Protests broke out against the Iranian government on 27 December, and have achieved a wider geographic spread in the country than even the massive uprising of June 2009, reaching into religiously conservative, working-class towns and districts traditionally regarded as pro-regime. It is likely these demonstrations will be suppressed, but that does not obviate the need for Western policy. To the contrary, the protests exposed several flawed assumptions in recent policy-making, and a course correction is urgently necessary.
Economic mismanagement and corruption are obvious motivating factors for the protesters. But economics does not separate so easily from politics, and in Iran this is especially true since the regime claims the mandate of heaven for its rule, making its earthy depredations that much more difficult to endure.
The promise of prosperity as a result of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been disappointed, because the windfall went to the regime’s instruments of repression and terror, both internally, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij, and others guardians of the revolution being strengthened at home, and externally, with IRGC’s Quds Force being bolstered as it exports the revolution around the region by terrorism and mass-murder.
The theory that money given to Iran would go towards anything but terrorism and military adventurism was based on the idea that there were “moderates” in the Iranian regime, and that the president, Hassan Rowhani, was one of them. Building up the “moderates” in Iran was key to President Barack Obama’s political messaging in selling the Iran deal, and the broader aspirations that lay behind the accord.
Some of Obama’s own officials doubted the “moderates” thesis, and there was never any evidence for it. Asked if the CIA had ever detected a moderate-hardline schism within the Iranian elite when he ran the agency, Leon Panetta said, “No”, adding: “There was not much question that the Quds Force and the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamene’i] ran that country with a strong arm”.
The Iranian protesters have chanted against the regime’s foreign adventures—“Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Is [Given] Only for Iran” and, “Leave Syria Alone, Think About Us”—and coupled it with chants such as, “We Don’t Want An Islamic Republic”, an apparent recognition that such policies are integral to any version of the theocracy.
The amount the West can do is limited. Despite the rhetoric, George W. Bush never seriously tried to undermine the Iranian regime. Bush did not, until very late in the administration, act against Iran’s ally, Bashar al-Asad, as he sheltered the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Syria and funnelled hundreds of foreign IS jihadists into Iraq. Nor did Bush destroy the factories in Iran feeding “explosively formed penetrators” (EFPs) and other munitions into Shi’a militias in Iraq that killed and wounded hundreds of American and British soldiers. Obama, of course, tilted regional policy in Tehran’s favour, calling off even the limited operations that had, between 2010 and early 2012, sabotaged elements of the nuclear-weapons program and assassinated several scientists working on it. There is, therefore, no infrastructure to be activated to engage in meaningful political warfare in the short-term.
What the West can do is make clear its support for the demonstrators’ demands—transparency, representation, and justice—and apply such pressure as is available to minimize the violence against protesters, while constructing a coherent policy going forward to deal with Iran.
The arguments for keeping quiet, even when not blatantly self-serving from officials defending their legacies, are flawed.
First, the protesters have shattered the myth, which was gaining traction recently, to the effect that President Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric—and mending of relations with traditional allies like Saudi Arabia—had triggered a nationalist wave in Iran that rallied the populace around the regime. In fact, the nationalist wave long precedes Trump’s accession to office; its origins lie in the rise of IS in 2014. Events over the summer—the IS attack on the Iranian parliament and the beheading of Mohsen Hojaji by IS in southern Syria—impact this trend far more than anything Trump has (yet) done.
Second, the regime accuses all antagonists, domestic and foreign, of being Western puppets. Iran refers to IS as a “U.S.-Zionist-made terrorist group”. Tehran will blame the West for these protests no matter what course is taken, which argues strongly for doing the right thing.
Third and finally, the revolutionary nature of the Islamic Republic, and its conduct in service of that mission, which has including terrorist atrocities from Berlin to Buenos Aires, mean that its survival is not an internal affair. For as long as the regime survives, it is a threat to the human rights of citizens in neighbouring states, to allied governments, to Western interests in the region, notably peace and stability, and to Western citizens at home.
President Trump quickly spoke for the Iranian people’s right to dissent, breaking with his predecessor, who kept quiet in 2009 because, as one Obama official explained, “We were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.” The European Union and Britain finally broke their silence last night, though they could just as well have not bothered. This laggard and listless response is no principled stand. Rather, it is a reflection of the fact, feared by critics all along, that the JCPOA has created a European economic-political lobby, invested in the current Iranian regime being neither isolated nor eliminated.
In reality, this should be the West’s policy course: containment—a regime-change policy, lest it be forgotten. The objectionable behaviour of the Iranian regime is a function of its nature, which has shown itself immune to reform, despite nearly four decades of domestic and international engagement. Restoring the restrictions on the Iranian theocracy that were lifted in the last eight years will be difficult, but political support for internal opposition, the replacement of economic sanctions on Iranian officials who violate human rights and steal from the Iranian people, and pushback at Iran’s imperial periphery, with force where appropriate, specifically in Syria, would constitute the beginnings of a policy to quarantine and ultimately undo the Islamic Republic.
Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society