BY: ANDY LAUB
In late 2017 and into early 2018, Iranians took to the streets to protest poor economic conditions and the leadership of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. There were also smaller counter protests in support of the regime, suspicious of outside influence, in particular- American interference in Iranian politics. Given its history. U.S President Donald Trump proclaimed his support for the protests stating “we stand with the Iranian people in their quest for freedom” and that the U.S “was watching.” This was quite an about face for the President who consistently showed hostility towards Iran, by including them in his Muslim travel ban, decertifying the Iran nuclear deal reached in 2015 under the Obama administration and siding with traditional gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia in its proxy war against Iranian Houthi backed rebels in Yemen. Mr. Trump has also failed to be consistent in voicing support for protestors in Russia and Egypt, where ordinary citizens have taken to the streets to protest their respective upcoming elections. Despite the fact that he and many others claimed that results would have been different had President Obama spoken out more vocally in support of protestors following the 2009 elections, President Trump has failed to meet, let alone exceed that threshold in being more vociferous.
Iran is a country ripe for democracy- its highly educated and outgoing youth population wants reforms along with better connectivity with the West as demonstrated by the landslide re-election last year of reformist President Hassan Rouhani with 23.6 million votes. President Rouhani came into office in 2013 promising reforms; under his leadership, the United States and Iran proved they could work together when they reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Even though the nuclear deal was popular in Iran, Iranians are still not feeling the economic benefits of the sanctions relief given the phased nature of its implementation tied to Iran’s compliance with the deal. At the same time, many of the country’s financial institutions need upgrading as they deals more with western markets. The potential deal for Iran Air to purchase new jets from Boeing is a step in the right direction but much more work is needed to build infrastructure and jobs. Iranian youth unemployment is at a staggering 40% fueling the angst that many are feeling because of the slow economic recovery of the country. The Iranian people deserve to be heard as they voice their concerns in these protests; President Rouhani is obligated to listen to their concerns and attempt to implement key economic reforms to alleviate some of their economic burdens. Iranians also have the right to self-determination- the right to guide their own destiny without violent crackdowns from the Revolutionary Guard or interference by the United States. In 1953 the United States supported coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and re-installation of the brutal regime of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi that subsequently led to the Islamic revolution in 1979, the rise of the Islamic Republic as well as the American hostage crisis that sewed deep distrust between the United States and Iran.
Today, 75% of Iranians are under 35, most of them use Instagram and are excited to welcome American tourists with great hospitality as I had the honor of experiencing in 2016. Most want reform and an opening with the rest of the world, which is apparent in the candidates they elect. Iran elected more women in 2016 to their parliament and the reformist party currently controls both parliament and all local City Councils. The Iranian people, right now, are facing a dilemma when it comes to the regime controlled by the Supreme Leader’s side of the government as well as outside interference making things worse, which is further used as propaganda by the regime to strike fear in Iranians. Ayatollah Khamenei is in his late 70’s and has experienced health problems; there is a lot of talk about what might happen after he is gone. Even though many names have been floated for his successor, no clear path is visible should the Ayatollah’s health deteriorate. The Iranian democratic structure could very well undergo an organic change should it be allowed to do so. The people in Iran stand ready and independent from the government forces that seek to control them.
Keeping in mind the country’s history and the openness of the Iranian people, full democracy in Iran will have to come organically from within- from its own people. The current political environment in the United States will only allow for meek support as opposed to outward attempts at opening diplomatic channels. Rather than trying to isolate Iran’s people through increased sanctions, the West should be encouraging more people to people diplomacy, allowing Iranians and Americans to see each other’s countries and think independently without the preconceived political notions. As the Iranian people continue to find avenues to obtain complete independence from the government, it is the duty of international institutions to find ways to support and amplify the voices of the Iranian people. For without their voices, democracy will be hard to achieve.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and Multilateral Affairs Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the Membership Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.