By Hamid Enayat
Iranian authorities released US Navy veteran Michael White from custody last Thursday, bringing an end to his nearly two-year ideal. White was accused of “insulting the supreme leader” and sharing personal information and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was serving his sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison until being released on medical furlough while suffering from Covid-19. He was released in an apparent prisoner swap with an Iranian doctor who had been accused of sanctions violations.
The exchange has been received with optimism by many Western observers of Iranian affairs. It is potentially indicative of shrinking demands for concessions as a condition for the release of Iranian hostages. White’s release was preceded in December by that of Xiyue Wang, a graduate student and American citizen who was falsely accused of spying. Wang, too, was reportedly part of a prisoner exchange. But in both cases, the exchange was one-to-one, and involved a low-value detainee on the American side.
By contrast, when the previous administration secured the release of four Americans from Iran in 2016, it was in exchange for releasing seven Iranians from prison and dropping charges against 14 others. The release was also tied to the payment of a decades-old debt stemming from cancelled arms sales to the previous Iranian government. Nearly a quarter of the 1.7 billion dollar repayment was delivered in cash on the same day that the hostages were released.
The lower cost of release for Wang and White is a testament to the positive effects of a “maximum pressure” strategy that the White House has been pursuing since pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. It is also indicative of the escalating crises that the Iranian regime is facing, which help to make the strategy even more effective. The Islamic Republic is in the midst of the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, and hardliners have expressed concern that this will contribute to even more unrest along the lines of what occurred in January 2018 and November 2019.
Slogans like “death to the dictator” emerged on a national scale last November, sparked by the announcement of increases in the government-set price of gas. The government’s response was brutal. Amnesty International issued statements confirming that the IRGC was shooting to kill protesters, and the National Council of Resistance of Iran ultimately determined that 1,500 people had died. Roughly half of these have been identified by name.
Thousands of other protesters were arrested in connection with the uprising, and many still face persecution and the potential for multi-year prison sentences, or even execution. Yet neither the threat of capital punishment nor the risk of outright murder have actually quelled the Iranian people’s impulse to rise up against a government that harms the public welfare, rules by terror, and exports that terror in the form of hostage taking and support for militant proxies.
The regime’s hardline foreign policy has been as much in the crosshairs of the activist community as has been its domestic mismanagement. And a commitment to hostage-taking in the midst of a global pandemic is as much a symbol of that hardline policy as anything else. What’s more, the regime’s obsession with confronting foreign “enemies” often goes hand-in-hand with its disregard for human life at home. And in at least one recent instance, that overlap became the driving force behind still more widespread protests against the clerical regime.
On January 8, two missiles supposedly fired mistakenly by IRGC air defenses struck a commercial Ukrainian airliner that was leaving Tehran. All 176 people on board were killed in the resulting crash.
Tehran promptly denied responsibility for the incident and blamed it on a technical issue. But this cover story was conclusively disproved within three days, and Iranians across a dozen provinces launched new protests to express outrage at the attempted deception and the cavalier approach to downplaying the loss of life. In subsequent months, the regime would exhibit similar behavior in setting its public narrative about the coronavirus outbreak. While Tehran acknowledges about 8,000 people have died from Covid-19 since February, the NCRI has determined that the actual figure is more than six times higher.
Last month, one Iranian lawmaker revealed that the Islamic Republic had spent upwards of 30 billion dollars on activities to support the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad prior to the end of 2018. Even now, there is no indication that that spending has slowed down.
In other words, Iran’s foreign spending continued unabated after participants in the 2018 protests specifically demanded that the regime “forget about Syria and think of us.” And it continues now, as people all across the country are being forced back to work in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak that produced few government interventions and precious little spending in support of an already heavily impoverished population.
If the regime has become more willing to strike one-sided deals with its foreign adversaries, it should be encouraged to do the same with its domestic adversaries. But for that to happen, the international community must seek out greater awareness of the Iranian opposition, its platform, and its demands. All these things will be presented to a global audience at the end of July, when the NCRI has holds its annual gathering, where political allies from throughout the world will help to articulate its vision for a free and democratic Iranian nation that puts the needs of its own people ahead of petty grievances with foreign powers.