Two Iranian women, two very different views on how the West should deal with Iran

Dour mullahs have for decades forced Iranians into lives appallingly different from all that their long history and dazzling culture should have produced. Iran should be among the world’s most vibrant countries. Instead it is poor, isolated, and ruled by clerics who want to take society back to the seventh century.

Many Iranians wish for a completely different regime. Women don’t want to be forced to live under shrouds, young people want to speak freely, and all want to escape fears of prison and the executioner. What can the outside world do? That depends on whom you ask. Two totally opposite strategies have emerged from the ranks of unhappy Iranians.

Activists inside the country beg the rest of the world not to keep pushing the mullahs into corners where they feel threatened and pressed to lash out, but rather to engage with the regime. Many of these activists have lost hope that their government will evolve toward democracy on its own. They hope to strengthen civil society in ways that will slowly weaken the foundations of religious rule and force change from within. They argue that sanctions, isolation, and military threats weaken their cause and empower the authoritarian regime.

History suggests that this approach might bear results, but some activists outside Iran consider it nonsense. Rather than ease sanctions, they want to intensify them. They call on the world to isolate the regime totally and choke what remains of its economy.

Two impassioned women personify these dueling responses to Iran’s appalling human rights record. One, Masih Alinejad, travels the world demanding that nations tighten sanctions on Iran and slam all doors in the regime’s face. The other, Narges Mohammadi, winner of the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize, calls for a lifting of sanctions and a return to diplomacy — from her cell in an Iranian prison. They agree that their country’s ruling system is intolerably repressive; they profoundly disagree about how the world should respond.

Over the last few years, Alinejad has emerged as the face of anti-Iran activism around the world. She fled her homeland a decade ago, pursued by the authorities for her outspoken journalism. In Washington, she endorsed the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran, which included stronger sanctions and an end to diplomacy — including the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. The architect of that policy, then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo, welcomed her to the State Department and praised her “bravery and continued dedication.”

Alinejad, who affects a wild hairstyle to symbolize her rejection of Iran’s mandatory-hijab law, supports heavy economic sanctions on Iran in the hope that they will lead the regime to collapse. She wants all countries to end cooperation with Iran, refuse negotiations, and cut diplomatic ties. Some of her supporters seek restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty that ruled Iran until 1979. In testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee last year, she asserted that current US sanctions on Iran, which are among the tightest ever imposed on any country, are only “token measures” and should be replaced by a “more aggressive” approach.

Inside Iran, opponents of the theocratic regime urge precisely the opposite. They call on Western powers to ease sanctions that impoverish Iranians and to negotiate with Iran’s government, especially on human rights issues. These activists, like the millions of Iranians they represent, face the reality of daily life inside the country. They see that the Islamic Republic cannot be as easily toppled as the Pahlavi monarchy was in 1979 and that therefore the only realistic option is to strengthen civil society so it can promote reform.

Mohammadi, the Nobel laureate, argues that sanctioning and isolating Iran has made that reform more difficult. “Economic sanctions, because they weren’t targeted or based on adequate knowledge of the state, weakened Iranians economically more than they weakened the Iranian regime,” she told The Washington Post in 2022. “In fact, they strengthened the Iranian regime and hardline individuals and groups in the country, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This did not benefit democracy in Iran. . . . The West shouldn’t have policies that strengthen the repressive policies of the regime and weaken civil society.”

To engage or not to engage: That is the diplomatic question. Today it shapes debate over American policy not only toward Iran but toward Russia, China, Syria, North Korea, and other real or perceived enemies. Do we isolate and seek to crush them or deal with them as they are and hope that diplomacy and commerce will slowly lead their leaders toward greater tolerance?

In societies ruled by repressive governments, like Iran, the most positive influence outside powers can have is to help build a middle class. A stable and ambitious middle class usually begins to press for political as well as economic freedom. Promoting a middle class was a main goal of the Marshall Plan, which helped stabilize Europe after World War II. More recently, middle classes contributed decisively to democratization of East Asian societies like South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia. The policy of promoting change this way, however, works slowly. Americans are often impatient and seek quick answers to geopolitical problems. This leads us to support sanctions and other coercive measures to punish countries whose leaders we dislike — even though in the case of Iran, 40 years of sanctions has produced no positive result.

“Sanctions have not changed Iran; instead, they have weakened the constituency within Iran that favored building ties with the West,” according to “How Sanctions Work,” a new study by four Iranian-American scholars. “Maximum pressure failed to achieve its policy goal.”

Should we double down on that policy or reverse course and take a more conciliatory approach to Iran? Two dynamic Iranian women have radically different answers.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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