Beyond cutting hair and rhetoric, little the West can do to change Iran’s trajectory

Western governments have few policy levers to influence events in Iran, officials and analysts said. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS/WASHINGTON - Western actors and officials have cut their hair on camera to dramatise their support for Iranian women, whose protests have rocked the Islamic Republic since a 22-year-old woman died in the custody of Iran’s morality police more than a month ago.

“For Freedom,” French actor Juliette Binoche said as she snipped off a hank of auburn hair in solidarity with Iranians decrying the death of Ms Mahsa Amini, who was arrested on Sept 13 in Teheran for “inappropriate attire” and died three days later.

Belgium’s Foreign Minister and two other lawmakers cut their hair in Parliament.

The performances hint at a deeper reality: beyond voicing support, criticising abuses and giving protesters digital tools to communicate, Western governments have few policy levers to influence events in Iran, officials and analysts said.

Four years of economic sanctions, reimposed by former US President Donald Trump in 2018 and continued – if inconsistently enforced – by his successor Joe Biden, have not stopped Iran’s expansion of its nuclear programme, let alone curtailed its support for proxies abroad or dissuaded it from crushing dissent at home.

In a world where oil prices have risen with the Ukraine war and where Iran’s major oil buyers, China and India, seem unfazed by the threat of stronger enforcement of US sanctions, it seems that Teheran will continue to have a financial lifeline.

“In terms of economic tools that could really change the regime’s outlook... those tools are very limited,” said Mr Henry Rome of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank.

No ‘regime change’ talk

Given the unhappy results of US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no discussion of any US effort to help topple an Iranian leadership itself born of a revolutionary rejection of an earlier US-backed regime change in Teheran.

In 1953, the CIA helped orchestrate the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, restoring to power the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was then ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, heralding decades of US-Iranian animus.

“We are not looking to get involved in regime change,” said a Western diplomat.

A US official described Washington’s policy as three-fold: voicing support for protesters and their right to express their views; drawing attention to allegations against Iranian security forces of human rights abuses; and encouraging companies to preserve Internet access in Iran, allowing demonstrators to communicate.

“The outcome is not going to be determined by what the US does, by what the West does, by what any foreigner does – it’s going to be determined by what the Iranian people do and by what their government does in response,” the official said.

“We can shine a spotlight, we can make sure that the Iranian people know that they are not alone, that people are watching and that they are being heard. We can hold people who are repressing them accountable through our sanctions,” he added on condition of anonymity. “Those are the areas we are looking at.”

Iranians urge Western pressure

Iran’s clerical rulers accuse the West of fomenting the protests. Iranians, inside and outside the country, have urged Western countries to pressure Iran by expelling its ambassadors and the family members of Iranian authorities who live abroad.

“The West doesn’t have too much leverage over Iran, but I think they must play their hands well,” said Assistant Professor Saeid Golkar of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, also calling for imposing sanctions on Iranian plain-clothes security forces.

Efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, hanging by a thread, have been made more difficult by Iran’s clampdown on the protests in which as many as 23 children have been killed by live ammunition, metal pellets fired at close range and beatings, according to the UN human rights office.

The suspected transfer of drones and possibly even short-range surface-to-surface missiles to Russia from Iran to help Moscow in its war against Ukraine will also make Western leaders reluctant to push an accord that would give the Iranian government billions of dollars’ worth of extra resources.

Some officials and analysts argue Teheran may not seek a deal, given the political sensitivities at home.

“If ever there was a time where having a nuclear deal would offer some level of economic relief, this would be the time to want it,” said the Western diplomat. “However, if you do that, you’re paving the way for your country for more openness and less isolation, and that may be very difficult for the regime.”

Even if Iran wanted to resurrect the pact, under which Teheran curbed its nuclear programme in return for economic sanctions relief that raised its oil revenues, the crackdown makes it harder for Washington to cut a deal.

“The (US) opponents of the deal would have more ammunition to attack a Biden administration that’s prepared to deal with a regime which, they might say, is on the ropes,” said Mr Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution think-tank.

“Why would we throw a lifeline to a regime that is on the ropes and that is killing young women?“ - REUTERS

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.