The protests that erupted across the Islamic Republic of Iran on December 28 are still running a week later, and it is now impossible for Western media to ignore them. The first major demonstrations took place in Mashhad, the country’s second most populous city, but protests have now spread to more than 100 cities. The large-scale gatherings were predictably followed by reports of clashes between peaceful demonstrators and Tehran’s repressive security forces. And the Iranian regime is now in a full-scale panic.
The demonstrations are indicative of the fierce discontent on the Iranian street and a growing frustration with the regime’s corruption, incompetence, and badly misplaced priorities.
As Iranian companies linked to the government and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps reap the rewards of a new trade environment established by the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Iranian people face increasingly dire economic circumstances. The uprisings are a sign that resentment is giving way to anger and that the regime is more vulnerable to losing the consent of the governed than Western analysts may have thought. The nuclear deal had little impact on the average Iranian but instead turned out to be little more than a giveaway to hardline entities that control the vast majority of the nation’s gross domestic product.
The slogans chanted in demonstrations over the past week, including “death to dictator, death to Rouhani,” and “forget about Syria, think about us,” demonstrate the widespread perception of endemic corruption. Western powers must be sensitive to claims that they are enabling the regime’s rulers at the expense of ordinary Iranians by ignoring legitimate political grievances.
The U.S. and its allies have a long history of pursuing relations with so-called Iranian moderates – well before Hassan Rouhani emerged as a player in contemporary Iranian politics – only to find that the situation had gotten worse for Western interests in the Middle East and also for the beleaguered people of Iran.
Pursuing a nuclear pact and subsequent trade agreements with Tehran may not have been meant to signal disregard for the Iranian people; but following the latest outpouring of resentment from that same population, it will be difficult to interpret continued dealings with Iran’s ruling elite in any other way.
Fortunately, President Trump has made it clear that he has no interest in continuing the patterns of back-channel deals whereby the U.S. government ignores the voices of the Iranian people. The White House has imposed comprehensive sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard, a leading perpetrator of domestic crackdowns. And Trump’s reaction to the latest protests also point in the right direction, although they now need to be backed up by a defined strategy that promotes domestic institutions standing in opposition to the IRGC. Chief among these is the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which already enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and from other North American and European officials. The NCRI and its leading constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, could benefit from timely public support from Trump’s White House.
Western governments can be sure that that change is attainable. The Iranian regime is despised by its subjects, who represent important potential allies in multinational efforts to improve the stability of the Middle East. As the Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi put it, “recent demonstrations have once again proven that the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime and the establishment of democracy and the rule of people is a national and public demand.”
Each new protest represents an opportunity to leverage the people’s resentment against the Iranian regime, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and a pervasive human rights abuser. U.S. officials squandered valuable opportunities in the past, most notably during the 2009 protests when Western powers turned a blind eye to Tehran’s brutal takedown of protesters. It is time for this to change, and the Trump administration has shown signs of the political will to oversee that change.
Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs & Human Security and Negotiations & Conflict Management in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.
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