Senate Republicans and Democrats stopped short Tuesday of calling for action in support of protesters in Iran, saying protests in Hong Kong, sanctions on Turkey and monitoring the situation in Iraq and Lebanon are jockeying for attention.
“As far as formal action, I haven’t really given that any thought,” Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill. “I got Hong Kong pending; I got Turkey pending; I got a bunch of other things pending.”
Human rights groups estimate that more than 100 people have been killed and about 1,000 arrested over three days of protests across major cities in Iran, with the uprising triggered last week by an increase in fuel prices coupled with a rationing of supplies.
Senators from both sides of the aisle have expressed support for the protesters as exercising their right to freedom of speech and assembly and called on the government to end a media and communications blackout.
But Senate action backing up those statements is unlikely to take form.
Risch and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are trying to push legislation supporting human rights in Hong Kong as six-month-old protests have violently escalated in the past week.
The Senate has also failed to move forward legislation condemning Turkey for its incursion into northeastern Syria and attacks on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, which triggered a humanitarian crisis, and its support of proxy forces accused of committing war crimes during the offensive.
“We’ve been so reluctant to take action when it comes to Turkey, when it comes to Hong Kong. I don’t know what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is waiting for,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told The Hill. “They certainly haven’t been forthcoming on other issues like this.”
The protests in Iran come more than a year after the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reimposed harsh sanctions on all facets of the Iranian economy, part of a maximum pressure campaign to squeeze the regimes finances in an effort to bring them back to the negotiating table.
Uprisings against Iranian influence are also taking place in Iraq and Lebanon, where citizens fed up with government corruption, lack of basic services and low quality of life have taken to the streets demanding the resignation of political leaders.
Iran is a major backer of Hezbollah, a terrorist-designated paramilitary group in Lebanon that is represented in the Lebanese government. Tehran also maintains a heavy hand in Iraq, of which protesters have risen up calling for a cleansing of the political elite, including the prime minister, to cut off Iran’s influence in the country.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the protests in Iran “reflect a powerful moment and an opportunity for change.” Cruz, who supported the administration’s withdrawal for removal from the JCPOA has called on President Trump to end the few remaining sanctions waivers left on Iran.
Asked if there’s any actions the Senate can take on a bipartisan basis to respond to the protests, Cruz responded, “I certainly hope so.”
Morad Ghorban, director of governmental affairs for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), said it’s important for lawmakers to express solidarity with the Iranian public in their rights to exercise freedom of speech and assembly and that the vast majority of Iran’s population want closer ties with the U.S.
“From our perspective, the biggest threat to the Iranian regime is more interaction with U.S. society and not less,” Ghorban said. “Less actually plays into the hands of the hardliners who want to blame America for Iran’s trouble.”
There are about 1 million Iranian Americans in the U.S., and PAAIA says that 90 percent have family in Iran, making them deeply concerned about how Washington reacts to Tehran.
“It’s important to separate the people over there from the regime,” he said, “and put in place policies that support them and not just policies that oppose the regime.”
PAAIA advocates for Congress to push the Treasury Department and State Department to update licensing agreements on telecommunications tools. Updated licenses will allow communication applications, such as text messaging services, to be available to Iranians to communicate with people abroad, increasing their access to information outside the heavily censored news provided by the government.
“I don’t think there is much that can be done when a government decides to shut down the internet,” Ghorban said. “But what we can do, and what has worked in the past successfully, is making sure that people of Iran can better connect with the outside world and communicate with each other. It’s very important for civil society there.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on Iran, said the protests in Iran offer a unique opportunity where Republicans and Democrats can come together to emphasize U.S. support for the Iranian people.
“Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, a more equitable representative government is something that would be in line with American strategies and American values. There’s no reason not to amplify Iranian voices protesting on the street today,” he said.
The most recent protests come more than a year after the Islamic Republic was shocked by another popular uprising, where Iranians demonstrated for more than a week between 2017 and 2018.
A reported 42,000 people took to the streets to protest frustration with the economy but that grew into revolt against the theocracy of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nearly two dozen people were killed and thousands arrested during those demonstrations.
Tehran managed to calm the protests by appealing to protestors and acknowledging their concerns, Reuters reported at the time. But they also blamed interference by foreign adversaries, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel, for stoking the violence, allegations those countries vehemently deny.
Taleblu said the U.S. government should establish a playbook in how best to respond to popular uprisings in Iran that appear to be occurring with greater frequency and intensity.
“Washington needs an Iran protest policy playbook, given that there will always be more protests in Iran because the chasm between state and society is so wide,” Taleblu said. “Washington can’t be caught flat footed. … There needs to be a bipartisan Iran protest strategy, something that liberals and conservatives can get behind.”