The first few days of the new year have ushered in calls for freedom in Iran with tens of thousands of people gathering to protest in dozens of cities across the country. This courage to speak out against an oppressive government known for its brutal punishment of detractors should not be dismissed or taken lightly in international news reports. This is much more than an episode of public unrest: It is an indictment of Iran’s radical mullahs and their corrupt, tyrannical regime.
That indictment includes Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran’s Ayatollahs have held absolute control over the Iranian people for nearly 40 years. The last time major protests erupted in Iran, following a disputed presidential election in 2009, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei violently crushed the opposition. The world took notice during those demonstrations, but the Obama Administration did little to support the Iranian people. The Trump Administration should not miss the same opportunity. Indeed, the United States is already working to coordinate an international response.
At the same time, the Administration can take action here at home. The State Department should continue to communicate with protesters despite the regime’s restrictions on social media access. Likewise, the Treasury Department could prepare sanctions against Iranian officials for any human rights abuses, encouraging our European allies to do the same.
Iranians Are ‘Fed Up’
According to news reports, this protest is not being driven by the same groups of people that sought reforms in 2009. Many of the people calling for political change now are from rural areas and from the working class, groups who have traditionally not pushed back against the status quo. But, as President Trump tweeted, Iranians are “fed up with [the] regime’s corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad.” Citizens are struggling to buy basic food items amid high unemployment and rampant inflation while the regime bolsters Hezbollah terrorists and exploits conflicts across the Middle East.
Ayatollah Khamenei can try to blame the current protests on “enemies” of Iran like the United States, but he cannot change the fact that the government has not delivered on the economic opportunities that were promised after the nuclear deal in 2015. We have seen similar situations before: in Poland and Hungary in the 1950s and in Czechoslavakia in the late 1960s, when another bankrupt ideology – Soviet communism – inspired mass protests against official corruption and the inability to satisfy basic needs.
A Bad Nuclear Deal
I opposed the Obama Administration’s decision to join the nuclear deal with Iran and the lifting of international sanctions, unfreezing some $100 billion in frozen Iranian funds. Iran remains the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, and Ayatollah Khamenei is openly hostile toward the United States and our Israeli allies. As these pro-democracy protests suggest, the belief held by the Obama Administration that moderate voices in Iran would ultimately prevail over a radical ruling class has not come about.
The lasting outcome of these protests remains to be seen, but President Trump’s decision last year to decertify the Iran deal – stating unequivocally that nuclear agreement is not in America’s interests – sends a strong message that the United States will demand accountability from Tehran. He is also right to differentiate between the people of Iran seeking freedom and the country’s fundamentalist regime suppressing basic human rights. In calling for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley underscored the Administration’s support for the people, stating, “We must not be silent. The people of Iran are crying out for freedom. All freedom-loving people must stand with their cause.” Being silent is exactly what Ayatollah Khamenei would want the rest of the world to do.