As many people around the globe welcome 2018 through parties, dances, and champagne, ordinary people in Iran are ending their 2017 and welcoming 2018 through massive street protests. According to The Wall Street Journal, the protests started small in several Iranian cities in September 2017.
People initially took to the streets to voice economic grievances and protest government corruption, harsh economic conditions for ordinary people, and a high youth unemployment rate. However, as more Iranians joined the protest since December 28, protestors focused less on economic issues and more on demanding fundamental political reform in Iran. They reject their government’s policy of supporting terrorists in countries like Syria while ignoring economic hardship at home. They call for the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down and for “death to the Revolutionary Guards,” a powerful military force loyal to him.
The authoritarian government of Iran responded with its typical iron fist. It imposed restrictions on social media apps such as Telegram and Instagram. It’s also reported that police arrested several hundred protestors and at least two protestors died of gunshot wounds. The Iranian government also wasted no time in blaming foreign powers, especially the United States, for being behind the protestors.
The current protests in Iran represent the largest and most significant civil uprising since the Green Revolution in 2009, and the United States shouldn’t ignore it.
Let’s Learn from Obama’s Failures
The last time Iran saw a similar scale of public protests was in June 2009, following the announcement that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won re-election, despite several reported irregularities and voting fraud. Supporters of all three opposition candidates believed the election was rigged and took to the streets to protest.
The Iranian police responded to peaceful protestors with clubs, pepper spray, and guns. Iranian officials confirmed that 36 protestors were killed. People from the opposition estimated the actual death toll was much higher, not to mention thousands of protestors arrested and tortured.
Then U.S. president Barack Obama, the supposed embodiment of “Hope and Change” and soon-to-be Nobel Peace Prize winner, was very slow to act. He avoided condemning the violence against protesters for a long time and never publicly questioned the Iranian election. According to the book, “The Iran Wars,” by Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon, President Obama was so obsessed with making friends with the mullahs and getting his legacy nuclear deal with Iran that his administration strenuously avoided showing the Iranian opposition any moral or material support.
While protesters were shedding blood on Iranian streets, President Obama ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to sever contact with and material support to the Iranian opposition. He also ended U.S. programs to document Iranian human rights abuses. He even wrote letters to Khamenei assuring him the United States was not trying to overthrow him.
The Iranian government eventually brutally crushed the Green movement. President Obama got his nuclear deal. Yet the deal failed to bring the world peace he envisioned. Instead, it enriched the Iranian government and enabled it to support other rogue regimes and terrorist organizations that cause harm around the globe.
There is no evidence that Iran has actually halted its nuclear weapon development post-deal. Rather, the latest report shows Iran and North Korea are deepening their cooperation in ballistic missile and nuclear weapon technology. The world is a much more dangerous place today than in 2009, and President Obama’s arrogance and poor judgment are partially responsible.
Some people argued that even if President Obama lent support to the opposition, there’s no guarantee that opposition would have succeeded and brought badly needed political reform to Iran. However, it was worth trying.
The current Iranian regime represents an existential threat to not only the United States but all of western civilization. Had we supported the opposition in 2009 and they succeeded, a real fundamental political reform could have taken place in Iran, and a truly free and democratic Iran could one day have become an ally in peace, rather than a continued threat.
The Iranian People Deserve a Better Life
Iran’s former self, the Persian Empire, produced great culture. Its art, literature, and language have influenced the rest of the world. Some English words we use today, such as “pajama” and “paradise,” derive from Persian. Poems by great Persian poets such as Hafiz and Sadi enchanted Ralph Waldo Emerson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Even prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution that ushered in today’s oppressive regime, the Iranian people lived a much freer life. There is ample evidence that the theocratic Iranian state since the 1979 revolution has failed to make the Iranian people’s life better.
An Iranian woman I follow on Twitter, Rita Panahi, recently shared a picture of her mother and her mother’s girlfriends from before the 1979 Islamic revolution. No woman in the photo was covered head to toe with a burka. Instead, they dressed like Westerners, with bright eyes and big smiles. In Rita’s words, the women in the photos were professionals, independent and free.
Recently, a 19-year-old Iranian chess player, Dorsa Derakhshani, was banned by the Iranian chess federation for refusing to wear a headscarf while competing in public. She was the second-highest-ranked player for girls under 18 in the world in 2016 and the second-highest-ranked female chess player in Iranian history. But the regime only cared about what’s on her head, rather than the talent inside her head. She moved to the United States and will compete on our behalf. A brutal regime’s loss is a free country’s gain.
What President Trump Needs to Do
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The Iranian protests today offer the Trump administration a historical opportunity it can’t afford to ignore. I applaud President Trump for openly and unequivocally supporting the protestors and warning the Iranian regime on Twitter. But a few 280-character social media posts are not a substitute for a concrete foreign policy.
President Trump should give a speech directly appealing to the Iranian people, just like the speech he gave last year in Seoul, South Korea, when he spoke directly to and appealed to the North Korean people.
In his speech, President Trump needs to acknowledge that Iranians deserve a better life and a better government. He said in his speech in South Korea that “the strength of the nation does not come from the false glory of a tyrant. It comes from the true and powerful glory of a strong and great people.”
That is true for the Iranian people, too. They deserve to live freely, to flourish, to develop their own destiny, a destiny that “is not to suffer in the bondage of oppression, but to thrive in the glory of freedom.”
A Speech Isn’t All, Either
The Trump administration should also develop a set of initiatives to help the opposition in Iran, such as reaching out to opposition leaders, providing communication equipment to get their message and news of the government’s oppression out, and applying pressure to warn the regime against using violence against protestors. If and when credible evidence shows any oppression against protestors, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley ought to share such intelligence on the world stage to publicly shame the Iranian regime.
The U.S. Congress should expand the application of the Magnitsky Act, a law that enables the United States to withhold visas and freeze financial assets of foreign officials thought to have been involved with human rights violations. We should let Iranian officials know that this will apply to them. In addition, we need to be ready and willing to bring back the economic sanctions the Obama administration let go.
Some Americans probably are concerned that the Iranian regime will blame the United States for interfering with Iranian internal affairs. But the regime is already blaming the United States for instigating civil unrest caused by the regime itself, and it will not stop pointing the finger at us even if we choose to do nothing.
America has the moral obligation to stand up for and stand by people who are thirsty for freedom and want to take charge of their own destiny. We had a leader who totally missed a historic opportunity in 2009. Let’s not repeat our mistake in 2018.