From Helsinki to Tehran: the US Needs a Multi-Track Process to Address Iranian Aggression

Jonathan Greenblatt
5 min readMar 11, 2022
Credit: Getty

In recent weeks, observers around the world have been riveted by the bravery of the Ukranian people in the face of the Russian onslaught. Many recognize this unprovoked assault as Putin’s fever dream to revive Imperial Russia. Even as he tries to rewrite history, we should recall the policies and practices that defeated the USSR during the Cold War, especially when today we confront other ideological enemies, particularly the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This issue is timely today as reports abound of an imminent nuclear agreement with Iran.

At ADL, we know the threat that Iran poses to interests around the world. It is the largest state sponsor of antisemitism on the planet, constantly churning out genocidal memes and disseminating hostile propaganda against Jews. Its annual cartoon contest on Holocaust Denialism has drawn widespread condemnation, but far fewer people realize it is spewing out this poison in multiple languages on a daily basis. And Iran’s stated desire to annihilate the Jewish state must be taken seriously. As we have seen with Putin and other tyrants throughout history, we are deluded to disregard their stated goals. We can’t afford to ignore those, like the tyrants who rule Iran, who promise genocide. We must take them at their word.

We also see the danger that Iran poses to the region and the world through its support of proxy militias and employment of terror as statecraft. The Iranian regime is the single most prominent sponsor of terror and terrorist organizations around the world. Their activities span nearly every continent and they have left death and debris in their wake in countries such as Argentina, Lebanon, Turkey, Bulgaria and even in the US.

And so, while President Biden and his team clearly appreciate the nuclear threat posed by Iran, a one-track process to return to JCPOA is far from adequate to confront the full range of threats generated by this regime. Just as we learned with the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s, the Islamic Republic must be deterred simultaneously on multiple fronts. As there was no silver bullet to stop the specter of Soviet Communism, there is no magic wand to wave to stop the specter of Iranian extremism.

If there is any realistic hope of a new Iranian nuclear deal being effective, it needs to be complemented and enhanced by a highly public multi-track process that pressures the regime and strengthens the hand of its opponents. This should have started long ago, but it is not yet too late. We need to employ both soft and hard power that manifest our values. It can be done — but the Administration, in concert with our allies, must act now:

First, we need a zero-tolerance policy on terror. No sanctions relief for terrorists, full stop. Reports indicate that Iran is demanding the lifting of terrorism-related sanctions on individuals and institutions. How can we expect countries to follow our lead and sanction Russia if we lift sanctions on Iran and its gruesome organ of terror such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)? What is the justification for removing the penalties on individuals whose hands are soaked in blood, such as Mohsen Rezeai who masterminded the 1994 AMIA bombing that murdered 85 people and injured hundreds in Buenos Aries, Argentina?

Second, we need a Helsinki-like process focused on Iranian security and human rights. The US and its partners should establish a process inspired by the 1970’s Helsinki Process that links security arrangements in the region to a respect for the dignity of all people and the acknowledgement of their basic inalienable rights. This might seem fanciful, but it arguably was even more outlandish in the early 1970s when the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was convened in the shadow of threats from the Soviet Union.

The Iranian regime’s targeting of religious, ethnic and sexual minorities cannot be ignored. All people should have the right to assemble in public and private spaces, to love those who they choose, and to worship as they want. While it seems predictable that Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei will opt out because of Iran’s preference to imprison dissidents, execute LGBTQ citizens, persecute Ba’hai and other religious minorities, so be it. Their absence will speak volumes and help build a coalition of moral courage to oppose their fascism and fundamentalism.

Third, we need to lift up and lionize the courageous voices of the opposition to the Islamic Republic. Just as the West lauded Sakharov, celebrated Solzhenitsyn, and worked to free Sharansky, we should use our platforms and voice to empower and liberate the Iranian heroes who have taken risks to stand up for freedom. This should encompass individuals languishing in Iranian prisons and those forced into exile. The list would include Masih Alinejad, the brave feminist who has evaded efforts by the regime to kidnap and remand her back to Iran to face trial for the offense of speaking out on behalf of women in her homeland; Hossein Ronaghi, the courageous blogger who was jailed in Iran for writing in the Wall Street Journal about the serial depravations of the regime; Soheila Hejab, a Kurdish woman held in chains in the notorious Qarchak prison for the crime of forming a women’s rights groups; and Manouchehr Bakhtiari, the grieving father who was jailed simply for demanding justice for his murdered son, Pouya, who was gunned down by security forces after participating in a peaceful protest.

And these are just some of the names we know — but there are legions of ordinary Iranians who have been marching in the streets for years at great personal cost. These people should earn accolades from foundations and NGOs in the West. They should be celebrated even in absentia with honorifics and medals. Monuments should be built in their honor. Their cause should be supported in every way possible. Their names should be on the tips of the tongues of every person in the West who purports to care about dignity and freedom.

As the world rightly focuses on Putin’s unholy obliteration of Ukraine, we cannot allow ourselves to be inattentive to other threats including those posed by Iran. A nuclear deal may be imminent, but let’s ensure there are parallel tracks to pressure this regime on its unabashed antisemitism, terrorism and abhorrent human rights record. The world expects no less of us.