Sources

Iran Crackdown, A Tricky Diplomatic Test For Trump Team

What can the White House do, beyond public declarations? Loud statements not backed by action is not the answer.

Dec. 31 protests in Tehran
Dec. 31 protests in Tehran
Michael Singh

-Analysis-

WASHINGTON — With Iran experiencing its largest, most widespread protests in years, thoughts in the White House will inevitably turn to Iran's 2009 "Green Movement," sparked by what was widely considered to be the rigging of presidential elections by Iranian authorities that year. President Barack Obama's administration, unsure how to help the protesters and reluctant to scuttle its nascent engagement with Tehran, responded to the demonstrations with diffidence, prompting criticism from left and right alike.

It should thus come as little surprise that President Trump — fresh off repudiating Obama's nuclear deal with Iran — has taken the opposite tack and thrown his weight behind the protesters. But the Trump administration faces the conundrum that has long stymied U.S. officials seeking to support dissidents abroad: What precisely can we do, beyond issuing statements? After all, a loud statement unsupported by action is unlikely to have more impact than one delivered sotto voce.

Like so many protests around the world, the current demonstrations in Iran appear to have begun with bread-and-butter concerns. Iranians expected their lives to improve after the 2015 nuclear deal, and although Iran has experienced economic growth overall, Iranians still face rising prices and high unemployment. Economics and politics are inextricably linked, so it is not surprising that protesters have also decried corruption and expenditures on foreign conflicts in Syria and elsewhere at a time when domestic needs seem so great.

Such warnings alone are unlikely to deter Iranian authorities.

Given its own concerns about Iran's regional policies, Washington has a stake in this debate. Yet many, including many Iranians, will advise the United States and other foreign governments to stay quiet on the protests for fear of tarnishing them by association with outside powers. But the regime will seek to paint protesters as foreign agents regardless of the reality. The best way to counter this is not to remain silent but to ensure that U.S. statements of support are broadly multilateral and are backed with more practical steps.

The United States and its allies should, through public statements, private messages, U.N. resolutions and whatever other vehicles are available, clearly express their support for Iranians' right to protest. They should also warn authorities in Iran against any violent suppression of the demonstrations, whether such violence takes place on the streets or — as occurred after the 2009 protests — later on in homes and prisons, out of the public eye. Both the regime and demonstrators should be made constantly aware that the world's attention is fixed on them.

If the regime resorts to violence anyway, the international response should focus on diplomatic isolation. European and Asian states should reduce their diplomatic ties with Iran and downgrade Iran's participation in international forums. Sanctions may also have a role, but they should be carefully targeted against those responsible for any crackdown — as well as those outside Iran who facilitate their actions — so as not to harm the Iranians whom the measures aim to support.

Such warnings alone are unlikely to deter Iranian authorities, who have proved both savvy and ruthless in employing their security apparatus against dissidents. Thus another focus of the international community's response should be helping Iranians elude that apparatus and exercise the basic rights that it seeks to deny them.

Instead, the United States can sharpen the choices facing Iran as a whole.

In 2009, State Department official Jared Cohen, without authorization, implored Twitter to forgo a shutdown for scheduled maintenance that happened to coincide with the protests in Iran. Present-day officials, journalists and tech execs should take their cue from Cohen but go further, seeking to provide platforms outside Iran for dissidents to speak out and supply accurate information to those inside Iran about both the protests and the costs of the regime's policies, along with the technical tools Iranians need to evade censorship and surveillance.

Finally, the Trump administration should consider how its broader Iran policy affects what happens inside Iran. This is not to say that the United States should be in the business of currying favor with the regime's "moderates' — Washington has engaged in such efforts over the decades, largely fruitlessly. Instead, the United States can sharpen the choices facing Iran as a whole — and strengthen the arguments of pragmatists arguing for a change in policy — by raising the costs of Iranian regional adventurism and nuclear pursuits while keeping the door open to diplomacy should Iran wish to pursue its interests peacefully.

Western officials should avoid projecting their own hopes onto the Iranian protesters, whose grievances appear varied and are not necessarily aligned with our own complaints about the regime. Western officials should also keep their expectations of the protests in check. They could gather steam, or they could subside. The sign of a successful policy response will be its ability to survive either eventuality, based on the premise that an Iran that is more responsive to the needs of its people will be less dangerous to its region and to the United States.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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