Protests in Iran prove Trump is getting it right
While Team Trump is divided over Iran policy — some say negotiate, others advocate pressure aimed at regime change — defiant Iranians taking to the streets of the capital are resolving that dispute decisively in favor of the latter.
Tehran’s grand bazaar was shut down Monday as merchants joined street protests and thousands defied thuggish regime riot police trying to quell the rebellion. Other big cities joined Tehran as well.
Protesters carried signs like “Leave Syria alone, think of us.” Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Houthis — all proxy arms of the Islamic Republic’s strategy of spreading its version of the “Islamic revolution” across the region — weren’t spared protesters’ ire either.
In a modification of the regime’s “death to Israel” staple, some merchants raised “death to Palestine” signs on Monday. And worse, from the regime’s point of view: “Death to the dictator.”
Iranians have been protesting all year. Truck drivers, unable to afford gasoline, have been on strike. Others, including past regime supporters, also turned against Tehran’s pricey adventurism in the region while ignoring troubles at home.
Much of it is because the mullahs can’t manage their moola.
In anticipation of new US sanctions set to hit in August, the Iranian rial is sinking fast: 42,890 rials could buy a dollar at the end of 2017. Now the dollar is worth 90,000 rials. For ordinary folks, such hyperinflation means thinner dinner, if at all.
But it isn’t just the economy.
Women have been increasingly removing their hijab in public, in defiance of the law. The regime was recently forced to allow women to publicly cheer their World Cup soccer team. The games are televised in stadiums, where until recently only men were admitted.
But until now, much of the protest mostly stayed in small peripheral towns. Monday’s demonstrations mark a new phase, says Masih Alinejad, the Brooklyn-based Iranian woman widely credited with launching the powerful anti-hijab movement.
“What the regime feared most is happening,” Alinejad tells me. “Tehran had stayed calm as nationwide protests at the beginning of the year engulfed 80 cities. Now an impromptu protest in Tehran by merchants against economic mismanagement has turned into a massive anti-regime event, with chants of death to dictator and death to Palestine.”
On Sunday, she added, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif railed against regime change, and “that to me suggests the regime is very worried.”
President Trump, meanwhile, is reportedly eager to prove his deal artistry prowess and renegotiate his predecessor’s nuclear pact with Iran while top administration officials support a turn to diplomacy.
The argument was crystallized by President George W. Bush’s former ambassador in Iraq and Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “Trump’s pressure tactics likely won’t bring Iran to its knees or facilitate the overthrow of the regime in the foreseeable future — but his approach might bring the Iranians to the negotiating table.”
Others in the administration, however, agree with National Security Adviser John Bolton, who, at least until joining the Trump team, was an avid proponent of regime change in Iran.
Is it feasible? Is it advisable? Regime change has suffered bad PR since Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. But take a look at the carnage in Syria, where America decided to sit out an age-defining struggle against an evil regime.
So far on Iran, we’re doing the right thing: Pressure the regime for spreading evil around the region and the globe, while allowing space for Iranians to determine their future without us.
Trump has amped-up pressure on the regime while not overtly advocating regime change. Staying this course will help Iranians articulate their growing disdain for their oppressors.
Some in the administration are pushing Trump to offer to negotiate with Khamenei & Co., betting Tehran will summarily reject a gesture prompted by “global arrogance.” This way, the argument goes, we could convince Europeans and others that we tried diplomacy but Iran didn’t budge, so they should join our pressure.
This gambit may work. But even if so, a gesture toward the Tehran clerics will legitimize them — and discourage a swelling number of Iranians who yearn to end their exclusive hold on power.
Here’s a Cold War lesson: Realists can’t easily envision it, but dictators can suddenly fall. And then realities change very quickly.
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