Recent protests across Iran illustrate what many have known for years: The Iranian regime continues to repress its own people in order to extend its influence across the Middle East and beyond. Iran’s hegemonic foreign policy goals, combined with its brutal domestic policies, have produced a toxic mix both for Iran’s citizens and the region as a whole. President Trump’s refusal this month to certify (for the second time) that the 2015 nuclear deal is in America’s best interest has once again focused attention on the need to prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons.
The protests that rocked Iran in late December and early January clearly illustrate the interrelationship of the nuclear deal, Tehran’s military adventurism, and the Iranian government’s disregard for human rights. Just two years ago, Iranian officials and their supporters in the West suggested that the nuclear deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) would produce a more peaceful Middle East and a more stable, prosperous Iran.
Instead, to the dismay of its citizens, Iran’s leaders have diverted much of the money accessed under the JCPOA into foreign military campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Since 2015, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah and other Iranian-funded Shia militias have returned much of Syria to its brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad. The IRGC also helped eject the U.S.-allied Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government from Kirkuk and assisted Shia radicals fighting the internationally recognized government of Yemen. All of this did not come cheap—some estimates put Tehran’s annual foreign military spending as high as $18 billion.
It was no surprise, then, that the resulting steep price hikes for eggs and other commodities and a severe banking crisis triggered the most recent round of mass Iranian protests. Iranians clearly realize that their leaders are misappropriating their nation’s wealth. Accordingly, demonstrations that began with an economic focus soon took on an avowedly political, anti-regime tone. Working-class Iranians in the provinces—long assumed to be a bulwark of regime support—came out in droves, chanting slogans such as “Death to [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei,” “Death to [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani,” and "The people are begging, the clerics act like God."
Iran’s protestors quickly homed in on the relationship between unbridled spending abroad and surging inflation plus severe youth unemployment at home. Shouts of “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, I give my life only for Iran,” and "Leave Syria, think about us” were common. These subversive cries challenged the government’s foreign policy and also demonstrated a bedrock patriotism placing allegiance to Iran as a country over loyalty to the cleric’s Islamic system.
Almost 40 years ago, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Iranian Islamic Republic, derided such attitudes with the warning that “patriotism equals paganism.” But the Iranian people continue to reject Khomeini’s approach, which is shared by his successors.
The demonstrations should also put to rest any notion that the Iranian people see President Rouhani as a “moderate” who seeks prosperity at home and less adventurism abroad. The protestors drew no distinction between Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei, decrying both as bulwarks of a brutal system that impoverishes and oppresses them.
In virtually every election over the past 20 years, Iranian voters, although restricted to candidates loyal to the Islamic system, have chosen whoever appeared to embody change. Last year, they chose Rouhani over the unpopular, extremist Ibrahim Raisi. In previous elections, Presidents Khatami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani all deceptively draped themselves in the banner of change. And each failed to deliver, whether for lack of trying or because the system hamstrung every attempt at reform.
Finally, the protests remind us that Iran’s severe economic and political problems have little to do with the alleged failure of the United States or the EU to provide Tehran with sufficient sanctions relief. The most important nuclear-related sanctions—those against Iran’s central bank and the EU’s oil boycott—were removed more than two years ago. In response, the Iranian economy grew 6.5 percent in 2016 and between 3.5 and 5 percent during 2017. But the benefits of growth have not trickled down to the average Iranian. Instead, senior IRGC officers and clerics have lined their own pockets and maximized the power of the huge financial interests they control.
It is hard to see how Iran’s government can cure its economic ills or win legitimacy. Tehran may have succeeded in crushing the recent protests—killing dozens and arresting almost four thousand citizens. But the grounds for protest remain, and the mullahs' regime is unlikely to enjoy clear sailing ahead.
The United States must continue to stand with those in Iran who seek basic human rights and oppose Iranian efforts to expand the regime’s influence across the Middle East. Moreover, America must implement a comprehensive strategy to thwart Iran’s aggression, prevent it from ever acquiring nuclear weapons, and secure other key American interests.
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