Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is pictured during a Dec. 7, 2023, visit to Moscow. Getty Images

A bipartisan bill passed by the U.S. House with 410 votes, the MAHSA Act is now being held up in the Senate by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who previously championed fighting human rights abuses in Iran. The act is named for Mahsa Amini, who was killed by Iran’s morality police in 2022 after being arrested for not wearing her head covering correctly, which led to massive protests against the Islamic regime.

According to the Washington Beacon, the “bipartisan bill would sanction Iran’s leadership for its role in mass human rights crimes … and sanction Iran’s Supreme Leader and his inner circle for decades of human rights abuses.” This would include Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who  “facilitated the regime’s 1988 slaughter of thousands of jailed political dissidents by serving on a panel … known as the Death Commission, which decided who would live and who would die,” according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

So, why wouldn’t Sen. Cardin bring this legislation to the Senate floor for a vote? The answer likely is pressure from President Biden and his advisers, who, as good as they have been for U.S. interests in Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza, are bad on Iran policy.

The legislation, if passed by the Senate and not vetoed by Biden, would require the administration to hold Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Raisi, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leadership liable for their human rights violations. That would mean a confrontation with Iran, something the administration has avoided.

Yet, as a recent Wall Street Journal editorial pointed out, “Sooner or later, the U.S. and its allies will have to reestablish deterrence if they want a more stable Middle East, and that means dealing with Iran.”  

It is naïve to believe that Iran’s aggression can be managed by some level of Western appeasement in the form of financial sweeteners, giving undeserved respect to Khamenei, or expecting Iranian appreciation for our non-enforcement of oil sanctions.

If the administration is clear-eyed about what Iran’s mullahs are doing, it shouldn’t continue to believe that appeasement is the best path — as when we facilitated the release of $6 billion of Iranian funds frozen in South Korea last year.

Five weeks after the massacre of Israeli civilians by Iran’s proxy militia Hamas, who received hundreds of millions of dollars from Iran, the Biden administration issued another 120-day waiver allowing Iraq to pay Iran billions of dollars for electricity, claiming the money somehow can be used only for humanitarian purposes. It is Economics 101 for terrorist regimes like Iran to manipulate humanitarian transfers, freeing up money to support their nuclear program and terrorist proxies.

Most Americans are unaware that the Biden administration is not fully enforcing sanctions against Iran on oil sales — especially to China, which can buy discounted oil to strengthen its economy. Consequences for nefarious behavior, from nuclear proliferation to human rights abuses to the sponsorship of terrorism and terrorist organizations, have been minimal, and may be interpreted by Khamenei and his IRGC henchman as U.S. weakness.

Failure to support the Iranian people’s quest to be free of a draconian regime gives a black eye to America and supports the narrative that our foreign policy is mere realist hypocrisy without a moral compass.

Our foreign policy must show strength and impose consequences on those who harm us. We were late to the game with tangible actions for the years of attacks against our soldiers by Iran and its proxies in Syria and Iraq; it was improvised explosive devices provided by Iran that killed 196 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

America’s interests will be advanced only if Iran fears kinetic consequences. There is plenty we can do, short of putting soldiers on Iranian soil, for every Iran-directed attack against our troops. We must make Iran think twice before enabling Yemen’s Houthi militants to continue to attack shipping in the Red Sea, or supporting its proxy armies throughout the Middle East.  

We should stop pretending we can’t see through the plausible deniability when Iran uses its proxy armies in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen or Syria, or the IRGC’s Quds Force to attack American interests. The U.S. should make it clear with words and actions that for every attack on American soldiers, whether directly by Iran or through one of its proxies, we will respond — kinetically, diplomatically, and financially. That means hurting the Iranian economy.

Beyond enforcing sanctions, and imposing secondary sanctions on nations that help Iran, the U.S. must take actions that affect Iran directly, if the regime doesn’t get the message that our soldiers cannot be targets for their proxies. Small targeted attacks against Bandar Abbas, Iran’s container shipping facility in the Persian Gulf and a base for its navy, or Kharg Island, the fossil fuel export facility, to highlight Iran’s vulnerability, could help to rein in Iran. Such attacks would be counterintuitive to the administration’s policy of accommodation to Iran, but it would decrease the chance of war, not increase it.

If we are resolute, we may change Iran’s perception of the U.S. as a paper tiger. But that may work only until Iran has a nuclear weapon. It is missing only the last stages of development — weaponizing gaseous uranium into metal and performing an atomic test to show the West that the Islamic Republic of Iran will call the shots from now on.

Iran has taken advantage of the war in Gaza to thwart a pending U.S.-Saudi defense pact and pending peace treaty between Israel and Saudi Arabia. It has also reportedly accelerated its nuclear enrichment program since the war began. A weaponization program to compartmentalize the nuclear material for a functional nuclear warhead can be done in a minimal space that is difficult to detect, something Iran is likely working on as you read this article.

As Gabriel Noronha, a former State Department adviser on Iran, told Fox News, “Biden’s hope has been to bribe Iran not to advance its nuclear program through economic concessions and non-enforcement of sanctions. Iran advanced its nuclear program anyway and pocketed the extra revenue from oil sales to increase funding to its terror proxies. We have had zero wins on the Iran file in the past three years.”

The way to manage the Middle East is to acknowledge where much of the evil behaviors originate: Tehran. Diplomacy will work only with the belief that the U.S. will use credible kinetic actions if necessary. Our response to the Houthi attacks will not mean much if Iran itself doesn’t pay a price. Iran’s strategic plan is to expel the U.S. from the Middle East and then defeat or dominate our allies.  

If the U.S. wants to decrease the chances for a regional war, it must acknowledge that Iran is the enemy. Iran will use its proxies for plausible deniability, weaken U.S. allies, try to destabilize Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the West Bank, and unless someone stops it, soon will have a nuclear weapon. Then, no amount of negotiating or incentives will dissuade Iran’s desire to become immune to attack as a nuclear weapons state.

This article appeared in The Messenger on Jan. 18, 2024

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, and Mandel Strategies. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report and is a contributor to the Jerusalem Post.

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