It all started off as some simple demonstrations scattered in different parts of Iran over how the government was handling the economy. Now, it's boiling over, and there's chatter that we could be witnessing Iran's second revolution in 40 years.
The protests began on Thursday in the northeast city of Mashhad, which has a population of roughly 2 million people. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered to protest the rising prices of food and inflation as well as the stagnant economy, as reported by the Iranian state news agency. However, protesters began outwardly expressing their displeasure of sitting President Hassan Rouhani, who won his second term in May, by chanting "Death to Rouhani."
From there, the protests spilled to other cities, including the country's capital of Tehran, on Friday. Protesters have been openly dissenting against the Iranian government by denouncing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
One woman even took off her hijab (the traditional Muslim head covering), tied it to the end of a stick, stood on a platform, and waved it around like a flag to protest the mandatory Islamic dress code.
This woman in #Iran took off her #Hijab to protest the mandatory Islamic dress code imposed on Iranian women. #IStandWithHer #IranProtests #Islam pic.twitter.com/G6oKHIPA68— Armin Navabi (@ArminNavabi) December 29, 2017
She was reportedly arrested and is now becoming a symbol of the resistance to the Iranian regime.
The political and civil unrest that has spread throughout the country has even caught the attention of President Trump who took the chance on Friday to condemn the Iranian government of their handling of political dissent.
Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad. Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching! #IranProtests— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2017
The State Department has echoed the president and "strongly" condemned "the arrest of peaceful protesters."
The Trump administration is clearly trying to make up for where the Obama administration failed. Many of Obama's critics (and even his own White House aides) believe the former president stood idly by and let the Green Revolution fail in 2009. During the Arab Spring in 2011, the Obama administration was cautious at best when discussing any revolutionary efforts by the Iranian people trying to ride the wave of protests that spread throughout the Middle East that triggered the removal of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the ongoing and catastrophic Syrian civil war. Some, like Eli Lake, have argued that Obama had his sights set on making a deal with the Iranian government over their nuclear program.
While it's the right thing to support the Iranian protesters standing up for what they believe in against an oppressive government, it's important that President Trump not fall into the same trap as his predecessors.
The city of Mashhad, where the protests began on Thursday, is largely dominated by hard-liners who supported Ibrahim Raesi, President Rouhani's opponent in the May elections.
It's certainly the case that a good chunk of the protesters oppose the state of their government as it currently exists, regardless of whether they side with Rouhani or the hard-liners. However, if there ends up being a regime change in Iran, it's imperative that the U.S. supports the right people to take over the country from there.
The worst case scenario is that the Iranian government is toppled, creating a power vacuum where the most extreme and intolerant people usurp control over the country. That was certainly the case in Egypt with Mubarak in 2009, Libya with Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014.
President Trump deserves some credit for weighing in on the Iranian protests and having the backs of the protesters, but his next steps are even more crucial. The U.S. cannot afford another foreign policy debacle in the Middle East.