The fact that Iran’s anti-regime protests appear to have died down is not a reason to relax the pressure on Tehran. On the contrary, it’s a reason to increase it through serious sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support for terror and regional aggression. The protests will only become a truly mass movement if enough Iranians come to realize what the protesters already have: Contrary to the promise held out by the nuclear deal, Iran can’t have it all. Terror and military aggression are incompatible with a thriving economy.
To understand why more pressure is needed, it’s worth revisiting a New York Times article from November that has been widely but somewhat unfairly derided. In it, reporter Thomas Erdbrink wrote that “The two most popular stars in Iran today—a country with thriving film, theater, and music industries—are not actors or singers but two establishment figures: Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s regional military effort, which is widely seen as a smashing success; and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the symbol of a reasonable and measured Iran.”
The derision stems from the fact that the protesters assailed both Suleimani’s military adventurism and the government of which Zarif is a pillar, proving that neither is quite as popular as Erdbrink thought. Like many Westerners reporting from abroad, he committed the cardinal error of thinking that the fairly narrow circles he frequents represent the country as a whole. Yet within those circles, his analysis of the status of these two men appears to be accurate. That was made clear by the fact that Tehran’s educated middle classes, who formed the core of Iran’s 2009 protests, largely sat this round out.
And in truth, Suleimani and Zarif deserved star status. Together, they seemed to have severed the inverse relationship between military adventurism and economic wellbeing. Thanks to the nuclear deal Barack Obama signed with Iran in 2015, it seemed as if Iran really could have it all. It could maintain an active nuclear program (enriching uranium, conducting research and development, and replacing old, slow centrifuges with new ones that will make the enrichment process 20 times faster); expand its ballistic missile program; become a regional superpower with control, or at least major influence, over four nearby countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen); and still receive sanctions relief worth billions of dollars and have European companies lining up to do business with it, resulting in booming 12 percent growth and plummeting inflation.
That’s precisely why this status was accorded equally to both the “moderate” Zarif and the “hardline” Suleimani, defying the “moderates versus hardliners” prism through which many Westerners misread Iran. Iranians understand quite well that “moderates” and “hardliners” are both part of the ayatollahs’ regime and, in this case, they worked together seamlessly to produce the best of all possible worlds.
Zarif negotiated the nuclear deal, which provided the sanctions relief and the European business interest while Suleimani parlayed it into regional dominance–not merely by orchestrating Iran’s successful military interventions in other countries, but above all by understanding that the nuclear deal enabled Iran to conduct such interventions with impunity. As noted by commentators across the political spectrum–from Samuel Tadros of the conservative Hoover Institute to left-wing Haaretz analyst Zvi Bar’el–both the Obama Administration and the European Union were afraid to penalize Iran’s military adventurism lest Tehran use this as a pretext to quit the nuclear deal.
Iran’s decision to spend most of its sanctions relief on guns rather than butter meant ordinary Iranians saw little improvement in their own situation. Until recently, however, the regime could mollify public anxieties by stalling for time. The money is going to keep pouring in, they’d note, and soon there will be enough for everyone.
But President Trump’s decertification of the nuclear deal in October upended this calculus. European companies became more reluctant to do business with Iran, fearing loss of access to the much more important American market. And new American sanctions on Iran became a real possibility.
Consequently, the continued influx of money was no longer guaranteed. The billions Suleimani spent on his military adventures weren’t necessarily going to be replaced by a flood of European investment, and surging economic growth might once again be crimped by new sanctions. Ordinary Iranians were suddenly back in the pre-nuclear deal world, where the regime’s bad behavior had real economic costs.
In this sense, the media debate over whether the protests were “economic” or “political” was ludicrous. They were both because the protesters understood that their economic woes stemmed from their government’s political choices. That’s why they chanted slogans like “Forget about Palestine, forget about Gaza, think about us” and “Leave Syria alone, think about us instead.”
They also understood that those political choices were a product of the regime’s very nature, which is why they chanted slogans like “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to the Islamic Republic.” The nuclear deal was the Islamic Republic’s best shot at reconciling its desire to export Shi’ite revolution with its need to satisfy its people’s desire for a decent quality of life. If that doesn’t work, the regime clearly doesn’t have any solution to this dilemma and never will.
But if protests are ever to grow to the point that they actually threaten the regime, many more Iranians–especially the middle-class Tehranis who sat this round out–must come to understand this. And easing economic pressure on Iran would send the exact opposite message: that the world actually will let the Islamic Republic have its cake and eat it, too.
Thus to drive home the message that the ayatollahs’ regime is incompatible with economic wellbeing, America must counteract the effect of the nuclear deal by imposing stiff new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missiles, support for terror and military aggression – together with Europe if possible, but alone if necessary. Additionally, assuming Trump signs the nuclear sanctions waiver on January 15, he should make clear that he is doing so only to give Congress, which has been too busy with tax reform to do much else recently, time to pass serious legislation to fix the nuclear deal’s flaws.
The nuclear deal told Iranians they really could have it all. Trump’s job now is to prove that was a delusion.
Originally published in Commentary on January 10, 2018