It’s Time for Biden to Back Iranian Protesters
If you were living in an Iranian city today, the sound of this chant mocking the regime would by now be deeply familiar to you: “Our enemy is here; they are lying that it is America.” Amid an inflation rate of 40 percent and massive unemployment, Iran had long kept the price of food artificially low via subsidies—but in recent weeks it eliminated the subsidies because it could no longer afford them. Prices have since risen dramatically: Flour is reportedly now ten times as expensive as it was a few weeks ago, while eggs, chicken, and milk cost double what they did not long ago.
Iranians now fill the streets in protest—but while gripes about prices and policies may be the proximate cause, the protesters’ ultimate target is the regime.
There is a joke people tell in Iran. As is customary in Islamic societies, strangers often call each other “brother” or “sister.” A foreign tourist asks why that is; his Iranian friend responds, “Forty-three years ago, there was a cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini. He screwed everybody’s mother, so we became siblings.” A nation of siblings joined by a shared experience of generational violence and degradation: The joke perfectly captures the way many Iranians think of the 1979 Islamic Revolution as a national humiliation.
More than four decades ago, Iranians ousted an authoritarian in their country. Under his rule, the royal court was corrupt, the villages were poor, and religion was considered a private affair. But in today’s Iran, the corruption of the court has spread to every level of government. The cities have joined the villages in poverty. And forced religiosity has increasingly led Iranians to secularize and despise theocracy.
To put the situation simply, the regime has two main problems. First, it failed to deliver on its promises of social and economic justice, so that anyone who looks around Iran with clear eyes will see rapidly growing income inequality, generalized precarity among workers, and rapidly expanding slums. Second, now that generations of Iranians have experienced the reality of the theocracy they signed up for in 1979, they hate it. The regime’s anti-liberal nature and policies—from dress codes, especially the compulsory hijab, to speech restrictions, anti-Americanism, and anti-Zionism—have emptied the mosques and created support among many Iranians for America and, increasingly, even Israel.
This shift of attitudes toward foreign policy is an indicator of the Islamic Republic’s unpopularity. Iran has experienced a turbulent love/hate relationship over the last half-century: Iranians who hated the United States for supporting the Shah now hate Jimmy Carter for failing to keep him in power. And—believe it or not—many Iranians love Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo. Although surprising, this last fact makes sense: Trump imposed harsh sanctions on the hated regime and used his own Twitter account to share messages in Farsi supporting Iranian protesters during widespread unrest in 2020. This alone is enough to endear him to my friends in Iran: At the end of the day, they say, I don’t care that Trump had no plan for regime change. At least he imposed sanctions. I won’t get any of the benefits of the sanctions being lifted, anyway, just like last time. At least the regime won’t either, if they remain in place, but now Joe Biden wants to lift them. Trump all the way!
My friends have a point: While a popular opinion in North America and Europe is that the Trump sanctions hurt the Iranian people more than the government, the truth is that the people would see little improvement if sanctions were to be removed because Iranian elites would hoard the windfall.
Like Trump, Pompeo acknowledged the desire of many Iranians for regime change, although he stopped short of endorsing it as U.S. policy. His State Department used social media to communicate solidarity with the Iranian people in Farsi. These messages had little reach and didn’t change actual outcomes for the protests they were supporting, but they were a meaningful gesture all the same. Nowadays, though, those same Farsi-language State Department accounts lack direction and often post about issues that are perfectly irrelevant to average Iranians: There is not much appetite among hard-pressed shopkeepers in Tehran for information on Iran’s ballistic missiles program, let alone problems of injustice in America, as laid out in Farsi-language State Department tweets criticizing “racial discrimination” and other varieties of “injustice” in America, and American “racism” and inequality.
These posts go from out of touch to hostile when considered against the backdrop of the continuing anti-government protests. In that context, they suggest that the current administration has abandoned regular Iranians—a decision made at the senior level. Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has not acknowledged the protests that have been going on since early May, and he is seeking a new nuclear arms control agreement—which gives his reticence an air of political calculation. Blinken’s childhood-friend-turned-envoy-for-Iran, Rob Malley, is silent, too. Blinken’s spokesperson Ned Price did acknowledge the protests in a tweet that Malley retweeted. But that’s it: As best as I can tell, that is the full extent of the department’s acknowledgement of the protests so far.
Failing to engage this enormously popular protest movement in Iran is a major unforced error for the Biden administration. It is also not a harmless mistake. Political violence is following these protests, and attacks against clergy, security forces, and regime-affiliated institutions are increasing. There is every reason to expect the regime to defend itself by whatever means appear necessary, especially as it loses the support of its “starving and shoeless” base.
But it is not too late for the Biden administration to change course. Instead of passively worrying what supporting the protests might mean for its diplomatic aims regarding arms control, the administration can proactively strengthen its negotiating position by providing meaningful support to the Iranians taking to the streets to bring freedom to their country.