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Can the U.S. Do More to Help Iranian Protesters?
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Can the U.S. Do More to Help Iranian Protesters?

Plus: U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss resigned on Thursday, setting up a Conservative Party fight over who will replace her.

Happy Friday! If you started as soon as it dropped at midnight and didn’t sleep, you could have listened to Taylor Swift’s new album nine full times before this newsletter was published. [Editor’s note: This was not theoretical for Declan.]

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Legal challenges to the Biden administration’s mass student loan cancellation scheme faced multiple setbacks on Thursday, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett denying a conservative Wisconsin taxpayer group’s request the Supreme Court temporarily block the program and District Court Judge Henry Autrey for the Eastern District of Missouri dismissing a lawsuit brought by six Republican-led states seeking an injunction. Although Autrey—a George W. Bush appointee—agreed the states presented “important and significant challenges to the debt relief plan,” he held that they did not have standing to sue—and Barrett’s denial was for a similar reason. The ruling will allow debt forgiveness—for which more than 12 million Americans have already applied, according to the Biden administration—to start being processed as early as Sunday.
  • Citing the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued an order Thursday directing the Pentagon to establish new transportation allowances for service members and their dependents looking to travel to access “non-covered reproductive health care that is unavailable within the local area of a service member’s permanent duty station.” The order—which also seeks to establish a program to support Pentagon health care providers facing civil or criminal penalties for providing abortions—seeks to head off legal challenges by paying for travel expenses associated with an abortion, rather than for the abortion itself.
  • A three-judge panel on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s unique funding mechanism—which was concocted by congressional Democrats a decade ago to circumvent the traditional appropriations process—violates the Constitution. “Congress’s decision to abdicate its appropriations power under the Constitution, i.e., to cede its power of the purse to the Bureau, violates the Constitution’s structural separation of powers,” the panel held. It’s unclear whether the CFPB plans to appeal the ruling.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted unanimously Thursday to recommend adding COVID-19 shots to the 2023 child and adult vaccination schedule. The panel can’t enforce its decision, but states and local jurisdictions often require its recommended shots for students entering daycare and school.
  • The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported Thursday that U.S. college enrollment dropped for the third straight year in 2022—down 1.1 percent from 2021—but at a slower pace, approaching pre-pandemic rates of decline. Highly selective schools saw a 5.6 percent decrease in freshman enrollment year-over-year, while community colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and primarily online institutions saw enrollment increases.
  • Ethiopia’s army has stepped up an offensive against rebel Tigrayan fighters, with thousands of soldiers gathering around the northern city of Axum after capturing three nearby towns. Diplomats have been negotiating the terms of peace talks—scheduled to begin in South Africa October 24—to stop the conflict, which re-escalated after a five-month humanitarian cease-fire ended in August. The fighting has killed more than 50,000 people, and famine and disease exacerbated by the war have killed hundreds of thousands more.
  • The average number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States declined about 17 percent over the past two weeks according to CDC data, while the average number of daily deaths attributed to the virus—a lagging indicator—fell 7.5 percent. About 20,700 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, down from approximately 22,200 two weeks ago.
  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—decreased by 12,000 week-over-week to a seasonally adjusted 214,000 last week. The measure is up from earlier this year, but it remains near historic lows, signaling the labor market—though cooling—continues to be tight.

The West Doesn’t Want to Whiff on Iran

Protesters hold placards and chant slogans outside the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul during a protest over the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini. (Getty Images)

As the Green Movement protests swept through Iran in 2009, the fledgling Obama administration at first kept mum, purportedly for fear of giving the regime an excuse for a brutal crackdown. Then-President Barack Obama had also begun an exchange of letters with Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, that would eventually lead to negotiations for the 2015 nuclear deal.

Obama revisited that decision on an episode of “Pod Save America” last week. “There was some thought that we were somehow going to be undermining [protesters’] street cred in Iran if I supported what they were doing,” he said. “In retrospect, I think that was a mistake.”

Iran is once again rocked by protests—this time over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained for violating the state-required dress code—and Biden administration officials (many of whom served in the Obama administration) say they’ve learned from 2009’s mistakes.

“What we learned in the aftermath of that is that you can overthink these things,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan—in 2009 a top State Department adviser—told NBC’s Meet the Press late last month. “The most important thing for the United States to do is to be firm and clear and principled in response to citizens of any country demanding their rights and dignity.”

Iranians are certainly demanding their rights—and calling for Khamenei’s downfall. Although the regime has sought to clamp down on internet access, protesters are still managing to export videos of the demonstrations. In dozens of cities across the country, women have removed their own hijabs and burned them, cutting their hair in defiance. Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi received a raucous welcome at a Tehran airport this week after competing without a hijab in South Korea. She told state media it was unintentional, but it’s unclear if she still has freedom of movement.

From the start, Iranian security forces have responded to the protests with beatings, detainments, and killings. Officers arriving in unmarked vans have raided schools and fired teargas and live ammunition on crowds. With protests now in their fifth week, Iranian security forces have killed at least 215 people, including 27 under the age of 18, according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights, and that’s almost certainly an undercount.

But the violence hasn’t seemed to deter the protesters. “[Security forces] haven’t been able to fizzle the demonstrations out by isolating the protest marches from one another and cutting social media connectivity,” Ray Takeyh, a senior Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Dispatch. “[Protests] seem to be persisting, but smaller scale and more sporadic in order to avoid the regime response.”

It’s tough to predict the results of any given protest movement, but analysts say the trajectory in Iran has shifted. “It used to be that Iran would have protests every 10 years—now it’s happening almost every year,” Alex Vatanka, founding director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, told The Dispatch. “The trend is one of a young, angry [generation]—extremely angry, because they’re hopeless about the future—and they are also fearless. And these things combined really created an explosive cocktail.”

The West’s efforts to meet the moment on this round of protests has so far included a lot of statements of solidarity. The Biden administration quickly announced its support for the demonstrators and has continued doing so: President Joe Biden mentioned them in his United Nations General Assembly speech, several top officials have met with Iranian activists, and the State Department yesterday reiterated its support for freedom of internet access in Iran. Others have joined in—Belgium’s foreign minister and two other lawmakers cut their hair in solidarity on the floor of parliament, and Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly on Thursday led a virtual gathering of 14 other female foreign ministers and officials to hear from Iranian activists.

Iran is already the world’s second-most sanctioned nation—after Russia—but Western countries have continued to pile on with more restrictions. The United States sanctioned the morality police responsible for enforcing the nation’s hijab requirement weeks ago, while loosening other internet sanctions, encouraging tech companies to help Iranians access the internet so they can keep coordinating and communicating about protests. The European Union and Canada have added their own human rights sanctions. (Several Western nations are also considering sanctioning Iran for supplying Russia with drones and on-the-ground training for its war against Ukraine.)

These actions are unlikely to topple the regime, but analysts argue they can still help protesters. “Pressure from the international community does matter,” Vatanka said. “It’s not going to stop the trajectory of these protesters or the regime’s response, but it is going to shape it—and it might shape it in a way that will reduce bloodshed.” It’s possible that clear signals of international attention have discouraged Iranian forces from more violence—in 2019, officers killed an estimated 1,500 protesters—though again, there have likely been more killings than we know about.

The Biden administration does have levers left to pull. “Biden should move beyond sporadic sanctions against low-level rights violators,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Dispatch. He suggested sanctioning Khamenei—“a man whose title as supreme leader is meant to be taken rather literally”—and increasing sanctions and enforcement against Iran’s oil industry to drain the regime’s funds.

Biden could also take the nuclear deal off the table. So far, the administration has said the stalled agreement isn’t a focus but has declined to declare it dead for good. “It is a position of both the United States and the Europeans that they’re still at some point prepared to have those conversations—and therefore proceed with sanctions relief,” Takeyh said. “I wouldn’t return to diplomatic dialogue about the nuclear deal.”

Whether the West has responded well to these protests ultimately depends on whether it keeps steady pressure on Iran, Takeyh argued. “They’re definitely more proactive [than 2009] in terms of their rhetoric, but that’s the easy stuff,” he said. “Now the hard stuff comes. At some point, there will be ebbs and flows. If this [protest] ebbs, are we going back to that business as usual?”

Liz Truss: The Shortest-Serving U.K. Prime Minister in Modern British History 

As longtime TMD readers know, this newsletter takes a unique approach to newsworthiness and story selection that we think has served us well over the years. “When we talk about the things that we would like [Declan and Esther] to focus on there,” Steve told Jonah on Wednesday’s Remnant, “I like to say, ‘Is this something that people are going to be talking about in six days? Is it something that people are going to be talking about in six weeks? Is it something that people are going to be talking about in six months?’ And if the answer to each of those questions is an obvious no, eh, it’s something we could choose not to cover.”

Consider this our formal apology for writing about Liz Truss’ tenure as British prime minister. We could’ve just skipped it.

Truss announced her resignation on Thursday after just 44 days on the job, making her the shortest-serving prime minister in modern British history—by far. The now-runner up, Bonar Law, quit after 210 days in 1923 due to aggressive throat cancer. “Given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative Party,” Truss told reporters in a curt address outside 10 Downing Street, announcing there would be a leadership election to replace her within the week. “I will remain as prime minister until a successor has been chosen. Thank you.”

The “situation,” as Truss put it, is presumably shorthand for the absolute chaos her government has inflicted on the United Kingdom over the past six weeks. Shortly taking office on September 6—the same day we announced Allahpundit/Nick Catoggio was joining The Dispatch, for frame of reference—Truss’ agenda was put on hold as Queen Elizabeth’s death ground life in England to a halt. But once that 10-day mourning period was up, Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, her chancellor of the exchequer, got to work rolling out a “mini budget” full of deficit-financed tax cuts and energy subsidies that they vowed would deliver the economic growth Truss promised throughout her campaign.

We covered the substance of the plan in detail last week, but it doesn’t matter much anymore: Markets flipped out, so Kwarteng reluctantly backtracked on some of the proposed tax cuts. When that wasn’t enough to stabilize the pound, Truss fired—or “sacked”—Kwarteng and replaced him with Jeremy Hunt, a relative moderate who pledged this week to undo just about everything Kwarteng hadn’t already undone. Truss’ departure, at that point, became an inevitability: Why keep the libertarian-leaning, pro-growth leader around to execute a warmed-over, center-right agenda? A tumultuous day on Wednesday—Home Secretary Suella Braverman was forced out and Truss had to chase her chief whip into a hallway during a vote to convince her not to quit—likely accelerated the timeline. YouGov released polling earlier this week putting Truss’ net approval rating underwater, at an astounding -70 percent: 10 percent of Britons approved, 80 percent did not.  

“Pretending we haven’t made mistakes, carrying on as if everyone can’t see that we have made them, and hoping that things will magically come right is not serious politics,” Braverman said in her resignation letter. Senior Tory MP Charles Walker was even more blunt. “This whole affair is inexcusable. It is a pitiful reflection on the Conservative parliamentary party on every level,” he told the BBC. “I really shouldn’t say this, but … all those people who put Liz Truss in number 10 [Downing Street], I hope it was worth it … to sit around the Cabinet table. Because the damage they have done to our party is extraordinary.”

It’s worth remembering, at this point, how Truss was elected in the first place. After her predecessor Boris Johnson announced his resignation this summer, Tory MPs conducted multiple rounds of voting, eliminating the candidate with the least support each time until just two—Truss and former finance minister Rishi Sunak—remained. At that point, the vote was opened up to about 160,000 Conservative Party members, and 57 percent of them preferred the 47-year-old foreign secretary who wasn’t talking about fiscal responsibility and austerity measures. But Truss never had majority—or even plurality—support among MPs themselves. In fact, she didn’t surpass 33 percent support until that final round of voting.

The Tories, like the GOP, are best thought of as a coalition of several different factions: a libertarian wing, a socially conservative wing, a compassionate conservative wing, and a traditionalist wing. Truss—unlike her predecessors—could really only count on support from one of those corners. “Two thirds of members of parliament didn’t vote for her,” noted Robert Tyler, a senior policy adviser at New Direction, a Margaret Thatcher-founded European think tank. “Liz Truss was really there just with the libertarian, liberal wing. She didn’t have the broad support in all the other factions.”

Whoever replaces her will need to do better. In an effort to wrap up the next selection process as quickly as possible, Sir Graham Brady—chair of the 1922 Committee that oversees the election of party leaders—announced yesterday that any candidate to replace Truss will need the support of at least 100 of the 357 Tory MPs in an initial ballot on Monday, meaning at most three people can move on to the next round. If three do, MPs would then narrow it down to two before a full party member vote on Friday, October 28. If only one candidate surpasses that initial 100-vote threshold on Monday, that’s the ballgame.

Who are the possible contenders? Sunak is far and away the frontrunner, and not just because he already has an operational campaign team from the last time he ran for prime minister … six weeks ago. As it turns out, the former finance minister’s warnings during the campaign—that Truss’ proposed tax cuts would prove a “short-term sugar rush” that would tank the markets and push the economy into recession—proved fairly prescient. “I’ve not been making lots of easy promises that I think are false,” Sunak said in a debate. “I’d rather lose than say things I don’t think can be delivered.”

But Sunak is not the only Tory expected to toss their name in the ring. Penny Mordaunt—the defense secretary in Theresa May’s government and leader of the House of Commons in Truss’—came in third last time around, and Braverman’s profile has risen after her brief tenure as home secretary. Hunt ruled out a run for the top job on Thursday, but Ben Wallace—the current defense secretary—has not. 

And then there’s the matter of Boris. It’s unlikely the former prime minister could wriggle back into his old job after being ousted following a string of scandals—and he hasn’t officially said that he’s interested—but those betting against Boris Johnson over the years are out a lot of money.

Whoever it is, it’s likely their tenure will have about a two-year cap on it. Although Labour leader Keir Starmer demanded a general election on Thursday to give his party a chance at the majority, Tories aren’t required to call one before January 2025—so they won’t. The Conservative Party is historically unpopular right now—it trailed Labour by a record 39 percentage points in a generic ballot poll released earlier today—meaning an early general election would end a lot of Tory careers. 

“This all just shows how ruthless the Conservative Party is when they think they’re going to lose the election,” Tyler told The Dispatch. “Whoever comes in now not only has to show a clear break from Boris, but also from [Truss]. So there’s a real challenge to detoxify the Conservative Party before 2024.”

Worth Your Time

  • For New York Magazine, anonymous Iranian protesters describe, in their own words, what it’s like on Iran’s streets. “When I arrived, there were huge crowds of people that kept getting bigger and bigger—as if people were coming from every single direction,” one writes. “The riot police were just arriving. The crowds were way bigger than the security forces. The cops didn’t approach us at first. Trucks with water cannons started spraying at us, but people refused to leave. No one moved. I saw an older woman walking in the middle of the street. She went right in front of the water cannon. It kept shooting at her, but she didn’t budge. All of a sudden, as people watched her, they discovered their own bravery. Everyone started rushing toward the riot police. They started picking up stones and whatever they could find and throwing them at the cops, who began to retreat. By the time they sped away, all the cop cars’ windows had been crushed to bits.”
  • Rats trained since birth into an elite team of landmine detection specialists have sniffed out 150,000 explosive devices—and if that’s not enough to pique your curiosity, we’re not sure what would be. “Weighing about three pounds—roughly the size of a three-month-old kitten—they’re light enough not to set off the explosives,” Molly Callahan writes for Experience Magazine. “Their superb sense of smell enables them to detect the presence of as little as a billionth of a gram of explosive material.” Smart and curious, they’re pretty effective detectors. “Through the end of 2021, the rats have been responsible for finding 150,000 explosives, including land mines, that were then safely deactivated and removed from the ground. Across seven countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, they’ve had a hand (or paw) in returning 70 million square meters of land back to communities that need it.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • Wanna know how to launch a nuclear strike? Or why Apple is breaking up with a Chinese factory? Or how Starlink is working in Ukraine? Klon has the answers in this week’s Current (🔒). 
  • Is it possible that Stacey Abrams is a bit … overrated? “We don’t typically call candidates who’ve lost multiple consecutive statewide elections ‘rising stars,’” Nick notes in Thursday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒). “To be a rising star, you have to … rise. Until she proves she’s meaningfully more competitive electorally than a replacement-level Democrat, she isn’t one.”
  • On today’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Kevin, and Andrew discuss Democrats’ preemptive blame game, and what it means for the country if abortion doesn’t play the role many expected it would in the midterms. Plus: Is it too early to start talking about 2024?
  • On the site today, Kevin writes in Wanderland about how Biden’s plea to Saudi Arabia to delay oil production cuts is no different from Trump’s ‘perfect’ phone call, Charlotte explains how Iran’s munitions support to Russia in Ukraine will reverberate far beyond Eastern Europe, and Harvest reports on Christine Drazen’s campaign to become first Republican to win Oregon’s governor’s mansion in forty years. Also on the site today, Paul Miller argues that Ukrainian resistance shouldn’t be the poster child for American nationalist conservatives.

Let Us Know

Do you think American politics would be improved by members of Congress more regularly giving the leaders of their party the boot? What do you see as the potential downsides of changing leadership more frequently?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.