A year after Mahsa Amini’s death, America’s Iran policy is status quo

September 16th marked one year since Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police for allegedly violating the country’s mandatory dress code for women. Her murder sparked one of the biggest protest movements in the Islamic Republic’s history and captured the attention of Americans, whose support ranged from enabling big tech companies to protect internet access in Iran to imposing sanctions on its senior leadership.

But the movement also triggered a brutal response by the regime. According to human rights organizations, roughly 22,000 people were arrested and over 500 were killed, including at least seven executions in relation to the protests. As the movement’s momentum began to falter in Iran, so did any illusions about a serious U.S. effort to crack down on the Islamic Republic.

Indeed, news of the Biden administration advancing its recent deal with Iran to swap American citizens for the release of up to $6 billion in frozen assets comes just as Iranian authorities have taken sweeping measures to quell a second wave of protests commemorating the anniversary of Amini’s death. Rewarding the regime as it continues to suppress its own people should serve as a sobering reminder of how little American policy towards Iran has changed in the last year.

News of the deal broke in mid-August, when Iran announced it had moved five Iranian-American dual nationals from Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison into house arrest, following more than two years of backdoor negotiations. Per State Department documents released last week, the American citizens will remain in Iran until the Biden administration transfers frozen Iranian funds held in South Korea to restricted bank accounts in Qatar, where the funds can then only be used for humanitarian aid. In addition to the cash transfer, the U.S. has pledged to free five incarcerated Iranians from American prisons. Just today, after announcing that the $6 billion had been moved to Qatari bank accounts, Iran’s foreign ministry confirmed that the prisoner swap was underway.

The release of five innocent Americans should absolutely be cause for celebration. At the same time, the public outrage against what many have called a ransom deal is largely justified. Iran is no stranger to the hostages-for-money scheme, having used this tactic to achieve both foreign policy and monetary objectives for the last 44 years. Its senior commanders have publicly gloated about holding Americans captive to reimburse Iran’s sanctions-riddled economy, and their price tags continue to increase. Following the certification of the JCPOA nuclear deal in 2016, the Obama administration transferred $1.7 billion in frozen assets to Iran, $400 million of which was used as “leverage” in the release of four American citizens.

By striking yet another financial settlement in exchange for innocent lives, the Biden administration has shown Iran that it (literally) pays to continue engaging in egregious human rights violations.

Senior administration officials have insisted there will be “strict oversight” by the Treasury Department over how Iran can use the funds. Such guarantees should be viewed skeptically, especially since that’s not how the Iranians see it. “This money belongs to the Iranian people, the Iranian government, so the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide what to do [with it],” said Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a recent interview.

Even if the U.S. does manage to keep a tight leash on the cash, the deal frees up strains on Iran’s own budget to spend on resources that bolster the regime’s repressive apparatus, whether at home through its own military or via its allies and proxies abroad.

Hostage diplomacy is a vexing tactic that has no unequivocally good solution. But our habit of making financial concessions to the Islamic Republic is a projection of American vulnerability, especially at a time of rising authoritarianism. And on the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death, it is an insult to the brave women and men of Iran who continue to courageously put their own lives on the line in the name of freedom and democracy. The Iranian people should not have to second-guess our commitment to protecting those rights.

Sahar Soleimany is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on the Middle East.

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