The tyrants’ reach


Despots now threaten free speech even in free countries

Frederick Douglass called freedom of speech “the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power.”

Back in the day, tyrants could gag those they ruled, but in free nations people were free, their rights protected. Once Alexander Solzhenitsyn arrived in America, once Natan Sharansky was in Israel, the Kremlin could silence them no more.

Today, tyrants are increasing their reach, attempting, not without successes, to restrict speech everywhere.

What brings this to mind: As a congressional staffer, a scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and Director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction at the U.S. National Security Council, Richard Goldberg has for years been making the case for a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign on the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran in response to their illicit nuclear weapons program, sponsorship of terrorism, and domestic oppression.

So last week Iran’s rulers announced they were “sanctioning” Mr. Goldberg, who is now back at FDD. A year ago, they “sanctioned” FDD in general, and, by name, FDD’s Mark Dubowitz, a recognized expert on the Tehran regime, and international economic statecraft, calling them “the designing and executing arm of the U.S. administration” on Iran policy.

Since FDD isn’t contemplating opening an office in Tehran, and no FDD employees plan on vacationing in Shiraz anytime soon, such sanctions may appear symbolic. But they carry a threat. This was made explicit in the statement accompanying the 2019 designations: “[T]his measure will be without prejudice to any further legal measures that the other administrative, judicial or security institutions and organizations may take in order to counter, prosecute or punish” FDD.

How serious is this threat to “punish” (which led to bipartisan condemnation, including from Trump, Obama, Bush and Clinton administration officials)?

According to the U.S. State Department, the theocratic regime’s overseas “campaign of terror has included as many as 360 targeted assassinations” in more than 40 countries. “Iran leverages its well-earned reputation for extrajudicial killings to try to silence civil society through death threats against activists, dissidents, and journalists.”

One definition of war: the use of violence to impose one’s will on others. It is within that context that such murders should be viewed. Iran’s rulers won a pivotal battle back in 1989 when Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the killing of Salman Rushdie, British author of “The Satanic Verses.”

One can only imagine how differently history might have unfolded had the response of free nations been robust; had they, for example, recalled their ambassadors from Tehran and sent the regime’s envoys packing. Instead, only the UK broke diplomatic relations, and only for about a year.

The tyrants of the world learned a lesson. A report by the British Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, about which I wrote last month, estimates that 14 Russian dissidents have been murdered on British soil over recent years.

The rulers of North Korea and China have found nefarious ways to limit speech critical of them, intimidating and manipulating what we might otherwise consider powerful and independent individuals in Hollywood, professional sports, and the news media.

The crime for which Tehran has found Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Dubowitz and FDD guilty is “economic terrorism against the interests” of the Iranian government and citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In part, this is an attempt to strike a blow for a false moral equivalence. Tehran has long been designated by the U.S. – Republican and Democratic administrations alike – as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.


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