suzanne, Alex, Nazanin, everyone, please, please join me in thanking them for a really enlightening hour. (Applause.)