The wave of protests sweeping Iran has come, as these events invariably do, as a surprise. I visited the country as a tourist in late October to early November, and it seemed remarkably tranquil. But, President, Hassan Rouhani, despite signing the nuclear treaty with the US and Europe has not improved the economy quickly enough to abate the revolution of rising expectations.
The clerical regime led by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, under which any Iranian government struggles to implement its particular agenda, has become a target as well. With perhaps 40 percent youth unemployment and inflation affecting all, the economic conditions for demonstrations were in place. The limited nature of democratic and personal freedoms, opposed by some clerics as well as secular citizens, have long deepened alienation from the authorities. Religious-based restrictions (e.g., women’s dress) get the most attention in the U.S. media but are not the most pressing mass concerns there. Iranians are not a nation of closeted atheists, and many “rules” are indifferently enforced these days.
Unfortunately, Americans have little understanding of Iranian society. Many assume the revolt if it overthrows the government and theocratic rule itself—a long-shot given its still considerable support and muscle—will produce a new leadership as friendly to the US as the last Shah, Mohammed Pahlavi, whose overthrow in 1979 ushered in the Islamic Republic.
Although I found Iranians, particularly young ones, display great affection for Americans as individuals, and love American popular culture and freedom of expression, they distinguish those sentiments from the perception of our government. This bifurcation should not be surprising. Americans have sometimes viewed those living under regimes they disliked as untainted by them.
The ordinary Iranians I spoke to —who approached our small group of three assuming we were foreigners, but not knowing from where— uniformly viewed President Donald Trump with disdain, but being an American there, I did perhaps “prime” those I spoke to by saying what I thought first. Nevertheless, I didn’t think they were simply being polite by saying they thought he was crazy, evil, or both. I presume some, perhaps most, would be sympathetic in varying degrees, to the current protests. But, they surely know too that Trump was opposed to the nuclear treaty. He also supports continuing and even augmenting the existing sanctions, which have been effective, even after the 2016 deal, in inhibiting banks and companies, even non-American ones, from investing in Iran. Iran’s oil industry has revived in the past year, but no other sector of the economy. Of course, not all of Iran’s failures can be attributed to sanctions. Corruption is endemic and the Revolutionary Guard, its most committed supporters, have played an out-sized and harmful economic role.
But, Trump is just the current American president. American leaders have long disrespected Iranian sovereignty. The most prominent example was the CIA’s overthrow of the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, followed by the installation of the autocratic Shah Mohammed Pahlavi as our puppet. Mossadegh’s offense was nationalizing Iranian oil. He and the overwhelming majority of Iranians thought it was an Iranian natural resource not to be owned by Americans and the British.
Although the Shah was lavishly supported by American governments until overthrown in 1979, he was only able to stay in power by suppressing opposition by military means and deploying SAVAK, a CIA-trained massive secret police force which arrested, tortured, and occasionally killed religious or secular dissidents.
The Shah was overthrown after a popular uprising and replaced by the Islamic Republic, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini eliminated not only officials, operatives and influential members of civil society associated with the Shah, but also brutally repressed rival secular and Islamic groups (those with Marxist leanings) who had also fought against the Pahlavi dynasty.
Although President Jimmy Carter had some sympathy for those opposed to the Shah because of his suppression of human rights, he ultimately could not legitimate a new regime that was determinedly nationalist and wanting to steer its course oblivious to what the US wanted. The dramatic US embassy takeover in Tehran reflected Khomeini’s well-founded suspicion of American motives. The shredded documents found there, when painstakingly re-assembled, revealed US intelligence’s desperate attempts to co-opt a key member of the interim government.
The most egregious effort the US made to undermine the Islamic Republic took place when we encouraged Saddam Hussein, then our friend, to invade Iran in 1980. The invasion stalled. Iraq was in danger of being over-run by a counter-offensive. We then abetted Saddam’s use of an internationally outlawed chemical weapon to repel Iranian troops. Overall, Iran conservatively suffered about 150,000 casualties in the eight-year war with Iraq. I saw many posters of young martyrs from that war in numerous cities and towns. More than anything else, the regime’s successful repulsion of the Iraqis legitimated its own rule.
Although the Islamic Republic has been a theocratic state with limited forms of democracy (candidates for office must be approved by the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council), it is no more undemocratic than the US-favored Shah regime. The unremitting hostility of American governments to it for nearly 40 years has nothing to do with its political practices. We have supported many of the world’s worst dictators at times and overthrown, or tried to depose, democratically elected governments at others. We have even removed dictators we once wholeheartedly supported, while acting as if we suddenly became aware of their evil natures. Our problem with the Islamic Republic is rooted in its insistence on sovereign status and the right to have an independent domestic and foreign policy.
Whether the Islamic Republic is replaced by a democracy or not our record indicates subordinating its policies to our wishes will determine whether we consider it a friend or foe. The younger generation, not being alive during the times when the US interfered with Iran’s self-determination, is probably especially tired of hearing about Mossadegh, the CIA, the Shah, SAVAK, and poison gas. Perhaps Donald Trump will turn out to be the Islamic Republic’s unwitting savior. His contempt for democracy and efforts to continue to harm Iran’s economic recovery may lend credence to what would otherwise be rejected as the regime’s ineffectual attempt at bolstering its legitimacy as the defender of the nation’s interests.
Personally, I’d be happy to have the regime overthrown if something better emerged. Revolutions often start out with near unanimity when it comes to the old order. But then divisions appear. Not only Khomeini but Communists, secular democrats, Islamic Marxists and others fought against the Shah. But Khomenai subsequently eliminated those who were allies in that struggle.
The protesters today may have different visions of a post-revolutionary Iran. There are some who want a genuine Islamic democracy; others a completely secular state. The regime is capitalist, but anti-capitalist sentiments probably also exist, because the current system has never attacked vast economic inequality. The lives of many wealthy Iranians have barely changed since the Shah’s days, except for the headscarfs. The US would certainly try to back elements that would do our bidding, which might not improve the lot of ordinary Iranians any.
Finally, what would a post-revolutionary foreign policy look like? However repressive and corrupt the existing power structure may be, Iran has fought hard against ISIS (which threatens Shiites above all). The Saudis have supported the Wahhabist ideology that contributed to its rise, as well as al Qaeda. And what about support for the Palestinians? Israel has made peace with all of the major Arab states. That fact, plus full US support, or total acquiescence with whining (Obama’s approach), has given Israel a free hand to complete the ethnic cleansing process. Iran certainly was not going to go to war with Israel unless attacked (despite the opportunistic mistranslation of Ahmadinejad’s words), but it does give them more grief than anyone else, much to their credit. (Few people realize there is a thriving Jewish community in Iran and Judaism as a religion, as opposed to Zionism, along with Christianity and Zoroastrianism—the original Persian faith—are protected).