Tuesday, November 24, 2020


America’s 2020 presidential election has at least one clear winner and it’s neither Donald Trump or Joe Biden.      

The winner, at least for now, is one of America’s deadliest ideological foes: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Just barely a day after the election, Mr. Khamenei smelled blood and went for the kill. “What a spectacle!” Mr. Khamenei tweeted. “One says this is the most fraudulent election in US history. Who says that? The president who is currently in office. His rival says Trump intends to rig the elections. This is how #USElections & US democracy are.”

Mr. Khamenei’s hatred and enmity toward America is rooted in animus for the very idea of democracy. What better way to rid the world of the curse of freedom and cause of liberty than to exploit the 2020 election?   

Mr. Khamenei’s formula is simple: Wipe out American democracy and fundamentalism will flourish in the vacuum. By casting a specter of fraud over U.S. elections and its institutions, American leaders will lack even the authority to lead the efforts against the ongoing pandemic. Indeed, the supreme leader’s goal is to replace America as the preeminent power in the region.    

The irony is not lost on Iranian-Americans, though. A cleric who has ruled Iran by virtue of less than 60 votes feels emboldened enough to negate the votes of Americans by mocking Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden together. And for good reason. Mr. Khamenei has been calling for the death of America since the fundamentalist takeover of Iran following the hostage crisis of 1979.

Sadly, successive American presidents from Jimmy Carter to Donald Trump have sold the idea of democracy and human rights short. They have lurched from crisis to conflict in a quixotic quest for a bigger or better deal with a theocracy founded on fear, fraud and force. In the lexicon of American statesmen, D no longer stands for democracy. It stands for diplomacy — proclaiming the ideals of democracy and human rights in public while gutting them in practice.

Iranians rejoiced at the promise of “a new day” with Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. In his inaugural address on Jan. 21, 2009, President Obama proclaimed that “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man — a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”  

Only a few months later, however, Mr. Obama did just that. Instead of standing up for American ideals — the rule of law and the rights of man — the promise of democracy and human rights in Iran was sacrificed on the altar of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the Iran nuclear deal. From the get-go, the Iran deal was sold as the only alternative to an Iran war — a short-sighted and dangerous compromise.

In Iran’s 2009 presidential election, Mr. Khamenei fraudulently certified the vote to select Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as his president. The ayatollah adopted a shoot-to-kill policy against pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets with a simple chant: “Where is my vote?” The dream of democracy literally bled out of the eyes of Neda Agha Soltan, a young woman shot dead on the streets of Tehran.

Neda’s death was Iran’s George Floyd moment — an act of injustice witnessed by a global audience in real time. When then-President Obama would not mention Neda’s name, the signal to Mr. Khamenei was loud and clear: Iranian lives did not matter. 

As for the promise of Iranian democracy, it took its last gasp with Neda.

That, too, was a spectacle. 

Ten years later, Mr. Khamenei still has his knee on the Iranian people’s neck. The Iranian people still can’t breathe. Democrats and Republicans alike have yet to recognize the damage their deals with Iran’s ayatollahs inflict on the rights of every Iranian man, woman and child. 

The burden of defending the ideals enshrined in the U.N. charter has fallen on human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and the rest of the Iranian political prisoners. The price? Mrs. Sotoudeh has been sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for championing the rights of women.  

To his credit, Joe Biden issued a tweet on Sept. 12 defending the Iranian people’s right to peaceful protest. Mr. Biden condemned Iran’s human rights violations after the grizzly execution of Navid Afkari, a champion wrestler, and called for the release of Mrs. Sotoudeh and other political prisoners.

But Mr. Biden’s tweets should not be confused with a new Iran policy. And Mrs. Sotoudeh’s release must not be confused with freedom. With Iran’s judiciary and security apparatus under Mr. Khamenei’s command, her life, family and work are riddled with arbitrary sentences and sanctions, which can snap her back into prison within a matter of minutes — an almost certain death sentence given her deteriorating heart condition. 

With Iran’s presidential elections scheduled for June 2021, Mr. Biden and his foreign policy team would be well advised to pause before they rush to build a bridge back to the past. Allowing Mr. Khamenei to set the terms and conditions for America’s entry into the next round of nuclear negotiations comes at a price: conceding the promise of Iranian democracy and human rights. This is not the moment for America to genuflect before a theocracy.

After decades of corruption and misrule, Iranians are under no illusions about the bitter harvest of Mr. Khamenei’s anti-Americanism. His fundamentalist experiment has failed. With the Iranian state, economy and society on the verge of collapse, Iranians do not want another round of nuclear negotiations. They need a return to normalcy — an end to the poverty and corruption unleashed by Mr. Khamenei’s nuclear gamble and COVID-19 denial.

Even as Mr. Khamenei mocks the spectacle of America’s democracy, Iranians are calling for a referendum: a peaceful way out of the calamity of theocracy and a transition to democracy.

The question millions of Iranians asked Mr. Obama in 2009 will soon confront the next American president. Will we breathe life back into the idea of democracy or concede that democracy is dead and surrender Neda’s dream? 

• Khosrow B. Semnani, an Iranian-American industrialist, community leader and philanthropist, is the author of “Where is My Oil? Corruption in Iran’s Oil and Gas Sector.” Amir Soltani, a human rights activist, is the author of “Zahra’s Paradise,” a graphic novel on Iran’s 2009 protests.

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