By Elliott Abrams and David J. Kramer, Opinion Contributors
This article appeared in The Hill on October, 30, 2022. (The views expressed by the contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill.)

Iran and Russia — two repressive regimes with very few allies, both under major international sanctions — are now collaborating militarily. In response, the United States and Europe need to ramp up pressure against the Iranian regime and demonstrate clear support for the Iranian people.

Iran is providing Russia with armed “kamikaze” drones and personnel to train Russian soldiers to use them against Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure. This support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine makes Tehran willingly complicit in feeding Putin’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also heightens the danger the Iranian regime poses to Israel, the United States and the entire Persian Gulf region, its role as the leading state sponsor of terrorism, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The United States and European Union, which already have severe sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, should impose tighter sanctions on Iran for both the delivery of drones to Russia and the regime’s ugly use of deadly force against Iranian protestors following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in September after being detained by morality police. The EU has more leeway to impose such measures than the United States does. It enacted additional sanctions on Iranian officials and the manufacturer of the Shahed-136 drones that Iran has sold to Russia for use in Ukraine on Oct. 20, but it needs to do much more.

The way regimes treat their own people is often indicative of how they will act beyond their borders — and the regime in Tehran has abused the fundamental human rights of Iranians since coming to power in 1979. It has repeatedly and brutally put down protests, including the Green Movement in 2009 and now the recent protests in memory of Amini, who was arrested and detained for violating the regime’s severe dress code by not fully covering her hair. Eyewitnesses claim she was brutally beaten in prison.

Iran’s security services have injured and killed several hundred Iranians, including dozens of children, following protests against the country’s leaders, led by women and girls. More nationwide protests occurred on the 40th day after her death and were again suppressed violently. Such an ugly crackdown is not unusual for the regime, but it has not deterred brave Iranians from turning out into the streets to voice their opposition and frustration.

Still the brutality of the Iranian authorities is a reminder of their readiness to do whatever is necessary to hang onto power. That includes efforts to crush any demonstrations or labor strikes as well as a willingness to sell deadly weapons to their friends in Moscow. It should not shock the international community when the Iranian regime sides with Russia against Ukraine.

Neither Washington nor Brussels should let faint hopes of a new nuclear agreement get in the way of a proper and needed response. While Iran is supplying deadly weapons to Putin to use against Ukrainian civilians and that nation’s infrastructure, a nuclear agreement that would enrich Iran’s leaders with tens of billions of dollars in new revenue would reward such behavior.

For the last few decades, human rights issues in Iran have taken a back seat to nuclear and other “realpolitik” arguments. Support for the Iranian people was often viewed as a marginal issue — one that might interfere with far more serious concerns. During the Green Movement protests of 2009, the United States remained passive, leading demonstrators to hold up signs, in English, asking which side we were on. Former President Obama recently called his reaction at the time “a mistake.”


Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at CFR and former special representative for Iran in the U.S. State Department (2020-21).

David J. Kramer is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and a former assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor in the George W. Bush administration.

Photo credit: Demonstrators rally at the National Mall to protest against the Iranian regime, in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, following the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the Islamic republic’s notorious “morality police.” (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)