By Roger Cohen
January 2, 2018
I have a New Year’s confession: I retweeted President Trump with approval, not something I had expected to do, especially on the subject of Iran. But Trump has been right to get behind the brave Iranian protesters calling for political and economic change.
These are the largest popular protests since the Iranian uprising in 2009 against a fraudulent election. I was in an enormous crowd (estimated in the millions) that marched from Tehran’s Enghelab (Revolution) Square to Azadi (Freedom) Square three days after the vote. Fear evaporated in that throng.
I asked a young woman to whom I’d been talking what her name was. “My name is Iran,” she replied. The memory still gives me goose bumps.
For a few days, the Islamic republic stood on a knife’s edge. I have often asked myself what would have happened if Mir Hussein Moussavi, the leader of the reformist Green Movement who was later placed under house arrest, had told that crowd to march on the seats of power in the name of the ballot box over theocratic whim.
Signs of disarray were palpable before the regime led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cracked down through the thugs of the Basij militia. As I wrote at the time, “There’s nothing more repugnant than seeing women being hit by big men armed with clubs and the license of the state.”
In Tehran, then, the silence of the Obama White House was deafening: too little, too late. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed regret over this in 2014. Excessive caution was the mother of the Obama administration’s worst failures, not least in Syria. The slippery slope school of foreign policy has its limitations. Inaction, in the name of the ninth unanswerable “And then what?” question from the president, is as emphatic a statement as action. President Vladimir Putin, among other American rivals, took note.
So Trump — even if he understands little or nothing of Iran, even if his talk of Iranian “human rights” sounds hollow from a sometime advocate of torture, even if his support of the Iranian people today is grotesque from the man who has wrong-headedly barred most Iranians from entering the United States — is right to speak up in solidarity and tweet that the “wealth of Iran is being looted” by a “brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.” It is. Given where American-Iranian relations stand, there is not much downside to this bluntness.
Among the most powerful slogans of demonstrators have been those expressing fury at money wasted in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere when President Hassan Rouhani had promised jobs, not more of the surrogate wars of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The demonstrations, this time, are different. They are smaller, but more widespread. They reflect the economic woes of the working class more than middle-class disaffection. They are happening, as Karim Sadjadpour has pointed out in The Atlantic, in an Iran of 48 million Smartphones, against fewer than one million in 2009 (which is why the regime is trying to block the hugely popular Telegram messaging app). They originated in Mashhad and went on to Qum, two traditional regime strongholds — a sign of the regime’s ideological bankruptcy.
The West-leaning middle class, fed up with the hypocrisy of the mullahs, has long sought political change. But the working class has been a pillar of the regime — manipulated with handouts and slogans. If they have shifted now, all the aging Khamenei has left is the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij. The Revolution that promised Iranians freedom in 1979 has withered.
The monopoly of force will probably be enough to sustain the Islamic republic. A crackdown is probable at some point. The real crisis of the regime will likely come at the moment of Khamenei’s succession. Still, the courage of Iranians should never be underestimated, nor the deep roots of their quest for freedom, and anything is possible.
What has not changed since 2009 is the bravery of Iranians. I watched in awe as women stood their ground and faced down baton-wielding police officers. Today, protesters are chanting that Khamenei should go. They are chanting death to the Revolutionary Guards. They are chanting, “Independence, freedom, Iranian republic.”
Trump’s White House should keep up the pressure. It should bring European allies in behind its condemnation and warnings. It should stop berating the nuclear deal, which gave Iranians hope and deprives the regime of a convenient scapegoat (it could always say times were hard because of Western sanctions).
It should not, whatever happens, impose new sanctions: They only benefit the Revolutionary Guards. And it should learn, finally, that Iran is not, as Steve Bannon told Joshua Green, “like the fifth century — completely primeval” — but rather a sophisticated society of deep culture full of unrealized promise better served by engagement than estrangement.