The U.S. announced fresh sanctions on Thursday against Iranian officials in punishment "for the continued violence against peaceful protesters and the shutdown of Iran's Internet access."
"We condemn the Iranian government's crackdown on its people's rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly, including by shutting down access to the internet. We will use our sanctions as long as Iran continues to disregard its people's rights," State Department spokesperson Ned Price tweeted.
Thursday's sanctions announcement follows days of growing pressure from activists for the U.S. to support the Iran protests, now in their third week, following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman in the custody of the country's so-called morality police.
While the administration has taken some steps in response — mostly with sanctions — activists and analysts say its approach has been tentative, as it also tries to revive a key nuclear deal with Tehran.
Sanctions and tech support
President Biden says he stands with the women of Iran and those who have been protesting following Amisi's death. His administration has imposed sanctions on the morality police.
Meanwhile, the Treasury Department issued a license to exempt tech companies from some sanctions so they can try to increase web access for Iranians.
"It is a welcome move, but it is coming years after we have been repeating this call," says Iranian American human rights lawyer Gissou Nia, director of the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council.
She has long argued that U.S. sanctions made it hard for Iranians to freely use the internet, forcing many to communicate via Iranian government services – which the government frequently blocks and possibly scans to find dissenters.
Moves by the White House now, though, might take too long to make a difference for today's protesters, she says.
Nia also worries that Iranians may not be able to pay for internet subscriptions because they don't have credit cards that work in the international banking system. She's urging the U.S. government to work with big tech companies to provide free services.
There are calls for the White House to shift its Iran approach
The Biden administration's focus has been on trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which capped Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief — before the Trump administration pulled out.
"The entire [Biden] administration's Iran policy has been just about the nuclear negotiations and I think now they're caught a little bit flat-footed," says Hadi Ghaemi, executive eirector of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
Ghaemi says he's heard from human rights activists in Iran who are worried about the Iranian government getting sanctions relief now, as it cracks down on protesters with increasing brutality.
The Obama administration was criticized for not doing enough to prevent the Iranian government from crushing massive protests in 2009. At the time, Obama sought better relations with Iran leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal. Though he eventually became more vocal about the protests, Obama said the U.S. would respect Iranian sovereignty and let Iranians choose their leaders.
U.S. officials should have learned their lesson from that period, says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says supporting Iranians demanding basic rights now is a "no-brainer."
"This is one of those black-and-white issues in international relations, which doesn't come along very often," Sadjadpour says, noting that women should not be "beaten or killed for wearing trousers that are too tight or not covering their hair."
Calling out human rights violations
The State Department says it is appalled by Iran's crackdown on protesters. But human rights activist Ghaemi says the U.S. is still too timid. Both he and Nia say the Biden administration should push for more action at the United Nations in New York and at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Nia suggests creating a new U.N. mechanism like those tracking abuses in Syria and Myanmar.
"Those bodies are meant to document these violations, ensure that the evidence is preserved and admissible in a courtroom," says Nia.
That would be for future accountability. For now, it is hard for anyone to predict how the protests will play out.
Sadjadpour says either the regime will crush this movement and retain its grip on power — or the protesters will manage to change the regime.
"There is this huge disconnect between a regime which is ruled by old, traditional men, and a society which is overwhelmingly young, modern people, who have a fundamentally different vision for Iran," he says. The U.S. approach to Iran, he says, is similar to what it once did with the Soviet Union — supporting dissidents even as the two sides negotiated arms deals.