It may be trite to call the recent unrest in Iran a “Persian Spring”; then again, it may not be at all. The protests, which began last week and have shaken the regime in Tehran, already show much in common with the vernal demonstrations that engulfed the Middle East back in 2011: both arose seemingly from nowhere, both spread rapidly, both threatened seismic political change as a consequence of economic stagnation. “Death to Khamenei!” went one incredible chant in western Iran last weekend; “we don’t want an Islamic republic!” went another. That’s evidence enough that this is about more than the cost of eggs, that the authoritarian lid Iran’s ayatollahs have tried to keep on its young populace may be close to popping off.
The protests have also energized foreign policy hawks here in the United States. Ever on the lookout for self-gratifying moral binaries, they’ve found one in the aspirational demonstrators challenging Iran’s theocratic regime, and the usual hackneyed rhetoric has been hauled out accordingly. The Trump administration is exhorted to Not Stay Silent, as though starving Iranians are waiting on pins and needles for the go-ahead from Rex Tillerson. Barack Obama’s diplomatic team, which pursued a rapprochement with Iran’s government, has come in for fresh scorn. And the nuclear deal with Tehran, implemented under Obama and menaced by Donald Trump, is said to be discredited, a morally pusillanimous endorsement of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy that clearly isn’t shared by its people.
That last argument in particular is immensely historically illiterate. If negotiating with a government is the same as legitimizing it, then Ronald Reagan, who inked arms reduction agreements and prisoner swaps with Mikhail Gorbachev, was a booster of Soviet tyranny. (And indeed some of the hawks who deify Reagan today called him a Chamberlain back then.) George W. Bush is also guilty of appeasement for signing an arms treaty with Vladimir Putin and trying to usher Erdogan’s Turkey into the European Union. Perhaps in some geopolitical Brigadoon the United States can afford to zero out every human rights abuser, but here in the real world we must work with nations that often aren’t gallant democracies. It was in America’s interests to see Iran’s nuclear enrichment curtailed. The idea that pursuing that goal diplomatically was a betrayal of the Iranian people is preposterous.
In fact, Iran’s electorate endorsed the Obama agreement twice, at least indirectly. Contra all the drivel about there being no difference between Iranian hardliners and reformists, Iran’s 2016 elections offered a clearly delineated choice. On one side was the List of Hope, most of whose candidates backed President Hassan Rouhani’s program of gradually opening Iran to the world and liberalizing its commerce. On the other side were the conservatives, known as principlists, who called for a “resistance economy” that would keep Iran self-sufficient and its Islamic tenets pure. This was at its core a referendum on the nuclear deal, and the moderates won handily, securing all 30 of Tehran’s seats in the Iranian parliament. Then, last year, Rouhani himself was reelected to the presidency. Today’s demonstrations show that Rouhani’s reforms proved much too narrow—even his required submission to the Islamic republic may have become a liability as the values of the 1979 revolution lose their luster. But aborting the nuclear deal because Rouhani wasn’t perfect would have only empowered his fanatical opponents; it would have gone against the expressed will of the Iranian people, not with it.
In addition to its political side effects, the nuclear deal was just as it sounds: an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. By that metric, it’s been a success, bequeathing one of the most invasive inspections regime ever inside Iran, downgrading reactors, filling facilities with cement, shipping away 98 percent of Iran’s atomic fuel, resulting in near-total compliance so far as certified by the IAEA. Those accomplishments aren’t somehow vitiated by the protests in the streets. The downside to the nuclear agreement has been that it unfroze billions in Iranian regime assets, some of which went to fund proxies in foreign civil wars. That’s a serious problem, but it’s also been a catalyst for the present demonstrations. Recent chants like “not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran” and “leave Syria alone, think about us” indicate deep dissatisfaction over Iran’s foreign policy, under which great sums have been spent abroad while the Iranian economy molders. (That similar sentiments are routinely trashed as isolationist here in the United States by the same hawks now beating their breasts in support of Iran’s dissenters is succulent irony indeed.)
Iran’s regime survives in part through the same strategy employed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Chavismo’s Venezuela: diverting all blame for its problems onto enemies afar, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and ultimately the United States. But a Washington that sits down with Mohammad Zarif rather than heaping on further sanctions is a far less persuasive scapegoat for Iranian poverty. The effect of the nuclear deal was thus to shift much of the onus for Iran’s present condition onto its government. It was Tehran that inherited that needed frozen money, Tehran that chose to spend much of it on Assad rather than Mashhad, and Tehran that gave Iran’s security forces—the IRGC and Basij militias, which remain sanctioned—monopolistic power that’s impeded further investment. It’s true that Donald Trump’s constant belching in Iran’s direction hasn’t helped either, but against such obvious Iranian culpability, the usual anti-American slogans ring all the hollower.
Just because the Iranians are out against their kleptocratic and theocratic regime, however, doesn’t mean their sympathies will naturally gravitate towards us. Iran still has genuine grievances against America, including the installation of the Shah, our support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, and our shooting down an Iranian passenger jet in 1988. For that reason, we have to be cautious. All the more so since the hotbeds of protest aren’t the hip Tehran neighborhoods that Iran analysts are accustomed to studying, but deeply religious centers like Mashaad and Qom, which are typically supportive of the government. I don’t know how to say “deplorable” in Farsi, but there does seem to be parallels between Iran’s revolt and the Trump phenomenon: traditional and invisible blue collars weary of a political class more enamored with foreign capitals than its own citizens. These people are hungry for change, but they’re also incipiently nationalistic, which means they’re not necessarily pro-American.
What shouldn’t we do? As usual, bad counsel is found in the Weekly Standard, which recommends that we threaten to reimplement sanctions at their pre-nuclear deal levels because that “would do irreparable harm to [Iran’s] economy and thus the regime’s authority.” First, no, it wouldn’t, it would only lend credence to the hardliners. And second, contemplate for a moment the clinical insanity of starving a people you support in order to damage a government you don’t like (a strategy that notably failed against Saddam Hussein, by the way). This is exactly the sort of bumptious thinking that’s left American-Iranian relations in tatters, and it’s crucial in the coming days that Donald Trump inoculate himself against it. Change in Iran may come gradually or gradually then rapidly, but whatever its pace, America’s touch must remain light.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.