Ongoing anti-government protests in Iran since the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody have drawn worldwide attention. Iran’s president has pledged an investigation into her death, but that has done little to appease demonstrators who continue to denounce Iran’s leadership and its laws requiring women to completely cover their hair in public.
In the weeks since Amini’s death, security forces using live rounds and tear gas have failed to put down the demonstrations. New U.S. sanctions have targeted security forces blamed for cracking down on the protesters.
In an interview with VOA’s Kurdish Service, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, talked about how the United States is approaching the situation in Iran, Iranian officials’ accusations that Washington is helping to orchestrate the protests, the status of ongoing nuclear talks with Tehran, as well as recent Iranian attacks in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: U.S. President Biden on Monday issued a statement condemning the continued violence against peaceful protesters in Iran, saying more measures will be taken this week against perpetrators of violence. Do you know what these new measures might be?
Van Hollen: I don’t know the specifics of the new measures, but this, of course, all has grown out of the outrageous killing of Mahsa Amini. And the Biden administration has already taken actions against the so-called morality police and others involved in the crackdowns against peaceful protesters. So, I believe what the Biden administration will continue to do is look for entities that are part of this network that [are] cracking down on peaceful protests and doing so in such a brutal way.
VOA: Do you think these actions are enough? Are there any more practical steps that the United States can take to support the protest movement?
Van Hollen: Well, the United States is trying to take a two-pronged approach here. First is to hold accountable and sanction those involved in cracking down on peaceful protesters, and they will continue to look for ways to do that. There are already lots of sanctions that have been applied to Iran and its economy, but they’re trying to target these sanctions in a way to hold people accountable for cracking down on peaceful protests.
The other, of course, is trying to find more ways to get information — independent factual information — to the people of Iran. That’s why the Biden administration issued a general license. There are, of course, issues and challenges with getting some of that equipment in Iran. But we are working with partners around the world and especially in the region to try to better position our information communication devices so that they can get through to the Iranian people.
VOA: Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials have accused the United States and Israel of planning these protests.
Van Hollen: Well, that’s laughable. You know, Iran has a habit of pointing fingers at other people when they need to be looking in the mirror, because the killing of Mahsa Amini was at the hands of the Iranian regime and the morality police, and no effort to point fingers at anybody else is going to take that away. And these protests are a natural result of the supreme deprivation of people’s basic human rights. And you’ve got a regime that continues to crack down on those human rights to deprive women of essential freedoms. And so, it’s natural that you would have this kind of reaction from people who want to be free and want to be able to express themselves freely.
VOA: These are some of the biggest protests inside Iran for years. Do you think this is the time for the United States to sit down with anti-government opposition groups to look for alternatives? Because this could, at some point, lead to some [greater political impact] inside Iran?
Van Hollen: Well, I think the United States keeps an open line of communication with civil society within Iran to the extent that we are able to communicate with civil society groups within Iran. If you’re asking me about whether or not the administration should adopt a policy of overt regime change, I think that the administration is pursuing the right course at the current time. And if you look at the situation on the ground, I do think that the Biden administration is responding as they should and need to.
VOA: If the United States is going to support the people of Iran, would helping them overthrow this regime be one of the options?
Van Hollen: Well, look, I personally would like to see this regime go. The question is, how does it go? And if the people of Iran, you know, want to take that into their own hands, that’s the question for them to determine. But what the United States has to be careful not to do is to suggest that, for example, we would use our military or force to try to replace the regime in Iran. Because what you don’t want to do is have people rise up on that expectation if the United States is not going to take that action. So, I encourage the people of Iran to continue to push for self-determination and democracy. And I think that is exactly what they’re pushing for.
VOA: The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been carrying out missile and drone attacks inside Iraqi Kurdistan against Iranian Kurdish opposition groups. The Iranian government claims that these Kurdish groups have been responsible for staging anti-government protests inside Iran. Now this is about violating the sovereignty of a neighboring country that happens to be a U.S. ally, Iraq. In terms of regional stability, how dangerous is this move?
Van Hollen: Well, this is dangerous. This is a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty for the Iranian government to be coming across the border and attacking sites and people on the Iraqi side. And the Iraqi government and the United States have been very clear that these violations of sovereignty need to end. Look, the reality is that the Iranian regime has only itself to blame for the rise in peaceful protests because of their repression and oppression against the Iranian people. And they shouldn’t try to export that to Iraq. We need to do what we can to protect the sovereignty of Iraq. Overall, in addition to Iranian forces now, you have continued incursions and attacks by Turkey into Iraq.
VOA: Could you elaborate on that?
Van Hollen: Yeah, I mean for many months, for a long time, Turkey has launched military operations against the northern part of Iraq. Not that long ago, they killed a lot of innocent people. So, everybody outside of Iraq should end their violations of Iraqi sovereignty. The United States forces are there at the invitation of the government of Iraq. These other outside forces or not.
VOA: As you said, there are U.S. forces on the ground. There is a U.S. consulate in Erbil that has oftentimes been threatened by Iranian-backed militia groups inside Iraq. How should the U.S. support its ally, the Kurdistan Regional Government, here?
Van Hollen: Well, the United States has been doing two things. One is supporting the Iraqi government — which of course right now, you know, we have a continuing challenge in the formation of a government of Iraq. But and we hope that that will be resolved. And we’re working with parties to try to resolve that. But we also need to continue to support our Kurdish allies who have been such a key partner in the fight against ISIS and others in the region that are malign actors. So, we’ve continued to do that. We’ve been providing continued support, training to the Kurdish forces, but obviously also within the context of supporting the Iraqi military overall.
VOA: Considering these protests, several U.S. lawmakers from both political parties have called on the Biden administration to stop its talks with Iran for the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. Do you support that notion?
Van Hollen: I do not support walking away from an effort to reach a diplomatic solution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Remember, the fundamental goal here, and President Biden has said many times, is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He has indicated that that will not happen. So, the question is how do you achieve that goal? There are some that would like to go to war in the region. But my view — and I know President Biden’s view — is we’re all better off if we can achieve that goal peacefully. And I hope we would all agree that a nuclear armed Iran engaging in all the bad acts and malign behavior it’s currently engaged in is worse than a non-nuclear armed Iran doing the same thing. So, I continue to support the effort to get to have a JCPOA that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
VOA: These new calls came in light of the protest movement in Iran. These U.S. lawmakers say you can’t negotiate with a government that is currently killing its own people. They say if anything, this is going to encourage the regime to carry out more violence against its own people.
Van Hollen: Well, let’s understand that … Iran’s malign actions in Iraq right now are happening in the absence of a JCPOA. In fact, their actions in Iraq stepped up considerably after President [Donald] Trump tore up the JCPOA. Iran became much more aggressive in Iraq after the jackpot was turned out. So, all this terrible repression is happening right now. How would we be better off if Iran right now, conducting this repression, had a nuclear weapon? That doesn’t make sense.
You know, Ronald Reagan in the middle of the Cold War, he called the Soviet Union the evil empire. But that did not mean that we should not negotiate a nuclear arms control agreement with the Soviet Union at the time if it was in our interests. And it is definitely in our interest to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and in our interests to stand by and support the Iranian people in their fight against repression.