In his first address to the State Department in early February, President Biden ambitiously described the need for U.S. leadership to counter what he termed, “this new moment of advancing authoritarianism” around the world.
Most political scientists agree that authoritarian states are primarily concerned with the quelling of domestic opposition and attempts to short-circuit the political process within a state, especially using harsh means, to maintain the status quo.
By that standard, Iran’s theocracy is certainly authoritarian. From the time Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamist backers seized power in Iran in 1979, the regime has existed through maintaining a reign of terror over its citizens.
And yet, even while decrying “advancing authoritarianism,” the Biden administration engages in a diplomatic tango with the mullahs who lead the Islamic Republic. Tomorrow, the United States and Iran will resume talks in Vienna, in what diplomats described as, “the most extensive effort to shore up the accord since President Biden took office in January.”
Clearly, for this administration, the definition of “authoritarian” is flexible; it seems to disappear when it is ideologically convenient. Unfortunately for its citizens, Iran’s record of actual authoritarian behavior has existed for more than four decades without disappearing.
Iran’s human-rights violations include: routine, arbitrary, or unlawful killings and arrests; torture and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment; forced confessions often gained through torture; airing of forced confessions on national media; unfair trials with no semblance of due process; sexual abuse; disappearing of individuals; repression of civil liberties, including press freedom, Internet freedom, academic freedom, and freedom of peaceful assembly; and discrimination against women, girls, the LGBT community, and ethnic and religious minorities.
In the aftermath of street protests beginning with the 2009 “Green Movement,” the regime reorganized its intelligence apparatus to create a vast system of surveillance and repression to quash internal dissent. Even so, millions of Iranians since then have poured into the streets, calling for an end to the religious fundamentalist government.
The regime responded by shooting demonstrators with live ammunition. As chronicled by the State Department in its annual human-rights report under President Trump, this brutal use of force left more than 1,500 people dead, 7,000 wounded, and 12,000 detained in Iranian prisons.
Last month, though, the new Biden State Department made a key paragraph from that Iran report disappear, covering up the number of Iranian citizens killed by the regime—from 1,500 down to 304. The new, smaller figure comes from Amnesty International, which itself has admitted that the assessment of casualties in incomplete. The larger figure—which is obviously more likely—came from Iranian regime figures themselves, who admitted that police had slaughtered 1,500 protesters.
For once, a Democratic administration isn’t trusting Iranian officials.
In removing the text, the State Department believes it can defang outrage against its coming diplomatic overtures to Tehran by minimizing the mullah’s brutal body count. Like the Obama administration—in which many of these same government officials once served—cutting a nuclear deal with the mullahs in Tehran is a lot harder the more the American people know about the crimes of the Islamic Republic.
If the Biden administration really gets into the business of whitewashing Iranian body counts, it has its work cut out for it. Just last month in its Balochistan province, Iran again used lethal force on protestors, leaving at least twelve people dead.
Even as these atrocities are now minimized and disappeared in Washington, Iran’s persistent protest movements have illustrated the citizen’s rejection of the regime—a fact that should give pause to the Biden administration as they pursue a new deal with Iran’s mullahs.
The Biden foreign-policy team has inherited an Iran that is weak. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign left the Iranian economy in tatters, with an almost worthless currency. And the Iranian people’s willingness to confront the regime over its political and social repression, along with the government’s failed COVID response, has left the regime vulnerable.
President Biden has leverage—if he wants to use it.
Any contemplation of sanctions relief or negotiation of new deals with Iran must be contingent upon the regime bringing its heinous human-rights violations to a halt and dismantling its invasive surveillance system. In order to fulfill his own mandate to confront “authoritarianism,” Biden must hold the regime accountable for its gross human-rights violations committed against the citizens of Iran.