As those of you who have either read my posts before or know me personally may know, I’m not a big fan of the current American presidential administration. However, I’m someone who truly dislikes when people cannot seem to acknowledge when even those politicians they despise or disagree with consistently do something right. Today, and over the past week or so, the Trump administration has done something quite good, and has done it far better than the Obama administration had in a very similar situation. What, you may ask, has the Trump administration done so well?
If you’ve been watching the news over the past week or two, you may have seen some coverage of protests that have been spreading across the nation of Iran. These protests, which I will discuss in more detail below, began in the country’s second-largest city, Mashhad, back in December, and have spread throughout the Islamic Republic. The day after the protests began in earnest, President Trump tweeted his support for the protestors and their concerns, and has continued to show support personally and through his administration. I am not a proponent of how Trump has handled Iran so far in his term, as I support the JCPOA (colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal) and its continued enforcement and do not support banning Iranian citizens from traveling to the United States. I do, however, feel that vocal, clear support for anti-regime protestors in a nation with which we are unfriendly and which has egregiously violated human rights for decades is a good policy. Showing that our concern for democracy, universal human rights, and the right to protest one’s government are not just talking points, but actual values we hold dear is critical to increasing our reputation and soft power abroad. The Trump administration’s actions so far related to these protests are good steps in the right direction for American interests abroad, as well as the Iranian people, and should be acknowledged as such by all Americans, including those like myself who did not vote for this President.
Before I get further into why I believe President Trump’s actions and those of his administration at-large have been positive steps for American interests abroad and those of the Iranian people, I want to explain these protests in a bit more detail, as well as relate some of the recent history of anti-regime protests in Iran. The current round of anti-regime protests in Iran began prior to the New Year, in Iran’s second-largest city of Mashhad, and rapidly spread to other outlying areas of Iran’s countryside. The protests are largely being driven by the poor economy and the high cost of staple goods like eggs and meat, which have increased by nearly 40% in a relatively short while. The people protesting are not those whom one might expect, meaning those upper-middle-class professionals in Tehran; instead the bulk of the protestors have been young, lower class workers in the smaller regional cities like Mashhad, Qom, and Qahdarijan, places where support for the Islamic Republic was previously seen as being rock-steady. So what has changed? Well, the JCPOA came into effect in 2016 and was touted by Iranian leaders as ending years of crippling economic sanctions and supposedly bringing massive American and European investment into the beleaguered nation. That simply has not happened for regular Iranians; the youth unemployment rate, for instance, is upwards of 40%, while youths make up nearly half of the nation’s population and are a majority of those in the streets in protest today. Even despite a lack of clear leadership or goals, this protest movement has continued for multiple weeks and may continue for quite some time depending on the regime’s willingness to allow it. Part of the reason this movement may be able to work so well without clear leadership is the prevalence of mobile phones and Internet in Iran today. Compared to 2009, the last round of major protests, when only about 1 million Iranians, mostly in Tehran, owned a cell phone, now over 48 million do. The ability to use apps like Twitter, Telegram, Signal, and more to organize and plan demonstrations is democratizing the protest structure, and is a major reason why the Iranian government has shut down large sectors of the nation’s Internet entirely to quell the protests. Another major driver of these specific protests, and one which focused the anger on corruption in government, was the leaking of a proposed budget by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. This budget showed massive amounts of secret spending on religious institutions, external military activities in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, the nation’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (a quasi-military organization that also runs economic sectors), and pet projects of the country’s religious elite, all while drastically slashing funding for public programs which support the needy. This internal corruption and mass spending on external wars has led to shouts of “death to the dictator”, “death to Hezbollah”, and more. These protests have also been more violent than in the past, with over 20 people confirmed as being killed thus far, and this is before the regime’s inevitable harsh crackdown.
Locations of major protests in Iran. Image Credit: BBC Persian.
These protests are clearly quite different in many ways than the last round of major protests that went on in Iran during the Obama administration’s tenure in 2009. Those protests, known widely as the “Green Movement” or “Green Revolution”, were almost exclusively within Tehran, Iran’s capital and largest, most cosmopolitan city, and were a direct result of what was commonly seen as a rigged presidential election. The protestors at that time were mostly upper-middle-class professionals who voted for the candidate who ended up on the losing end of the rigged election, the protest movement had a clear goal and leadership structure, and was quite sizable compared to today’s protests. Even with these positive differences (clear goals and leadership are generally a good thing), the American leadership at the time chose not to respond in any way to the mass protests happening in Tehran. Instead, we sat and watched as millions of incredibly brave men and women protested against their authoritarian government for days until that government sent out armed forces to beat them into submission, arrest them, and hold them in prison cells for simply speaking out against what they saw as an unfair trampling of their rights. Only after the Iranian government began to harshly crack down on the protests did the Obama administration comment on the “Green Movement”, and then it was only to condemn the violence of the Iranian regime. Unfortunately, that action (or inaction) was far too little, too late.
Thankfully, we have a chance today to make amends for our failure to support the Iranian people in their fight against authoritarian forces in their own government, and President Trump and his administration are making good on that opportunity. It is positive when the President consistently tweets (I know it sounds silly, but they really matter) his support of the Iranian people, saying things like:
“Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”
“Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!”
Those sorts of public communications are exactly the right sorts of messages to be sending from the ‘bully pulpit’ of the American Presidency, as they show our support for the Iranians protesting, reinforce the narrative that the regime is corrupt, and show that we are looking to ferret out human rights abuses and hold the Iranian regime accountable on the world stage. These good messages have been excellently reinforced by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley calling a Security Council meeting to address these protests and the regime’s violent crackdown on them. The fact that this action has angered the Iranian UN representative and also their Russian backers is not surprising to me, and should not worry anyone who seriously cares about universal human rights or the right to petition one’s government for change. These sorts of public actions are a fantastic start, but we need to do more as an American government to assist the Iranian protestors both rhetorically and actually. I’m also concerned that the Trump administration may decide to do the wrong thing with respect to Iran here, and strengthen the regime’s position instead of weakening it.
First, I want to address the actions which the Trump administration may consider taking that would not help this situation at all, and which in my estimation would actually help the Iranian regime consolidate their power at exactly the wrong time. One such action, which is coming up to an incredibly important deadline in just a few days, relates to the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal. President Trump has already ‘decertified’ the deal to the US Congress, but that does not really mean anything in the global scale of things, as certification is simply an internal US process that Congress applied to the deal. What does matter globally, however, is whether the President chooses to waive sanctions on Iran when that deadline comes up again on January 12. Waiving sanctions will essentially keep the deal in place as is, which seems like a bad idea given the regime’s crackdown on protests, but in an odd way, keeping nuclear-related sanctions off will only increase pressure on Tehran. By not putting sanctions back on, Trump will remove a valuable external scapegoat for the Iranian regime to use as to why the economy is poor, a large reason why the protests began in the first place. If we keep the sanctions off, the regime will be forced to either explain the poor economy or somehow improve it themselves, which doesn’t seem likely. Another action that would be counterproductive that could be taken by the Trump administration would be reaffirming Iran’s status on the so-called ‘travel ban’. Iran’s inclusion on the ban was always foolish, as Iranian expats are extremely valuable members of American society at all levels, and have no history of terrorist ties. Instead, choosing to remove Iran from the ‘travel ban’ list would be seen as a great sign of support for the current demonstrators, as it would show solidarity in their cause. If they are threatened with imprisonment or worse (Iran has the highest execution rate per capita in the world), the United States would be a shining beacon of hope for those protestors as a place to claim political asylum. We would also present ourselves as a nation as a polar opposite of the values of the Islamic Republic, valuing inclusion, political diversity, and acceptance of universal human rights as our creed. Doing this would likely be a shock to many Iranians as well as many Americans, but would be an incredibly savvy move by the Trump team.
In terms of other moves that would be extremely useful for the Trump administration to undertake to further assist the Iranian protestors and undermine the regime, there are many, some rhetorical, some actualized. With respect to rhetoric, the Trump team should keep up the pressure, and focus on the goal, which is supporting the protestors and consistently keeping the attention on the Iranian regime’s many failings. Tweets and press conferences about tell-all books and other assorted garbage is honestly not worth anyone’s time here. We should be constantly talking about how the Iranian people’s money is being wasted on terrorist activity abroad, whether that is in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, or elsewhere. We need to be telling the Iranian people that the money unlocked in the JCPOA was theirs, not their government’s, and should have been spent domestically on programs, not funneled to the Ayatollah and the IRGC’s corrupt hands. These messages are ringing true in Iran, as they are what is driving the protests. In every speech, Cabinet meeting, or address, these protests should be mentioned and we should claim our support of the protestors. We need to make sure that all of our actions and rhetoric are focused exclusively on showing our solidarity with the people of Iran and punishing the government of Iran. In that mold, we need to organize carefully with our European and Asian allies, as they are the nations which hold the true economic keys here; the US has nearly zero trade with Iran, while European and Asian nations trade far more with the Islamic Republic. We have good relationships with these nations and should be able to convince them that a harsh crackdown on peaceful, democratic protests looks bad for anyone involved with the regime doing the crackdown. Any economic pressure we can put on the government of Iran is good, as long as it is not sanctioning the entire nation or giving them an excuse to blame outsiders. In concert with the Treasury Department, Congress may also be able to find ways to better target sanctions so as to impact specific members of the Iranian regime and IRGC, so as to personally harm those regime members but not the larger Iranian population. There are also actions the Trump administration could take here in the US to help those protesting in Iran. Earlier I wrote about how the Iranian government shut down the Internet to make it harder for protestors to use encrypted apps like Telegram and other services to organize. The US government can and should work with these companies, many of which are US-based, to get around the Iranian blockade and help Iranian citizens access these important technologies.
Altogether, the protestors in Iran are showing the world how courageous they are, and it is up to us and other freedom-loving nations around the world to let them know that we hear their pleas and support their righteous cause. We had the opportunity once in 2009 to assist the Iranians in a fight against their corrupt, undemocratic government, yet chose to sit on the sidelines and watch as men and women were beaten in the streets in the name of the Islamic Republic. I certainly do not wish to allow that to happen again, and I am personally pleased that our President is speaking out earlier and more often than President Obama did back in 2009. Now we need to see if that rhetoric is followed by positive, concrete action, and whether those actions are along the lines of the considered policies I’ve laid out above, or if they’re antagonistic and ill-chosen. The brave men and women on the streets of Mashhad, Tehran, and Qom are waiting. Let’s not let them down again.