On Friday, the US State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The reports detailed human rights abuses around the world and were accompanied by a statement declaring some of those countries to be “morally reprehensible” and either unable or unwilling to use good governance instead of repression in order to maintain internal stability.
“The governments of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, for example, violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result,” said acting Secretary of State John Sullivan, as quoted by Reuters.
Sullivan took the place of the State Department head for the purpose of recent functions including releasing this report and representing the US at the G-7 summit in Toronto on Sunday. President Donald Trump’s first appointee to Secretary of State was removed suddenly last month and his replacement, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is expected to be confirmed in the coming days, following Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s decision to back the nomination despite previous objections.
Pompeo’s entry into the administration is widely expected to mark a further increase in the assertiveness of US policy toward Iran, especially in the wake of another recent change in staff, the appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor. Meanwhile, the proceedings in Toronto showcased widespread agreement among Western powers about the need for countering Iranian influence in the broader Middle East, according to the Washington Post.
Against the backdrop of that gathering, French President Emmanuel Macron advised Trump against the removal of American troops from Syria. “If we leave,” he said, “…we will leave the floor to the Iranian regime, Bashar al-Assad and his guys, and they will prepare the new war.”
On Monday, Macron arrived in Washington where he is expected to make a late pitch to the White House for preserving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has threatened to leave if the Europeans do not succeed in fixing its “terrible flaws.” But while this issue has been given a great deal of international attention in recent weeks, a planned meeting between Sullivan and his European counterparts was postponed, suggesting that other issues presently take precedence.
Even so, these issues seemingly involve the broader region and not Iran’s domestic situation, despite the State Department’s public acknowledgment of the dire situation faced by the Iranian people in general. But in the days ahead, this might be a topic that figures like Pompeo and Bolton wish to examine more closely, as it could have an impact on the prospects for domestically-driven regime change, which Bolton has explicitly advocated for.
In December and January, mass protests erupted in every major Iranian city and town, initially to demand rectification of a worsening economic crisis but quickly turning to a range of political and social issues including the widespread restrictions on free speech. Similar protests continue to this day, albeit on a smaller scale, and various experts have predicted that the regime’s violent repression of the January uprising could spur the people to eventually to assemble for even more nationwide demonstrations.
The potential for a resurgent uprising is amplified by rising levels of domestic awareness of abuses by Iranian authorities. In one example of this phenomenon, a video went viral on Iranian social media networks last week depicting a young woman being assaulted in a public park by several agents of the nation’s morality police because her hair was deemed to be insufficiently covered by her hijab.
Opposition to forced veiling has grown more prominent in recent months, with approximately 30 women being arrested for removing their hijabs in public and holding them up in gestures of defiance and solidarity. The first such protest occurred in late December, just around the time of the first protests that would turn into the nationwide uprising. The woman in that case, Vida Movahed, has since been sentenced to a two-year prison term.
The connections between women’s rights protests and the broader anti-government protests are perhaps more substantial than the mere coincidence of their outbreaks. An Associated Press report on the aforementioned viral video suggests that such abusive displays have undermined confidence in the current government even among Iranians who previously accepted the theocratic system.
The severity of public outrage in this case has prompted some pragmatic Iranian officials like President Hassan Rouhani to call for an investigation or to urge restraint by security forces. But others have voiced unflinching support, and the hardline Kayhan daily newspaper predictably suggested that the video was the product of a foreign plot. A similar narrative had been put forward in January by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei regarding the anti-government protests, which he said had been orchestrated by a “triangle of enemies” consisting of the United States, regional adversaries, and the leading Iranian democratic opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
The NCRI has notably championed women’s rights issues throughout the years, as well as regime change, and it is currently led by a woman, Maryam Rajavi. NCRI also enjoys the support of a number of Western politicians including the current US National Security Advisor. As such, rising levels of outrage over the morally reprehensible nature of the Iranian regime may create new openings for the Iranian Resistance, both domestically and internationally.