On December 28, anti-government protests broke out in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, and in subsequent days spread nationwide, escalating confrontations, some of them violent, between protesters and regime forces that have resulted, so far, in hundreds of arrests and over 20 deaths.
The impetus behind the protests is said to be economic discontent brought about by years of sanctions, government mismanagement, corruption, and the recently announced rise in the prices of fuel, eggs, and poultry, though, as longtime Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn argues, it could be that clerical hard-liners and conservatives “initiated or tolerated the protests as a way of undermining President Hassan Rouhani, seen as a political moderate, who was re-elected by a landslide last year.”
Trump, as is his habit, took to Twitter and issued a characteristically juvenile taunt: “All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”
The State Department also issued a statement condemning Iran’s leaders for turning the country “into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.”
So far, anyway, the Trump administration’s reaction to the unfolding anti-government protests, now heading into their second week, has been marked by the usual hypocrisies, particularly in its expressions of selective outrage over human-rights violations on the part of the Iranian government. It evinces no such outrage when human-rights abuses are perpetuated by nominal US regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Bahrain.
In response to the protests, the Trump administration is said to be both preparing another round of sanctions and considering the reinstation of those that had been lifted by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a move which, if implemented, would almost certainly kill the Iranian nuclear agreement.
Indeed, the role that sanctions have played in disrupting the Iranian economy, thereby helping to cause the very economic conditions that have led to the current round of protests, has surely not been lost on the administration.
The current protests seem fundamentally different in character from the 2009 Green Movement protests, which were prompted by that year’s fraudulent presidential election.
According to Iran expert Trita Parsi, back then, over a million people poured into the streets in protest, but today “the current protests have rarely numbered more than a few thousand in any specific locality.” “The current protests,” writes Parsi, “appear much more sporadic, with no clear leadership and with objectives that have shifted over the course of the past four days.”
Meanwhile, in recent days, the neocons, a group not previously known for their deep identification with the aspirations of the Iranian people, have taken to the airwaves and op-ed pages to shill for regime change.
Former UN Ambassador John Bolton appeared on Fox News to proclaim “our goal should be regime change in Iran.” The neoconservative house organ Commentary crowed, “Regime change in Tehran is not a policy preference native only to blinkered neoconservative interventionists. It is the default position of much of the foreign-policy establishment.” Neoconservative columnist Eli Lake hopes “the unrest in Iran spreads and the fanatics, thieves and terrorists who have infantilized Iranians for 38 years are toppled.” Career chickenhawk Bill Kristol, who previously has never missed an opportunity to call for war with Iran, pledged to “stand with the Iranian people.” The Washington Post editorial board believes that “The popular demand for change is justified and deserves international support. President Trump has been right to tweet his backing for the demonstrators.”
It is worth recalling that the Trump administration has made no secret of its desire to destabilize the sovereign government of Iran. The Wall Street Journal reported in July that CIA director and Iran hawk Mike Pompeo created what was described as a new mission center at Langley to “turn up the heat” on Iran.
Yet missing from much of the present discussion is any thought as to whether the destabilization of a twice-fairly elected government that has shown itself willing to work with Western powers (via the years-long JCPOA negotiations) would redound to the benefit of US national-security interests in the region.
After all, Rouhani is a reformer who was elected in a surprise upset in 2013 and reelected last year. Upon his landslide reelection against his hard-line conservative opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, last May, Rouhani declared that the vote represented a decisive turn “away from violence and extremism.” Despite what neocons like Lake and Kristol would have us believe, a Western-style leader more liberal than Rouhani is not waiting in the wings in Tehran.
Still more, the neocons and other regime-change enthusiasts seem to misunderstand the internal dynamics of Iranian politics, mistaking their own narrow agenda for that of the Iranian opposition.
While unstinting in their praise of the protesters, the proponents of regime change have continued to call for an end to the Iranian nuclear deal, a deal that was overwhelmingly supported by the Iranian people—presumably including those who have recently taken to the streets. The opposition movement in Iran has also been consistently against sanctions. According to Parsi, the Green Movement, with which the neocons claim to stand shoulder to shoulder, has “rejected the sanctions as well, pointing to the negative impact the economic pressure would have on the opposition movement and the general public.”
The writer and critic Edmund Wilson once observed that “it is all too easy to idealize a social upheaval which takes place in some other country other than one’s own.” And this is something which regime-change proponents have made a habit of; as of this writing, it is simply too soon to tell whether the upheaval is the result of a genuine popular movement.
But what is abundantly clear is the Trump administration’s desire to use the protests as a pretext to drive a stake through the heart of the Iranian nuclear deal, all the while furthering its regime-change ambitions.