The protests that broke out in Iran in the final days of 2017 were slow to gain notice in the United States and Europe, in part because of the sense that we’ve been down this path before.
In 2011 the world was abuzz with excitement about the Arab Spring. Seven years later, only Tunisia seems to have made true advances toward democracy and freedom. The popular political uprisings have produced refugees, coups, frustrated hopes and terrorism across the Middle East, and as many as half a million Syrians have been killed in the civil war Bashar al-Assad unleashed in response to peaceful protests.
Iran itself went through the abortive Green Movement in 2009 in response to the suspicious re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, but dozens of protesters died in vain. Nothing appeared to change.
At this writing, we’re a week into protests that have grown as large as tens of thousands of people at a time in cities across Iran, and more than 20 Iranians have been killed as the government has moved to suppress the demonstrations.
It’s hard to be sure exactly what’s happening behind the veil of the Islamic republic. Citizens have spread videos and commentary despite the government’s efforts to cut off online communications. But government-controlled media aren’t trustworthy, and independent professional journalists aren’t reporting from Iran.
We might be seeing a positive, unintended consequence of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which rolled back crippling economic sanctions in exchange for the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian people had hopes of better living conditions, but they haven’t benefited from the tens of billions of dollars freed up under the agreement.
Instead, they’ve seen what critics of the nuclear deal feared: The Iranian government has increased spending on efforts to extend its military influence across the Middle East and to undermine its rivals, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, but has done little to improve domestic conditions.
Some observers say the anti-government demonstrations are just an expression of the resulting economic frustrations. Others believe that broader grievances are being unleashed. Unlike 2009, the protests are diffuse and lack a central leadership. Also unlike 2009, violent militias and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have not been turned loose to crush the protests.
It’s clear what would be best for Iran, the Middle East and the rest of the world: a change from an oppressive, aggressive, religious regime to a democratic government that frees an educated population to pursue its potential and cuts off support for the likes of Hezbollah. We wish we knew how the United States could help get there from here.
What we don’t need now is to keep fighting old political battles. It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong about the nuclear deal, and we shouldn’t waste time viewing what’s happening now through the lens of that agreement.
We need statements from the European Union, the United Nations and the U.S. president warning Iran’s leaders that they’re being watched closely and will be held accountable for their treatment of peaceful protesters. But we don’t need threats and bombast.
Above all, we need policymakers to listen to the Iranian people and trust them to let us know what if anything they need from us.