Once again, the Iranian people are rejecting their authoritarian government and repressive rule by the mullahs. The president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is also losing support, according to sources at the Rand Corporation. In recent days the Iranians have demonstrated in Tehran and other major cities such as Mashad and Kermanshah to protest food prices and unemployment. Some demonstrators have been shot and remarkably, there are reports of cries of “death to Khameini,” the cleric who is Iran’s supreme leader.
But this time, unlike during the Obama Administration, the White House and Department of State have expressed clear support for the Iranian people. While it is too early to form conclusions, it is possible that we are witnessing the beginning of the collapse of the Iranian theocracy. Now is the time for the United States to communicate directly to the Iranian people, calling for regime change, and promising a new rapprochement with a secular, moderate government — and assistance for the Iranian economy.
Reacting quickly with marketing instinct, President Trump voiced initial support for the demonstrators, referring to the diversion of national assets to conduct terrorism, and stating that “the world is watching.” In an uncharacteristically blunt statement, the Department of State also proclaimed, “Iran’s leaders have turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos…” On Monday, President Trump launched a Twitter attack, stating that “it is time for a change… Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted.” He has also announced that “Iran is failing…”
In 2009, the Iranians took to the streets to protest the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, amidst cries of election fraud. The event was said to be the largest demonstration since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Although President Obama said that he was “deeply troubled” by the violent situation in Iran, he equivocated and did not connect with the Iranian people and their aspirations — nor did he leverage the opportunity to call for regime change.
As part of the nuclear deal, the U.S. Administration later released over $100 billion in blocked assets, although there are other estimates, such as one for $55 billion. At that time, Iran’s nuclear development program was curtailed but not dismantled. Further, there was also no linkage to Iran’s adventurist behavior in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and its desire to extend Shiite influence in the Middle East, extending to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also supporting the Sunni Hamas militants in Gaza. President Trump’s antipathy toward the Iran nuclear deal is well known, and for this reason he is unpopular in Iran. If leaders of the dissent can portray themselves as Iranian patriots, and not allow themselves to be cast as instruments of a foreign power, as the mullahs would have it, their prospects for success will increase. And for their morale, they need to know that the West is with them.
The discontent of the Iranian people goes beyond economic malaise. The deal with the U.S. was widely expected to stimulate the Iranian economy, yet it was acknowledged by Secretary Kerry that some funds would be used to support terrorism, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. There are further reports that the dissent is also about social injustice and the repression of women in Iranian society.
Iran has formidable natural resources as the world’s seventh largest oil producer, also possessing the fourth largest reserves of crude and second largest reserves of gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. A secular, moderate Iran focused on its economic development and human rights, and not on the exportation of chaos, could support stability for the greater Middle East. An Iran aligned with the West might offset some Russian influence in the region, just as Iran was once an impediment to Soviet expansion as a member of the Central Treaty Organization, a gendarme in the Persian Gulf.
The world has witnessed the rise of so-called ungoverned spaces — such as Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. Regime change should be approached with great caution, since an Iran that descends into tribalism would be larger than anything seen so far.
However, unlike many Middle East countries, Iran has some parliamentary tradition, even as a monarchy or Islamic theocracy. Known as the Majlis, the legislative body is over one hundred years old, and it has wielded varying degrees of influence. This tradition, coupled with an aspiring middle class and intelligentsia, could be a stabilizing force should Iran undergo regime change and another Iranian revolution.
It is not possible to say where this situation in Iran is headed, and the mullahs will not go down without a fight. However, on occasion, Iran has surprised the world: when the Shah of Iran was ousted by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the U.S. equipped Iranian army did not ultimately support the monarchy. Whether the army will turn on the Iranian people in defense of the mullahs remains to be seen.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He is a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago and a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.