Iranian Protest Aftermath: What Next?

As expected, the protests that spanned eighty towns and cities in Iran have been put down with force

The Iranian parliament convened a special session on Sunday to address the unrest, and the Revolutionary Guard  a statement saying that “tens of thousands of Basij forces, police and the Intelligence Ministry have broken down” the protests.

..and arrests:

Iranian security forces arrested some 3,700 people during widespread protests and unrest over the past two weeks, a lawmaker said Tuesday, offering a far higher number than authorities previously released.

As with the 2009 protests after Ahmadinejad was declared president, security forces weren’t above killing fellow Iranians, both on the streets and in jail.

Human rights activists in Iran have raised concerns about mass arrests during the country’s largest protests in nearly a decade after at least three demonstrators died in a notorious Tehran jail.

Two members of the Iranian parliament close to the reformist camp confirmed on Monday that one detainee, Sina Ghanbari, had died in Evin prison.

Separately, Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer, told the Guardian on the phone from Tehran that at least two other protesters had died in the jail. They have not yet been identified.

At least 21 people died after violent clashes between protesters and security guards during more than a week of demonstrations. Most of those killed were protesters and some were security guards, according to officials. More than 1,000 people, including at least 90 students, were arrested.

Given that Iran is run by theocratic authoritarians, I doubt a new wave of protests will occur in the near future. And though protests have been shut down, there were achievements:

First, the Iran protests showed that the people are not rallying to the regime under the press of President Trump’s hawkish rhetoric. Far from being “swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor,” as the New York Times‘ Thomas Erdbrink reporteda few weeks before the uprising, Iranians still detest their corrupt, repressive regime. As my colleague Noah Rothman has noted on our podcasts, Americans have an almost-religious conviction that world events revolve around the U.S. and specifically the White House. To be sure, America remains the most important nation on the world stage. Yet the average Iranian doesn’t wake up in the morning cursing Donald Trump for trying to undo the nuclear deal. More likely, he curses the fact that he can’t even afford eggs to feed his children, and there are more proximate actors whom he blames for that: namely, the mullahs.

Second, the uprising revealed, once and for all, that Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has been no moderate, and that the reformer-vs.-hardliner distinction is meaningless. Ever since he came to power, Rouhani has been the subject of adulation among members of the Western foreign-policy establishment. The media attached the “moderate” and “reformer” labels to Rouhani on the night of his first election, in June 2013, and refused to remove them even as evidence mounted that he was no such thing. There was Rouhani’s leading role in the violent repression of the 1999 student uprising; his support for the post-2009 crackdown; his long record of anti-American rhetoric (“the beautiful cry of ‘Death to America’ unites our nation”); his decidedly immoderate cabinet; his work overseeing Iran’s campaign of assassinations targeting dissidents abroad; and much else of the kind.

But now Iranians themselves are plainly telling the West that Rouhani is no moderate. Their slogans–“Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me”–are a reminder that Tehran has continued to underwrite terror and bloodshed across the Middle East during the four-plus years of Rouhani’s presidency. The people have also been chanting, “Reformists, Hard-Liners, the Whole Game Is Over.” Let’s hope the same realization soon dawns in Washington and Brussels.

Third, the protesters put the lie to the Obama administration’s claims about the 2015 nuclear deal. Remember when senior Obama officials reassured Americans that Iran would use the sanctions relief under Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to improve the lots of its people? Here’s how Obama Treasury Secretary Jack Lew put it in an April 2015 address:

Many Americans, and many of our closest allies, are understandably concerned that Iran will use the money it receives as a result of sanctions relief to fund terrorism and support destabilizing proxies throughout the Middle East. We share those concerns, and we are committed to maintaining sanctions that address these activities, even after Iran takes the steps required to get relief from nuclear sanctions. But it’s important to note that the connection between nuclear sanctions relief and Iran’s other malign activities is complicated, and most of the money Iran receives from sanctions relief will not be used to support those activities.

Two months later, Colin Kahl, a national-security adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden, told the Truman Center: “It is our assessment . . . that [the Iranians] are not going to spend the vast majority of the money on guns. Most of it will go to butter.”

Millions of jobless and impoverished Iranians now beg to differ. It turns out that the regime was happy to spend the JCPOA funds on Hezbollah, Hamas, the Yemeni Houthis, and other nasties, even if that meant Iranians would go hungry. And those hungry people aren’t mistaken about the roots of their hunger. Iran remains the world’s top state sponsor of terror, according to the U.S. State Department. Deal opponents warned of this, only to be brushed aside by Obama and his media allies. The Trump administration now has an opportunity to correct course, by walking away from Obama’s bad deal. The American people are under no obligation to finance Iran’s terrorist statecraft.

The only part I disagree with is “walking away from Obama’s bad deal”. It is a bad deal, but it is also a lever that we have over the regime and it is unlikely the regime will be willing to renegotiate. I have no doubt that the mullahs will eventually develop atomic bombs, but at least we will have delayed that process by a few years.

What next? First, the issue of re-certifying the JCPOA is coming up, and the following sounds like a reasonable course of action.

There may, however, be a way to reconcile a desire to take tough action against Iran with preserving the JCPOA. The administration could impose sanctions based on Iran’s behavior outside the nuclear context. As I  before, additional sanctions over human rights violations, terrorism, meddling in Syria and elsewhere, and Iran’s ballistic missile program would be consistent with the JCPOA. There are signs that the administration may choose this course of action: On Jan. 4 the administration  five entities in connection with Iran’s ballistic missile program. According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, more non-nuclear sanctions will follow:

The United States will continue to decisively counter the Iranian regime’s malign activity, including additional sanctions targeting human rights abuses. We will not hesitate to call out the regime’s economic mismanagement, and diversion of significant resources to fund threatening missile systems at the expense of its citizenry.

Similarly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson  in interviews with CNN and the Associated Press on Friday that more non-nuclear sanctions “will be coming.” He also  that the administration is currently working with Congress on a “fix” that would allow the U.S. to continue implementing the JCPOA. Such a fix, according to the AP, would not add nuclear sanctions. Tillerson implied that Trump would renew the sanctions waivers if Congress promised prompt action on Iran. Interestingly, it appears that one of the legislative options under consideration is amending INARA to remove or alter the requirement that the president certify Iran’s compliance every three months. All of this suggests that  and lawmakers are attempting to reach a solution that would appease Trump, preserve the JCPOA, and protect it from an INARA certification deadline-induced crisis every three months due to the president’s reluctance to express any approval of the nuclear deal.

The next question, then, is whom to sanction. In this, Bret Stephens makes sense, which is go after the elites’ money:

A better way of describing Iran’s dictatorship is as a kleptotheocracy, driven by impulses that are by turns doctrinal and venal. Note how quickly the provincial protesters turned their sights on the supreme leader: Maybe it’s because they know better than most how thoroughly he’s fleecing them. As Steve Stecklow and his colleagues at Reuters reported in 2013, a supposedly charitable foundation controlled by Khamenei, known as Setad, had assets worth an estimated $95 billion.

“Setad built its empire on the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians,” the Reuters investigation noted. “The organization now holds a court-ordered monopoly on taking property in the name of the supreme leader, and regularly sells the seized properties at auction or seeks to extract payments from the original owners.”

What’s true of Setad goes for other tax-exempt bonyad, multibillion-dollar “charities” run chiefly for the benefit of their clerical masters. It’s true as well of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, estimated to control another 15 percent of the Iranian economy.


This is an opportunity for the free world to exploit. Ken Weinstein of the Hudson Institute has argued that the U.S. government “should release details on the billions in stolen assets” held by the I.R.G.C. and the supreme leader. That — and making sure ordinary Iranians learn about them, one scandalous disclosure at a time — is the right idea.

Another right idea, this one from Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is to once again put Setad, along with its scores of front companies and subsidiaries, under U.S. sanctions for corruption. The Obama administration did such a thing in 2013, only to reverse course as part of the nuclear deal.

We can keep the nuclear deal and sanction the mullahs, for reasons other than the nuclear deal.

What else? While Trump has been a buffoon in many aspects of foreign policy, he was right to strengthen ties with Prince bin Salman (as I touched on here) who, so far, has been the real moderate in the Middle East, not phony moderate Rouhani. Abu Muqawama put it well:

Another administration would have hedged its bets on Mohammed bin Salman. Not this one. This one has—with very few exceptions—largely endorsed the young crown prince’s reform agenda and claim to the throne.

And I don’t think that’s unwise. I think that’s a highly defensible strategic decision.

First, if Mohammed bin Salman ascends to the throne, he could be the king for half a century. The United States will want a close relationship with him. Second, the economic and social dynamism in the Kingdom is real. Sorry folks, it is. The reflexive cynicism about Saudi Arabia you find among most Western observers of the region has blinded us to what is going on there. Tom Friedman’s interview with Mohammed bin Salman may have been cringe-worthy for its obsequiousness, but Friedman wasn’t all wrong: the reform agenda—to include the crackdown on corruption—is broadly popular, and we should all be rooting for a more liberal and economically diverse Saudi Arabia. (Besides, the alternative is a nightmare for U.S. interests and global security.)

What else? Trump is doing another right thing, which is expanding our oil and gas exploration. The more the North American continent has oil independence, the more we can place downward pressure on oil prices and send less wealth and economic leverage to the regime. More here:

Iran’s dire economic situation is at the heart of this discontent. As President Rouhani acknowledged, the government cannot meet payroll and is seeking to increase revenue and decrease expenditures. Since 80% of Iran’s budget comes from petroleum exports, the quickest and surest way to bring about regime change in Tehran is a broad campaign to reduce current global oil prices.

In order for Tehran to balance its budget, oil prices need to be around $130 per barrel, over twice what they are today. Several factors — including government-promised subsidies to wheat farmers and debt payment obligations that are headed toward default — are pushing Iran to the financial breaking point. Add to this the rising costs of Tehran’s military establishment, and the mullahs’ expanding commitment to fomenting chaos around the Arab world, and you have a recipe for financial meltdown. The doomsday scenario could only be avoided by a major rise in oil prices that would allow Iran, with 10% of proven global reserves, to rescue itself.

What else? Help the Iranian people work around the Mullahs’ control of the Internet

In addition to rallying the world, the White House should make every effort to ensure that Iranians can access technology to communicate with one another and access independent sources of information. In some cases, U.S. companies have blocked access to useful applications out of an abundance of caution in respecting the thicket of sanctions surrounding Iran. Several firms have already moving to remove limitations on their own, but new guidance from the Treasury Department may help sustain secure coordination among activists and offer additional protection from Tehran’s vast intelligence and censorship machine.

…and consider lifting the travel ban on Iran. Our truck is with the Mullahs, not the everyday people who want to come here and mix with the Great Satan.

What else? Ignore the Obama-protecting idiots with agendas like Philip Gordon and Good Doggy Rice and don’t shut up about the plight of the Iranian people. We should openly support more non-violent protests against the regime’s actions. Call out the mullahs’ bad behavior and the Revolutionary Guard’s oppression, because there is no such thing as “benign silence” when governments s**t on peoples’ rights. We should also dispense with morons like NYT reporter Erdbrink who label Rouhani a moderate, and also the nimrods who say that climate change helped spark the protests.