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Curious Silence

Democrats Are Dropping the Ball on Iran

Why is Tom Cotton the loudest member of Congress speaking about human rights abuses in Iran right now?

Protesters in Tehran, Iran
Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Image
Protesters in Tehran, Iran, during a September 19 demonstration for Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested by morality police for allegedly not complying with strict dress code

Republican Senator Tom Cotton this week criticized the Biden administration for its silence as peaceful protesters in Iran are beaten and killed.

“Joe Biden is selling out the Iranian protestors for the same reason Barack Obama betrayed the 2009 Green revolutionaries: a blind obsession with a terrible nuclear deal,” Cotton wrote in a tweet on Wednesday, referring to the protests inside Iran after the 2009 presidential election.

Over the last week, at least 17 Iranians have been killed in protests that have spread throughout the country. The protests began after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was arrested in Tehran by the country’s morality police for improper hijab and died two hours later in police custody. Later reports revealed that Amini had suffered repeated blows to her head before losing consciousness.

It’s hard to believe that Cotton, who has been a vocal proponent of bombing Iran, suddenly cares about the Iranian people. Still, his statement has resonated with many inside and outside the country—maybe because almost all members of Congress, including Democrats, have stayed silent.

In 2015, Cotton advocated for war to stop Iran’s nuclear program, saying that a military attack on Iran would only take “several days.” A few months later, he again said the United States should not sign onto the Iran nuclear deal and could instead bomb Iran’s nuclear program “back to zero.” Cotton has led this campaign throughout his time in Congress, and in 2019 Politico dubbed him “the most outspoken champion for bombing Iran in a Senate filled with Republican hawks.”

Cotton has also never been an advocate for police reform, or even for peaceful protest. The current protests in Iran have been compared by many to the 2020 racial justice protests in America following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In both instances, protesters were shocked by police brutality and were calling for change. During the height of the protests in America in 2020, the Republican senator from Arkansas published an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Send in the Military,” advocating for a military response to quell protests.

But that hasn’t stopped some from praising his response to the protests in Iran this week. An Instagram post of his statement translated in Persian by Iran International garnered more than 100,000 likes as of Thursday afternoon. At the time of Cotton’s statement, many Democratic officials, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and many members of the progressive House group known as the “Squad” had yet to say anything about Iran. (Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been the only member of the Squad to say something, calling for solidarity with the protesters in an Instagram story on Wednesday evening.)

On Thursday, nearly a week after the death of Amini, the Treasury Department sanctioned Iran’s “morality police,” as well as seven leaders of Iranian security organizations that it said “routinely employ violence to suppress peaceful protesters and members of Iranian civil society, political dissidents, women’s rights activists, and members of the Iranian Baha’i community.” (It’s unclear why the morality police was not sanctioned before this, given the wide scope of U.S. sanctions on Iran.)

Also on Thursday, Pelosi wrote in a tweet that the “courageous voices of the Iranian people are being heard around the world.” As of publication time, Schumer’s office has not released a statement on Iran. Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the only two Muslim women in Congress, have similarly not made statements. (Later on Thursday, after this story was published, Omar posted a statement about Amini’s death on Instagram, calling for the world to “be united in fighting against the policing of what women wear...”)*

Many Democrats instead seem focused on the nuclear negotiations with Iran, which are currently at a stalemate. Senator Chris Murphy, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told The New Republic’s Grace Segers that the United States has “limited means to get democracy funding and human rights funding into Iran.” When asked about Cotton’s statement that the Biden administration is too focused on the nuclear deal at the expense of human rights, Murphy said, “Republicans are going to come up with a new reason every day to let Iran get a nuclear weapon. All this malevolent behavior would be much worse if Iran was a nuclear weapons power. So I’m never persuaded that we shouldn’t negotiate with Iran just because [they] behave incredibly badly. To me, that’s the reason why we should be talking to them.”

The nuclear negotiations with Iran have hit another stalemate, though talks are reportedly taking place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited New York this week and delivered a speech at the General Assembly, during which he made no mention of the protests inside Iran or those protesting his visit outside the United Nations.

Meanwhile, people inside Iran are unable to access Instagram, one of the last remaining social media apps that was not filtered in Iran, or WhatsApp. Access to the internet more broadly also remains severely limited. In November 2019, the internet in Iran was shut down for one week during mass protests, during which as many as 1,500 people were killed.

It’s possible many Democrats in Congress aren’t saying anything due to everything else on their plate: trying to pass the police funding bill; working to avoid a government shutdown; and of course, trying to maintain control of Congress in the midterm elections this November. But tweeting a brief statement, as Cotton did, is hardly going to derail their other projects.

* This article has been updated.