What the Iran Protests Have Already Achieved

By Sohrab Ahmari

Commentary Magazine

January 8, 2018

More than 1,700 arrests and at least two-dozen deaths later, the Tehran regime seems to have suppressed Iran’s latest mass uprising. Scattered protests and skirmishes continue nationwide, according to the citizen-journalists who, braving regime violence, continue to post footage on social media. But for now, the demonstrations don’t seem to be growing in numbers or frequency. Yet outside observers tempted to write off the movement should recall that the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah began decades earlier. There were lulls through the years, which tempted President Carter at one point to describe the shah’s Iran as an “island of stability” in the Middle East.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, however, the protesters have already accomplished a great deal and shattered many myths in the West. Let’s review their achievements:

First, the Iran protests showed that the people are not rallying to the regime under the press of President Trump’s hawkish rhetoric. Far from being “swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor,” as the New York Times‘ Thomas Erdbrink reporteda few weeks before the uprising, Iranians still detest their corrupt, repressive regime. As my colleague Noah Rothman has noted on our podcasts, Americans have an almost-religious conviction that world events revolve around the U.S. and specifically the White House. To be sure, America remains the most important nation on the world stage. Yet the average Iranian doesn’t wake up in the morning cursing Donald Trump for trying to undo the nuclear deal. More likely, he curses the fact that he can’t even afford eggs to feed his children, and there are more proximate actors whom he blames for that: namely, the mullahs.

Second, the uprising revealed, once and for all, that Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has been no moderate, and that the reformer-vs.-hardliner distinction is meaningless. Ever since he came to power, Rouhani has been the subject of adulation among members of the Western foreign-policy establishment. The media attached the “moderate” and “reformer” labels to Rouhani on the night of his first election, in June 2013, and refused to remove them even as evidence mounted that he was no such thing. There was Rouhani’s leading role in the violent repression of the 1999 student uprising; his support for the post-2009 crackdown; his long record of anti-American rhetoric (“the beautiful cry of ‘Death to America’ unites our nation”); his decidedly immoderate cabinet; his work overseeing Iran’s campaign of assassinations targeting dissidents abroad; and much else of the kind.

But now Iranians themselves are plainly telling the West that Rouhani is no moderate. Their slogans–“Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me”–are a reminder that Tehran has continued to underwrite terror and bloodshed across the Middle East during the four-plus years of Rouhani’s presidency. The people have also been chanting, “Reformists, Hard-Liners, the Whole Game Is Over.” Let’s hope the same realization soon dawns in Washington and Brussels.

Third, the protesters put the lie to the Obama administration’s claims about the 2015 nuclear deal. Remember when senior Obama officials reassured Americans that Iran would use the sanctions relief under Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to improve the lots of its people? Here’s how Obama Treasury Secretary Jack Lew put it in an April 2015 address:

Many Americans, and many of our closest allies, are understandably concerned that Iran will use the money it receives as a result of sanctions relief to fund terrorism and support destabilizing proxies throughout the Middle East. We share those concerns, and we are committed to maintaining sanctions that address these activities, even after Iran takes the steps required to get relief from nuclear sanctions. But it’s important to note that the connection between nuclear sanctions relief and Iran’s other malign activities is complicated, and most of the money Iran receives from sanctions relief will not be used to support those activities.

Two months later, Colin Kahl, a national-security adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden, told the Truman Center: “It is our assessment . . . that [the Iranians] are not going to spend the vast majority of the money on guns. Most of it will go to butter.”

Millions of jobless and impoverished Iranians now beg to differ. It turns out that the regime was happy to spend the JCPOA funds on Hezbollah, Hamas, the Yemeni Houthis, and other nasties, even if that meant Iranians would go hungry. And those hungry people aren’t mistaken about the roots of their hunger. Iran remains the world’s top state sponsor of terror, according to the U.S. State Department. Deal opponents warned of this, only to be brushed aside by Obama and his media allies. The Trump administration now has an opportunity to correct course, by walking away from Obama’s bad deal. The American people are under no obligation to finance Iran’s terrorist statecraft.

The mullahs would have no one to blame but themselves. The Iranian people, defeated but unbowed, are sure to have another day.