US should back Iran’s protesters

More than half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy re-wrote U.S. policy for the developing world with one goal in mind: to put America on the side of revolutionary forces that were seeking progressive change.

His predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had subjected U.S. policy in the developing world to the wishes of America’s European allies that maintained colonies across the world and often ruled harshly.

JFK, however, knew that change was coming in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where hundreds of millions of people were growing increasingly frustrated over political oppression and stunted living standards. He also knew that the next generation of leaders on those continents would remember whether or not Washington had lent its support to their efforts. That would determine whether, in the aftermath of change, the United States found itself with new allies or new adversaries.

Washington faces that same question today in Iran, which is now home to what could be the most sustained protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. When the regime falls, as it surely will (whether in a month, a year, or a decade), will its successors look kindly on the support they received from Washington?

Clearly, the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions is exacerbating the regime’s problems and perhaps weakening its grip on power. But, like its predecessor, the administration isn’t providing nearly the moral or tangible support that it could to those risking their lives each day as they demonstrate for more political freedom and economic opportunity.

In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iranians reportedly took to the streets in 29 of the nation’s 31 provinces, in cities large and small, after the government raised gas prices steeply. According to Iranian state media and officials, protesters attacked 50 military bases and caused damage to hundreds of banks, public spaces, cars, and motorcycles.

As it always does in the face of widespread protest, Tehran cracked down harshly, the New York Times reported, leaving at least 180 (if not hundreds more) dead, at least 2,000 wounded, and some 7,000 arrested. Security forces fired on unarmed demonstrators; in the southwest city of Mahshahr, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps found dozens of protesters in hiding and gunned them down.

Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raesi called the protesters “enemies of God” and urged their execution, as did a hardline newspaper that reflects the views of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As usual, top officials blamed the West for stoking trouble, with Khamenei referring ominously to a “very dangerous conspiracy.”

The protests are home-grown, however, and they reflect years of grassroots frustration. While the regime rules harshly and corruption is rampant, U.S. sanctions are exacerbating the nation’s economic woes. Iran’s economy will shrink nearly 10 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund projects, as inflation soars, the currency sinks, and the banking system threatens to collapse.

While applying sanctions to force the regime to re-negotiate the 2015 global nuclear deal, Washington also should be working out front and behind the scenes to support those in the streets.

President Trump should eschew his usual reticence to promote human rights and make clear, repeatedly and forcefully, that America stands with those who are risking their lives for a freer, more democratic Iran. History shows that a U.S. President’s endorsement of protest movements can provide the emotional succor that participants need as they face the prospect of a harsh government response.

The administration also should work with internet providers and social media firms to find ways to ensure that Iranians have access to the internet even if the regime moves to shut it down — as Tehran did when the protests erupted last month.

While democracy promotion got a bad name in the aftermath of the 2003 war in Iraq, which the Bush Administration sold in part as a democracy-building initiative, Washington nevertheless should support efforts within Iran to build the institutions and nourish the values of a well-functioning democracy — which would raise the chances that Iran would be ready to replace the regime with a democracy.

All else being equal, the demise of the clerical regime in Tehran undoubtedly would benefit the United States by eliminating a terror-sponsoring, nuclear weapons-developing, hegemony-seeking, human rights-abusing government that threatens U.S. interests in the region and beyond. For reasons both moral and strategic, America should put itself on the side of those seeking progressive change.

What JFK knew about the developing world from his time as a well-traveled senator in the 1950s is true of Iran today: Those who take power will remember where Washington was during their struggles.

Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.


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