January 4, 2013
The protests in Iran became a focus of international attention during the past week. In the background were the nature of the Iranian regime, its expanding regional reach which is largely a result of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Syrian conflict, regional rivalries and the future of the Iran nuclear deal.
In addressing the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4, 2009, President Obama said that no system of government could or should be imposed upon one nation by any other. However, he also underlined his “unyielding belief” that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak their mind and have a say in how they are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as they choose.
In the same speech, addressing Iran, he said that in the middle of the Cold War, the US had played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. He also referred to the role Iran had played in acts of hostage-taking and violence against US troops and civilians. And, he expressed a hope not to remain trapped in the past.
Seven years later, in his final address to the UN General Assembly on September 20, 2016 Mr. Obama stated the following specifically on the Middle East:
“… We see too many governments muzzling journalists, and quashing dissent, and censoring the flow of information… There, so much of the collapse in order has been fueled because leaders sought legitimacy not because of policies or programs but by resorting to persecuting political opposition, or demonizing other religious sects, by narrowing the public space to the mosque, where in too many places perversions of a great faith were tolerated… Surely, religious traditions can be honored and upheld while teaching young people science and math, rather than intolerance. Surely, we can sustain our unique traditions while giving women their full and rightful role in the politics and economics of a nation…”
Indeed, throughout his eight years at the White House, President Obama remained a steadfast advocate of democracy. And, he made the Iran nuclear deal a foreign policy priority.
The first created a widening rift with Middle East leaders who had no intention whatsoever of engaging in democratic reform. Moreover, towards the end of his second term, Mr. Obama gave the impression that Saudi Arabia was not doing enough to fight radical ideologies and this soured his relations with Riyadh.
As for the Iran nuclear deal, it’s most notable critics, other than President Trump, were Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s criticism went beyond the parameters of the deal and personally targeted President Obama. Some of this criticism could also be related to Mr. Obama’s policy on Palestine. With Iraq and Syria conveniently out of the way, PM Netanyahu wished to see Iran pushed further into a corner whereas the JCPOA represented the opposite. And, Saudi Arabia, in addition to being Iran’s traditional regional rival, was bogged down in the war in Yemen wanted a distraction. Neither country was willing to admit that the JCPOA was not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US but a multilateral one between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. And, like Mr. Trump, neither did recognize the political investment dimension of the nuclear deal, encouraging the regime to play a more constructive regional role by strengthening the hand of its moderates.
So, despite his more nuanced policy on the issue of Palestine, it was not surprising that Middle East leaders were happy to see Mr. Obama go and embrace his successor as a better partner.
President Trump, now at the end of his first year at the White House, has so far managed to please both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh was the first foreign capital he visited where he lavished praise on the Kingdom. More important for the House of Saud and other authoritarian leaders in the region has been his silence on democracy and the need for political reform. He has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital but the anti-Iran front looks unscathed. Whether President Trump will continue to meet their expectations in the long term remains to be seen. As for Turkey’s political leaders, who were increasingly disenchanted with and critical of Mr. Obama, President Trump has been more than a disappointment. They probably wish they could wind the clock back to April 6, 2009, the day when Mr. Obama addressed the Turkish Parliament (*).
The initial ferocity and the outreach of the protests caught most Iran analysts by surprise. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged the grievances of protesters nationwide but called on them to refrain from violence and destroying public property. Supreme Leader Khamenei accused Iran’s enemies. It seems that the protesters were also critical of Iran’s interventions abroad. In Mashhad, some chanted “not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran”, urging the regime to focus on domestic rather than foreign issues. This should be a reminder for other regional leaders as well. External distractions may serve a purpose but there is a limit.
The protests seem to have caused President Trump to remember “human rights”, “people’s right to express themselves”, “oppressive regimes”, “human rights violations”, the inadmissibility of “closing down the internet” and “hunger for freedom”. His overzealous ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has called for international action in solidarity with the demonstrators and said that the US would seek emergency UN sessions on Iran. Such initiatives may provide room for political theatre but will not make a difference. Russia and China will not move. Regime change is out of the question. And so far, Washington’s Western allies have only expressed concern over rising casualties and called on the Iranian Government to respect the demonstrators’ freedom of assembly and their right to give voice to their opinions freely and peacefully. They may be just as concerned about the implications of the protests on US attitude towards Iran and the future of the JCPOA.
The protests and the White House reaction must have pleased and somewhat worried the members of the anti-Iran front. “Pleased”, because they reflect badly on Iran and give Mr. Trump yet another opportunity to target Tehran. “Worried”, because no Middle East leader would react to such protests any differently than the Iranian leadership. Worried only “somewhat”, because they probably feel that Washington would look the other way if they were to find themselves in a similar predicament.
Blaming external powers for internal problems is a Middle Eastern classic and should be resisted. Although political rivalries and other factors may also have played a part, the current wave of protests appears to reflect growing Iranian dissatisfaction with the regime’s repressive policies as well as its poor economic performance. While they are likely to die down, they have strongly reminded Iran’s leaders that people’s grievances have to be taken into account. As many observers agree, President Trump would be well-advised to stop waging a tweet war against the Iranian leadership since this would only discredit the protesters and allow the regime to keep blaming Washington and its regional allies for its troubles. How this episode ends will also be an important test for the Rouhani government which, despite failures, remains a force of moderation in Iran.
(*) President Obama and the Middle East, February 1, 2015.