I am far from an expert on Iranian internal politics or its economy–though, if you’ve watched the shows or been on Twitter the last few days, that shouldn’t stop anybody from opining intently. Is this anti-regime? Pro-Trump? Anti-Trump? Does it show the nuclear deal was a success, or another capitulation? Should we investigate Hillary? What does Tucker Carlson think? Etc.
What is happening in Iran has quickly become, as these things do, internalized. It’s become about the United States, subsumed into our domestic debates and endless dining room squabbling. Who was right about Iran? Who was wrong?
This is frustrating, and not just because it is myopic, and frankly irritating as hell, but because it gets to the very heart of the problem: we don’t see the Iranians as actual people, but rather as pawns in our imperial power and our domestic maneuvering. And because of that, we’re almost doomed to make worse what could be a propitious moment in regional history.
As I said, I don’t know enough about Iranian politics to say why these protests are happening, or their main target, or of course how it will play out. Golnar Motevalli has a thread that does a pretty good job explaining what seems to be the case, which is that these started out as hardliner-stoked protests against the more moderate Rouhani, but quickly became a cry against the system as a whole.
If you read the thread, or read any real analysis by Iranian experts (native, linguists, etc), these are connected to the US only extremely tangentially, in that many people expected standards of living to increase after the nuclear deal, and while some of have gotten extremely wealthy, most have remained economically fragile. They aren’t in favor of nor against the US, or the West.
The protests are what these things always are about: a regime that promises heaven instead grinds its people under grey oppression, corruption, and poverty. It has taken away the lives of generations, no better than the cruelty and corruption under the shah. It’s what we see when massive inequality becomes intolerable, and a government is seen as illegitimate.
The very worst thing that the United States could do would be to interfere. We’ve already seen a rise in Iranian nationalism due in part to the US unquestioningly and unhesitatingly backing Saudi Arabia in its battle with Iran for regional dominance. But this pro-Iranian nationalism doesn’t have to translate into pro-regime enthusiasm. It can instead be allowed to commingle with the current protests to form something better, an Iran run neither by sclerotic clerics nor corrupt bazzaris nor fickle shahs.
That’s a long-shot right now, of course. It’s hard to say how genuinely widespread these protests are, if they will really catch fire, and even if they do, could topple a regime where the military is one of the prime beneficiaries of corruption. I have no idea. A week from now, the price of eggs could drop, and this could fade into memory. Or it could boil throughout 2018, further destabilizing the region as it continues to transform.
But one sure way to guarantee a negative outcome would be for the US to lean into it, to provide the regime with protester-discrediting propaganda. I’m not that worried to an extent: even though the Trump administration is saying it stands with the people of Iran in their legitimate expression of a desire for a better life, and all that, we know that they aren’t really good at following up. “What? I said I stand by them. I said that, and a lot of people said that was a great t to say, a beautiful and very beautiful thing to say, and also I said it very very strongly. What more do you want?” This could be one area where the laziness of the President is a plus.
But there is another more insidious thread to our policy, and this is one area where the protests do have to do with the US, in a way. It’s our idea that Iranian involvement in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, and everywhere else isn’t just wrong or even “just” in opposition to us, but entirely illegitimate. Here’s a platonic ideal of the form.
First off…I’d like to see that data about the US! Wouldn’t you? And second, related to the first, it is crazy for the US, which has essentially surrounded Iran in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been bombing Syria and Yemen for years, not to mention Somalia, which both entirely props up Israel and arms Saudi Arabia, to lecture Iran about being “imperialistic.” In its own backyard!
That’s my point. One of the main driving impetuses of the 1979 revolution was that Iranian leaders had spent some much of the last century enriching themselves by letting the West take over Iranian resources. After thousands of years of power emanating from Persia, a rich oil-hungry west ran roughshod over economic sovereignty with the help of local quislings. They said, in essence, that Iran is just a vassal, just a fueling ground, and nothing more.
And so when our official policy is that Iran has no right to act as a regional power (which is different than saying their policies are destructive and terrible, something with which I agree), we are playing the exact same card that led to the clerical regime in the first place.
In order to have a constructive relationship with Iran, we have to recognize their historic rights. We have to recognize that, in the heart of Eurasia, they are a legitimate world power. That doesn’t mean acquiescence, and it doesn’t mean letting them do whatever they want. But it is a starting point.
That’s what the US has to offer, as it is a way for protestors to reach out without losing control of what these protests are really about: the chance for Iranian people to live the best lives they possibly can. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice nationalism for anti-clericism.
These protests aren’t about us. We mostly can make things worse. But for any chance at regional stability over the next generation, we have to stop seeing Iranian influence as an aberration, but as a potential partner in decency.