By Daniel DePetris
Something significant is happening across much of Iran these days: tens of thousands of Iranians—many of them young, lower middle-class, and increasingly defiant—are taking to the streets to register their grievances against the Iranian political system.
While public demonstrations are nothing new in contemporary Iranian history, the sporadic protests over the past five days stretching from Tehran to the country’s southwest appear different in their intensity and spirit. One Iranian friend of mine professed her worry that, sooner or later, government security forces will use the same tactics that were employed during the 2009 Green Movement: mass arrests, media censorship, and brute force. Two Iranians have reportedly been killed already with hundreds arrested by police.
One would hope that my friend's concerns will end up being misplaced. The speed with which the anti-government demonstrations expanded to dozens of Iranian cities, in addition to incredible anti-regime chants being screamed in public (“Death to the dictator,” “Long Love Reza Shah,” “Mullahs, have some shame, leave the country alone”) seem to have surprised Iranian officials. After days of escalating marches, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani finally addressed the nation on Sunday, December 31 stressing that while Iranians have a right to peacefully express their complaints, they should do so without sowing division within Iranian society.
But it was Rouhani’s reference to President Donald Trump in the same speech that should send Washington a warning.
After Trump tweeted his support to the protesters, Rouhani blasted the comments as an insincere, duplicitous ploy designed to further embarrass the Islamic Republic. The hardliners who are more in tune with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Supreme Leader’s office have gone much further than the pragmatic Rouhani. Tehran’s objective should be familiar to anyone who remembers the earlier protest waves in 1999 and 2009; disenfranchise the dissent as foreign-inspired and inflamed by Iran’s enemies from the outside.
There is no basis in fact for the connection, and it’s not even clear Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, IRGC-Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani, or the Interior Ministry actually believes the U.S. or the West has a part in inciting the protests. But that is not the point; regardless of its accuracy, the argument nonetheless provides Tehran with an opportunity to rally the more conservative segments of Iranian society, good portion of which sympathizes ideologically with the regime or profits from it, around a well-worked and somewhat effective talking point.
Many Iran-focused analysts in the Washington establishment are begging for the Trump administration to do in 2018 what the Obama administration didn’t in 2009—come out strongly, proudly, and unequivocally on behalf of the tens of thousands of demonstrators seeking redress about systemic corruption, the rising price of goods, the slow economic recovery, a youth unemployment rate around 25 percent, and the extravagant benefits religious institutions receive under a strained public budget. Sen. Tom Cotton wrote that the U.S. “should support the Iranian people who are willing to risk their lives to speak out against it.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board opined that Iranians in the streets need to know that the world supports their aspirations for freedom and a better life. And Bill Kristol, editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard, implied that Washington has an obligation to help.
Not once in all of these calls do advocates of a stronger U.S. response outline what exactly the Trump administration should offer, what positive effect more words from inside the Beltway would actually have over the protests, or why they believe Iranians fighting for their rights would even care about what American politicians (especially those who have called for bombing Iran in the past) say.
Coming from people like Cotton, McCain, and Graham, all of whom have long pushed for regime change in Iran, one would expect them to present a plan that goes beyond press releases geared for domestic political consumption. The least they can do is explain how tainting an organic Iranian protest movement with a foreign hand would not make the goals of the demonstrators more difficult to meet. Right now, the Iranian Government is scattering to contain the damage. But their job would get a whole lot simpler if supposed Iran experts in Washington provide the mullahs with an immense propaganda gift on a silver platter.
The ongoing demonstrations are an important moment in the history of the Islamic Republic. The protests are being powered by legitimate economic and political grievances of a vast portion of the Iranian population—all of which the clerical leadership has failed to solve. Ordinary Iranians, from students with slim employment prospects to the working class angry about daily hardship, are the fuel keeping this widespread act of dissent alive. Iranians have proven over the past week that they are more than capable of sustaining a massive campaign of civil disobedience without the hand of foreigners.
What the world is witnessing across Iran is an Iranian moment the likes of which the Supreme Leader, the IRGC, the Basij paramilitary militia, and the Interior Ministry cannot credibly chalk off as an American-orchestrated conspiracy against the Islamic Republic’s political system. The last thing President Trump should do is inject America into it and give the mullahs just want they are looking for: an excuse to explain away the protest campaign as an extension of malicious westerners aiming to destroy Iran's society.
Indeed, if Iran hawks like Cotton, Graham, and the rest of the liberal interventionist crew in Washington truly wish to help the demonstrators, they should stop making this critical time in Iran’s history about their own wants and desires. And if the Iranian people want to reform or overthrow their political system and replace it with a new form of government, it should be a phenomenon that is Iranian-led and Iranian-inspired. The rest of us should stop pretending as if the Iranian people want or even need our help.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by U.S. News and World Report on January 3, 2018. Read more HERE.