Protests in Iran require care, nuance

Published 12:20 pm Saturday, January 6, 2018

by Graham West

In the final days of 2017, protests erupted and quickly spread to cities across the country of Iran. More than a week later, a government crackdown has left more than 20 people killed and 450 arrested, as demonstrations continue in the most serious show of resistance to the oppressive regime in Tehran since the 2009 Green Revolution.

These protests are worthy of careful consideration — and while there may be a productive role for the United States to play moving forward, the Trump Administration hasn’t landed on it just yet.

It is notoriously difficult to get reliable information from within Iran, but the protests seem to have started small and spread quickly. Initial rallies were possibly an attempt by conservatives to foment dissatisfaction with pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani had promised that engagement with the international community would produce greater economic opportunity in Iran, but improvement has been slow thanks to weak foreign investment and chronic corruption and mismanagement in Iranian institutions that transcend his administration.

Now, all across the county, an overwhelmingly young mass of people is protesting not just Rouhani, but the broader government, its foreign and domestic policies, and Supreme Leader Khamenei himself. The protests are leaderless and agnostic to the political cycle (unlike the Green Revolution, which followed a presidential election), leaving Iran’s various political factions unsure of how to leverage the moment.

Enter President Trump, who sprung on the moment with his typical grace and chose to support the protestors by insulting the regime on Twitter. This is partly his natural approach to any situation, but also a reaction to President Obama’s behavior in 2009. Many Republicans have lambasted President Obama’s “silence” on the Green Revolution protests — even though the then-president waited less than two days before condemning the government’s violence against demonstrators.

One reason for that slightly delayed reaction was the heightened sensitivity of the Iranian people to American interference in their domestic affairs. After years of support for the Shah (who ruled Iran before the Islamic Revolution in 1979), the U.S. government removed a democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister named Mohammed Mossedegh in the 1950s. Many Iranians have never forgotten nor forgiven this intervention, and President Obama’s calculus was likely that by giving the Green Revolution some breathing room, he could convey that it was genuinely for and by the only people who should be choosing Iran’s leaders: Iranians.

Of course, to hear many Republicans tell it, President Obama all but put down the protesters himself. Regardless, President Trump’s own strategy is, so far, hardly functionally different: snide tweets do little for Iranians in the street. There are things the administration could do, however, to be helpful.

First, messaging against the crackdown and in favor of Iranians’ human rights should continue – but with much more careful wording and through allies, partners, and international institutions. Next, with the Iranian people fed up with their leaders’ military adventurism in the Middle East, Congress should also increase its oversight of recent sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile program, and the administration could bolster counter-threat finance efforts against extremist groups receiving Iranian funding. And finally, if he truly believes the Iranian people to be under the boot of a regime that does not represent or respect them, President Trump should remove them from his insulting and useless ‘Muslim ban’ policy. This wouldn’t directly bolster the protesters – but it would make U.S. support look far more genuine.

Direct intervention in the protests, conversely, would be catastrophic; it would likely lead to retaliation against American troops and allies around the region, not to mention the complete de-legitimization of the demonstrators inside Iran. An equally grave mistake would be to choose this moment to upend the agreement that is currently preventing Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Should President Trump break the word of the United States, the regime in Tehran will be left with no nuclear limits or inspectors, and a convenient external villain to rally its fractured population against.

With the situation in Iran remaining uncertain, some paths are wiser than others. The Trump Administration may even come up with other ways to play a productive role, if it can get past attacking the Obama Administration and moderate its messaging with some historical context. Ultimately, however, it will be up to the people of Iran to decide when and how they want to start a new chapter in their governance; here’s hoping they are able to do so sooner rather than later, for the good of the world and themselves.

GRAHAM F. WEST is the communications director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at