As protests against the Iranian regime escalate yet again, will the US stand against the totalitarian theocrats in Tehran or continue to appease them?
For the third time in just over a decade, the Iranian people are bravely protesting against their dictatorial regime and the indignities it forces upon them. In June 2009, the Green Movement erupted in Tehran after a widely-disputed election returned the regime-approved favorite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. The next day, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to register their dissent and contest the (likely bogus) election results; the protestors were angry about the state of the economy, the regime’s costly foreign adventurism, and the clear disregard for the will of the people. Students, middle-class workers, and young people drove the movement, which lasted through the end of 2009. In news that wouldn’t shock anyone, the protests were brutally repressed, with thousands of arrests, hundreds of killings, and televised show trials reminiscent of the Stalin era.
Ten years later, anti-regime protests broke out again, this time triggered by an “abrupt increase of at least 50 percent in gasoline prices.” The protestors were mainly lower-class young men who were frustrated by high unemployment and lack of economic opportunity, some of which was exacerbated by American sanctions on the country due to its nuclear program and support of terrorism. Using the 2009 playbook, in which protests were coordinated and anti-regime anger spread via the Internet, the 2019 movement proliferated rapidly across the country in just a few days. Demonstrations erupted in 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces, showing significant cracks in the Islamic regime’s traditional power base. Still, these protests were put down as harshly as were those in 2009; the government cracked down hard on demonstrators, using lethal force and detaining thousands. In just 4 days in November 2019, the regime killed 321 civilians in its forceful response to the anti-government sentiment.
Now, just a few years later, massive anti-regime protests have once again arisen in Iran. As in 2009 and 2019, they have spread like wildfire, with sizeable demonstrations cropping up across the country. But will they end in the same way, with the regime still empowered after crushing a nascent democratic movement? Or will this time be different? Much of the answer relies on the specific nature of these protests, as well as the Western (read: American) response.
Prioritizing domestic audiences in foreign policy speaks of a strategy doomed to failure.
“Politics stops at the water’s edge.” This statement – on the necessity of presenting a united front with respect to key national interests – was the accepted wisdom in American foreign policy for quite a long time. There have always been dissenters and partisan infighting in America’s approach to foreign affairs, but for the most part domestic political debates have been subordinated to important international considerations when determining foreign policy. Recently, that seems to have shifted a full 180 degrees; now domestic political concerns and debates drive foreign policy, even at the expense of broad-based American interests globally. Domestic movements and debates have been internationalized and global events and geopolitics are now being viewed almost entirely through the lens of internal American issues. Gone is the single-issue organization or lobby, now replaced with groups who universalize their missions under the theory that all politics is intersectional and intrinsically linked. That’s why, for instance, we see groups ostensibly dedicated to raising awareness of police brutality against African-Americans also making strong declarations on entirely unrelated issues like the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As a result of this universalizing approach, the Biden administration has put the concerns of domestic lobbies ahead of real national interests time and time again. Nothing has made that clearer than three events which have unfolded over the past week.
As you may have read, Iran held its “election” for president last Friday; it was won by a notorious human rights abuser who detests the United States and Israel and is currently under American sanctions – Ebrahim Raisi. I put “election” in quotes for the simple reason that Iranian elections are no elections at all. They are as rigged as they come, from the government-approved candidate list, to the deliberate suppression of all opposition groups, to the likelihood of a falsified vote count. You may have issues with American elections – whether they are voter suppression or voter fraud – but it is clear that what passes for an “election” in Iran is nothing of the sort; it is merely a rubber-stamping exercise meant to ratify the choice of the theocratic fascist regime of Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Biden administration’s approach to the threat of Iran seems more like capitulation than it does negotiation.
Recent reports from reputable outlets like the New York Times have suggested that the Biden administration seeks to restart negotiations with the Iranian regime as to their burgeoning nuclear weapons program. This is not surprising for anyone who has been paying attention to this issue; Biden campaigned on re-entering several diplomatic agreements negotiated by the Obama administration, including the Iran Nuclear Deal known as the JCPOA. The problem with this approach arises not from the idea of diplomacy generally, but from the specifics of the current situation with Iran. Suffice it to say, a lot has changed since Biden last worked in the White House in January 2017.