These days, Iran’s ruling theocracy is best known for oppression, corruption and mismanagement at home, and ghastly sectarian warfare abroad. Through its Shiite militias, the clerical regime has fueled violence and death in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and well beyond. Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas has enabled deadly cross-border attacks into Israel.
This proxy network has allowed Iran to project power well beyond its borders. But a combination of the regime’s own financial mismanagement and strong American sanctions is clearly straining Iran’s allies. On Monday, in an effort to further raise the pressures on Iran's regime from outside, we designated its Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization.
Within Iran’s own borders, the ’79 revolution is largely a spent force. Mosque attendance has collapsed, with the Revolutionary Guards reporting that even during holy days the faithful stay away. Those seeking to become clerics are few in number, an astonishing condemnation by the religious working class, who traditionally have supplied most of the clerical students and been the backbone of the regime. The country’s brain drain and capital flight is constant.
Today, the revolution belongs primarily to the regime’s hypocritical elite. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Setad hedge fund, worth tens of billions of dollars, was supposed to be a charity, but it now seizes property from Iranians to sustain the regime. The Revolutionary Guards have become a state within a state, developing a stranglehold on many parts of the economy. Iran’s foreign minister speaks to the world on his Twitter account while his regime outlaws Twitter.
Isn’t it time for the Iranian government to leave 40 years of failure and mismanagement behind? Isn’t it time to abandon the policies that have kept the people of Iran and the United States apart since 1979?
Like the United States, Iran has a vibrant society that wants to be integrated with, not isolated from, other nations. Iranians living in the United States and around the world thrive. But Iranians aren’t thriving in their own country.
The peoples of the United States and Iran should have diplomatic ties. We can foresee a new American Embassy in Tehran issuing visas to tourists, business travelers, and teachers. There should also be direct flights from Tehran to New York or Los Angeles. Before the revolution, America was Iran’s second-largest trading partner. It should be again. Before the revolution, 50,000 Iranian students were studying in American universities. Renewed relations would open the door to tremendous opportunities.
One day soon, the brightest minds in our countries could work to solve problems for the Iranian people. With open relations between the United States and Iran, together we could reduce Tehran’s severe air pollution, build homes that withstand earthquakes in Kermanshah, deliver new medical treatments to veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, and restore water to Lake Urmia and the Zayandeh River.
America stands ready to engage an Iranian government with mutual respect, in pursuit of mutual interests. But in order to make this opening possible — in order to normalize ties and enjoy all the benefits that would follow — the regime must first decide that it wants to be a normal country and not a revolutionary cause.
A peaceful Iran would augur well for a more peaceful Middle East. But after 40 years many nations have become desensitized to Iran’s violence and have lost the ability to imagine a peaceful Iran. Such low expectations do a great disservice to the cause of peace, and especially to the Iranian people, who want a better life.
It is time for nations to restore basic demands on Iran to behave like a normal, peaceful nation: end the pursuit of nuclear weapons, stop testing ballistic missiles, stop sponsoring terrorist proxies and halt the arbitrary detention of dual citizens. The regime should invest in its own people instead of bankrolling dictators, terrorists, missiles and militias. Thanks to regime subsidies, the average Hezbollah combatant makes two to three times what an Iranian firefighter is paid.
I have heard diplomats tell me these fundamental changes are unrealistic. Is it somehow more realistic to accept the status quo of Iran exporting sectarian violence at will and creating a Shiite corridor of control? Is it more realistic to watch the regime forcibly try to bend all of Iranian society to conform with tenets of the Islamic Revolution?
If nations choose not to hold this regime to the same standard as all other nations, we must expect more of the same violence abroad and oppression at home. The Iranian people, including women who are denied even their most basic dignity, are pressuring the regime from inside. They want nations to support them with pressure from outside. That is the best and most probable path to promote peace and to secure the rights and freedoms the Iranian people deserve and were promised in 1979.
While it is ultimately up to the Iranian people to determine the direction of their country, the United States, in the spirit of our own freedoms, will support the long-ignored voice of the Iranian people. Other nations should join this effort. The next 40 years of Iran’s history would be marked then not by repression and fear, but by freedom and fulfillment for the Iranian people.