Last week, a wave of street demonstrations broke out across Iran against the Islamic government of President Hassan Rouhani. It was the most serious challenge to the regime controlled by the ayatollahs since the failed Green Revolution broke out in 2009 as a protest against a stolen presidential election. Most of the demonstrators are members of Iran’s working class who blame the government for failing to control inflation and high unemployment. They also protested the rampant corruption in the Iranian economic system. While Iran’s leaders have been raking in billions from oil exports since the economic sanctions were lifted by the 2015 nuclear deal, Iranian citizens have rebelled in the face newly announced government austerity measures which would raise taxes and fuel prices, while cutting cash subsidies for the poor.
The government reaction has become steadily more violent as the protests have spread. The current wave of demonstrations has not followed the pattern of the 2009 uprising, which started in Teheran and then radiated to other urban centers. This time the protests broke out in Mashhad, the country’s second largest city and quickly spread to more than 50 towns, large and small across the country. A total of at least 21 protesters were reported killed by Tuesday morning since the uprising started on December 28.
TRUMP PRAISES THE PROTESTERS ON TWITTER
After learning that 9 more protesters were killed Monday night, President Trump tweeted, “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”
Amateur video of large protests in the central city of Hojedk showed demonstrators throwing stones at security officials and chanting, “Death to the dictator!” as they tore down posters with the picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has previously been immune from public criticism in Iran.
Khamenei took to Twitter Tuesday to characterize the protests as a plot by Iran’s foreign enemies. “In recent events, enemies of Iran have allied and used the various means they possess, including money, weapons, politics and intelligence services to trouble the Islamic Republic. The enemy is always looking for an opportunity and any crevice to infiltrate and strike the Iranian nation,” Khamenei Tweeted, in English.
The ayatollah’s accusation represented a sharp change in tone from the initial reaction to the demonstrations by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. He conceded that the economic complaints by the protesters were legitimate, and confirmed that Iranians were “absolutely free to criticize the government and protest.” He called for patience from Iran’s citizens because it would take time to solve the country’s economic problems. But Rouhani also said that the “protest must be in a way that ends with the improvement of people’s and country’s conditions,” and warned that security forces would “show no tolerance for those who damage public properties, violate public order and create unrest in the society.”
The precise scale of the protests has been difficult to judge because the reporting of the state-dominated media is unreliable. Access by foreign reporters is tightly controlled by the Iranian government, which has jailed or expelled reporters whose coverage was judged to be critical of regime. However, the sheer number of towns and cities across Iran in which the protests have sprung up spontaneously is an indication of how deep and widespread the discontent of the Iranian people with their government has become.
Iranian state television aired video of a ransacked private bank, broken windows, overturned cars and a firetruck that was set ablaze. The TV announcer said, “Some armed protesters tried to take over some police stations and military bases but faced serious resistance from security forces.”
According to a state television report, six protesters were killed as they tried to attack a police station in Qahderijan in the central Isfahan region. An 11-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man were killed in Khomeinishahr, while a member of Iran’s paramilitary militia was killed in Najafabad.
Six people were killed in the western town of Tuyserkan, and three more were killed in Shahinshahr, in the south. Two more deaths were reported in Izeh, although one of them may have been due to a private dispute. The first two deaths took place Saturday night in Doroud, 200 miles southwest of Teheran.
Iranian state TV reported that the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, urged local authorities to confront the protesters. “I demand all prosecutors across the country to get involved and their approach should be strong,” he said.
Previously, President Trump used his Twitter feed to describe Iran as a country that is “failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food and for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned those who attacked the Iranian protesters in a YouTube video. He described the demonstrators as “brave” and “heroic” for seeking the freedom, justice and “the basic liberties that have been denied to them for decades.” He also criticized European governments for watching “in silence” as the Iranian response to the protests turn violent.
AN ECONOMIC PROTEST WITH POLITICAL RAMIFICATIONS
The demonstrations have gone beyond economic complaints and started to take on a political ramification. Some protesters condemned Iran’s military adventures throughout the Middle East. In Mashhad they shouted, “No Gaza, no Lebanon, our lives are devoted in Iran.” In Kermanshah, an ethnic Kurdish city, they shouted, “Forget about Syria, think about us.” More than 500 people died in Kermanshah last month in an earthquake as buildings collapsed.
Other protesters specifically targeted Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds the real power over Iran’s government. Thousands chanted, “We don’t want an Islamic Republic” in Najafabad. They shouted, “Death to the revolutionary guards” in Rasht, and, “Death to the dictator” in Khoramabad.
Video shared on social media showed unrest in dozens of cities across Iran, from Teheran to Sandanaj and Kermanshah in the west, Isfahan in central Iran and Chabahar in the southeast. They showed large numbers of people on the street chanting against Ayatollah Khamenei and the domination of the Iranian political system by Islamic clerics. Security forces used batons and water cannons to disperse crowds.
Hundreds of students and others joined an economic protest at Teheran University, with riot police massing at the school’s gates as they shut down surrounding roads to keep more people from joining the protest.
Protests also broke out in Qom, the world’s foremost center for Shiite Islamic scholarship and home to a major Shiite shrine.
During the first several days of demonstrations, there were no reports of the government using its Basiji militia members and plain clothes security officers to beat peaceful demonstrators into submission, as it did in 2009, but the spike in deaths across the country is a worrying sign, as is the call from a leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for harsher measures to put down the protests.
Esmail Kowsari, a senior IRGC commander, promised to crush those he said were threatening Iran’s security. If the protests continued, “the authorities will undoubtedly make a decision and finish the business”, Kowsari warned.
MANY STILL WAITING FOR THE BENEFITS OF THE NUCLEAR DEAL
Iran’s rulers had promised the people that the financial windfall from the 2015 nuclear deal would be used to rebuild the country after years of tough U.S. economic sanctions. With the resumption of Iran’s oil exports and restored access to the world’s financial system, Iran’s economy has begun to grow again. However, the benefits from the surge in foreign investment and Iran’s oil sales has yet to reach most of Iran’s population, which is still recovering from the sanctions.
Inflation has fallen from a peak of 35%, but it is still in double digits, led by soaring prices for food staples. The price of eggs and poultry, for example, recently rose by 40%.
Unemployment remains high, currently at 12.4%. Almost 30% of Iran’s young workers, including many who are university-educated, are unable to find a job, a sure formula for social unrest.
The BBC reports that on average, Iranians have become 15% poorer over the past decade. Their diet has suffered as well, with the consumption of bread, milk and red meat in Iran has decreased by between 30% and 50% over the same period.
GDP growth briefly peaked at 12% immediately after the lifting of the sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, but it fell back to 3.5% last year, in part because of reduced crude oil prices.
ROUHANI’S RISKY ECONOMIC STRATEGY
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of the Europe-Iran Business Forum, said Iran’s president has been following a risky economic strategy. “Rouhani has run austerity budgets with the idea that it’s a tough but necessary pill to swallow to manage inflation and currency problems and try to improve Iran’s attractiveness for investment. But choosing years of austerity immediately after a very tough period of sanctions is bound to test people’s patience.”
An unidentified protester from the city of Kermanshah told the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, “people poured into the streets . . . because they are tired of the rising cost of living. When we don’t have bread to eat, we are not afraid of anything.”
IRAN’S PEOPLE FEEL BETRAYED
According to Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, “Things are not working out economically for ordinary Iranians, but the root causes, and the much deeper resentment, go back decades. People do not feel this regime represents them.”
“This is a very sensitive moment for Rouhani,” Vatanka added. “Here’s a guy who basically came into the presidency as someone who was going to be the champion of the reform cause in Iran. But these protests show that he’s not a champion of the people, and Iranians feel like they’ve been played.”
Comparing the current protests to the 2009 pro-democracy movement, Vatanka said, “This is more grass-roots. It’s much more spontaneous, which makes it more unpredictable.”
IRAN’S REVOLUTIONARY GUARD GETTING RICH
The main beneficiary from the lifting of U.S. and UN sanctions due to the 2015 nuclear agreement is IRGC, a paramilitary organization loyal to the ayatollahs which controls much of the Iranian economy. The IRGC has been using the influx of foreign capital to finance its foreign military and terrorist operations, and support an elite lifestyle for its leaders.
Much of the oil money Iran has raked in since the lifting of sanctions has been used to pay Hezbollah troops fighting as mercenaries to prop up Bashar Assad in Syria, to arm militias fighting a Saudi-led Sunni coalition in Yemen, and in Iraq to maintain Iranian influence over the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, members of the Iranian working class, who were promised relief with the signing of the nuclear deal, are still struggling economically. Protesters are demanding that the Iranian government use its renewed oil wealth to increase their wages, and cut down on the widespread graft and corruption which stifles the country’s economic growth. In Shiraz, protesters tore down the picture of IRGC foreign military commander General Soleimani, while chanting, “Rockets, tanks and machine guns are not working anymore.”
A RANGE OF ECONOMIC COMPLAINTS
The demonstrations do not appear to have a centrally organized leadership. Most of the demonstrations have been drawn from Iran’s working-class, rather than the middle class and educated elite who led the 2009 uprising.
Economic discontent has been building up for some time. In recent weeks, an Iranian labor news service reported several economic protests. Hundreds of oil workers and truck drivers staged a demonstration against the late payment of their wages. Workers at a tractor factory in Tabriz protested the loss of their jobs when their plant was closed, and employees of a Teheran tire firm complained when their bonuses were delayed.
Members of Iran’s middle class also have economic complaints which prompted some of them to the protesting workers. More than three million investors suffered in the failure of the lending companies which financed a construction bubble which burst during the tenure of former president Ahmadinejad.
“For the past two years, we have witnessed street protests against banks and credit institutions,” said Teheran-based political analyst Mojtaba Mousavi. “Everyone says the protesters right now are from the lower class, but many are middle class people who lost lots of their assets.”
These very real economic grievances make it more difficult for the government to dismiss the protesters as traitors or violent misfits. “The system prefers political protests over economic because they’re easier to control,” said Mousavi.
REVOLUTION VIA SMARTPHONE
The current wave of protests appears to have been virtually spontaneous. Word of the demonstrations spread rapidly via social media posts. This was made possible by the fact that a much greater portion of the Iranian population has regular access to the internet and social media than in 2009. When more than 2 million Iranians conducted the silent Green Revolution protests, fewer than 1 million Iranians owned smartphones, most of them residents of Teheran. Today, there are an estimated 48 million smartphones in use across Iran, all of them capable of accessing social media and communication apps.
The economic hardships that most Iranians still face has made it harder for government authorities to criticize the motives of the demonstrators and the near universal access to social media has made it difficult to keep word of the protests from spreading. Their quick rise and broad scope of the demonstrations have taken Iranian government officials and experts on Iran in the West by surprise.
A POLITICAL PROTEST THAT GOT OUT OF CONTROL
An Iranian source close to the Rouhani regime told a reporter for the Guardian, a British publication, that government officials at first believed that the first, relatively small protest in Mashhad was politically motivated. It was organized by hardline supporters of Islamic cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who was defeated by Rouhani in the presidential election last May. They point to a statement of support for the protests from a hardline local Shiite cleric, who called the demands of the demonstrators “justified.” But the local political demonstration quickly morphed into something much more dangerous and widespread, as chants of “Death to Rouhani” were joined by calls for the removal of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei himself.
“It’s the most anti-regime event I’ve ever seen,” said Alireza Nader, a senior researcher at the Rand Corporation think tank in Washington. “People are not calling for reforms, they’re not supporting [former reformist President Mohammad] Khatami or Rouhani. In fact, their anger is directed toward the entire establishment.”
In his first public comments on the protests, President Rouhani admonished demonstrators to work with the government to address the problems of corruption and economic inequality in Iranian society, which he implicitly accepted as legitimate.
ROUHANI VS. TRUMP
He also rejected criticism from President Trump who had tweeted: “Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”
In an earlier tweet, Trump said, “The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most. . .
“Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice.”
He had also tweeted, “Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption and its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad. Iranian government should respect their people’s rights, including the right to express themselves. The world is watching!”
This was not the first time the Trump administration has called for regime change in Iran. In June, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in testimony before Congress that America is working toward “support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.”
TRUMP’S CONTRAST TO OBAMA’S 2009 REACTION
Trump’s comments in support of the protesters stand in sharp contrast to President Obama, who stood by in silence as pro-regime Basiji militia thugs crushed the 2009 pro-democracy protests.
President Rouhani responded to Trump’s condemnation of the Iranian government by reminding his people that, “those who called Iranians terrorists have no business sympathizing with our nation,” the Iranian president said.
Even before Trump’s tweet, the State Department issued a statement saying, “Iran’s leaders have turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.” The statement condemned the Iranian regime for “the arrest of peaceful protesters,” and called for “all nations to publicly support the Iranian people and their demands for basic rights.”
In a news interview with CBS, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said that the U.S. has a chance to “deliver some fatal blows to really bad actors” in 2018, but that the international situation is precarious. He urged Trump to keep up the pressure on Iran, and said the president must do more than just watch and post his criticisms of Iran on Twitter.
“If I was Trump, I would do the exact opposite of Obama,” Graham said, referring to the former president’s failure to speak out against the crushing of the Green Revolution in 2009. “Obama said, ‘I don’t want to get involved, I don’t want to mess up the chance of a deal with Iran.’ Well, the deal with Iran has not worked.”
Graham called on Trump to deliver a major public address to explain to the American people how the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has “failed,” and how he would go about renegotiating a better deal with Iran, as Trump promised to do when he ran for president.
Graham added that the protests are a signal of the growing disappointment of the Iranians with their leaders. “The people are not getting the benefit of sanctions relief. They are more upset with their oppressors than ever; the money from sanctions relief is going to rebuilding the Iranian military and is destabilizing the Middle East.” He also noted that, “The Iranian people are not our enemy. The Ayatollah is the enemy of the world.”
IRAN’S MEDIA STRIKES BACK
Iran state TV tried to shift the blame for the protests to disloyal and external forces. “Counterrevolution groups and foreign media are continuing their organized efforts to misuse the people’s economic and livelihood problems and their legitimate demands to provide an opportunity for unlawful gatherings and possibly chaos,” the TV reports said.
TV reporters also emphasized that some of the protesters were chanting the name of the hated Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who fled into Western exile just before the overthrow of his pro-American government during Iran’s Islamic Revolution in early 1979.
The government blocked mobile internet and some landline connections in areas where protests were taking place. Authorities were restricting connections on cellphones to Instagram and Telegram, a messaging app used by about half of Iran’s population of 80 million people.
Pavel Durov, Telegram’s chief executive, confirmed that authorities were blocking access to his service, which has been a major conduit for the exchange of photos and videos of the protests. It was blocked after the company refused to shut down a channel that was distributing information on the times and places for peaceful protests.
Access to Instagram and Whatsapp services were also blocked by the government. There was no internet service at all in Mashhad and connection speeds were sharply reduced in Teheran.
Iran’s Interior Minister warned on state TV, “Those who misused cyberspace and spread violence are absolutely known to us and we will definitely confront them.”
AN ACCELERATING GOVERNMENT CRACKDOWN
After a slow initial response, the response of Iranian government authorities to the protests has been accelerating. More than 450 demonstrators were arrested in Teheran. About 80 protesters were arrested in the city of Arak, southwest of Teheran. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested in Markazi Province, but only 50 were arrested in Mashhad when the first protests broke out.
The first protesters to die were shot to death in Doroud under disputed circumstances. Habibollah Khojastepour, a security official for Loreston province, blamed Sunni agitators or “foreign agents” for the violence, and denied that police or security forces fired at the protesters. However, a local lawmaker, Hamid Rez Kazemi, said police did open fire. Video of the incident circulated on social media showed fallen protestors covered with blood as the sound of gunfire could be heard in the background. The voice of a narrator on the video said the victims had been shot dead by riot police.
Other towns where protests were held during the first four days of demonstrations include Sari, Hamedan, Qazvin, Shahr-e-Kord, Bandar Abbas, Izeh, Zanjan, Abhar, Ahvaz, Karaj and Tonekabon. Anti-government protests were also held in many smaller towns which did not participate in the 2009 protests.
Hard-line supporters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei staged a counter-protest calling for a crackdown on all those who have been critical of the despotic Islamic regime. About 4,000 people gathered at the Musalla prayer ground in central Teheran for a pro-regime rally in which they called for criminal trials for Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement which organized 2009 pro-democracy protests. They have been under house arrest since 2011.
IRAN’S 2009 GREEN MOVEMENT STILL LIVES
Those protests were triggered by accusation of widespread fraud in the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Obama administration pointedly refused to voice any public support for the pro-democracy protests. This allowed the Iranian regime to violently suppress them by sending its Shiite militia thugs to attack the unarmed demonstrators.
Mohammad-Taghi Karroubi, the son of one of the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement, said the new demonstrations are proof that the public discontent which sparked that uprising still remains a force with which the government must deal.
“Instead of blaming foreign powers and saying that they are inciting the protests, the establishment has to acknowledge that there is a base for protest within Iran,” he said.
Karroubi suggests that the Iranian reformists who supported Rouhani, enabling him to win a landslide re-election victory last May, turned against him because they were disappointed by his unexpected conservative turn since the election. “It’s always been the reformist youth who pumped up hope inside the country and they’re silent now,” Karroubi said. “That’s the government’s weakness, people are hopeless and when reformists are not pumping hope, they’re becoming even more disgruntled.”
The economic protests have unleashed deep-seated political frustrations which will be difficult for Rouhani’s government to control without having to resort to force, the way his predecessor did in 2009.
DANGER OF OVER-REACTION
According to Maziar Bahari, the editor of IranWire who spent years as a political prisoner in Iran’s jails, the protests have not yet reached the scale of a revolution, but they could if the Rouhani government overreacts to them.
“Iran’s government is its own worst enemy and the Iranian people know it. Economic woes leading to infighting can bring down this corrupt and brutal system. Different factions within the government will, most probably, and just the same as always, choose to dismiss the genuine economic grievances of the Iranian people and blame the protests on foreign agents and an international imperialist-Zionist conspiracy,” Bahari says.
He suggests that the peaceful protests could “provoke the government to tear itself apart. Iran’s rulers may choose to blame foreigners and Zionists, but they hardly realize that the true danger to their power is right at home.”
The Iranian government has a well-deserved reputation for brutality. It has the highest per capita execution rate in the world, persecutes religious minorities, stifles free speech, and shows no respect for human rights. The IRGC and the Basiji milita are well-organized, heavily-armed, and well-practiced in the science of repression
Rouhani appears to be aware of the risk of letting them loose on unarmed civilian protesters. He told his cabinet that the government must allow “space for criticism,” while warning protesters that violence was unacceptable. Rouhani is apparently trying to walk a fine line, which leaves him vulnerable to criticism from the IRGC and other hardliners that he is showing weakness in the face of “hostile elements” based abroad.
The protests signal the emergence of potentially serious internal discontent at a time when Iran is gaining the regional dominance it has long sought. Iran has been reaping the rewards of its successful manipulation of the Obama administration into agreeing to sign the 2015 nuclear deal, in which Iran achieved almost all its goals. The deal freed Iran from crippling economic sanctions, while preserving the option to resume its drive to produce a nuclear weapons program within a few years, using its nuclear infrastructure which is being maintained under terms of the deal almost completely intact.
OBAMA’S GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT?
Obama viewed negotiating the Iran nuclear deal as the greatest foreign policy accomplishment of his presidency. When he ran for president in 2008, Obama criticized President George W. Bush’s confrontational response to Iran’s nuclear weapons program by publicly branding Iran as a member of the “axis of evil” as a strategic mistake that failed to achieve its goal. Obama promised that as president, he would lead an effort to find a negotiated solution with Iran’s leaders which would persuade them to end their bad behavior.
His Democrat opponent for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, called Obama’s approach to Iran naive and doomed to fail, but when she later agreed to serve as his Secretary of State, she was obligated to support it.
Upon taking office, Obama lost no time trying to implement his plan of action. During his inaugural address, he sent Iranian leaders a message, saying: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” On March 20, 2009, the Iranian new year, Obama broadcast a personal new year’s greeting and a message of friendship to the people of Iran.
In early May, Obama secretly sent Ayatollah Khamenei a personal letter proposing a framework for talks on Iran’s nuclear program and regional security issues. Khamenei sent back an encouraging response, telling Obama, “Should you change, our behavior will change, too.”
TELLTALE SIGNS OF PRESIDENTIAL WEAKNESS
Obama was convinced that his outreach to Iran’s leaders was working, but in fact, they viewed his letter as a sign of weakness. On June 4, Obama delivered an address to Islamic leaders gathered in Cairo in which he apologized for America’s retaliation in response to the 9/11 attack. He referred to himself using his middle name, Hussein, recalling his Muslim roots, and asked for a fresh start for America with the Muslim world. Islamic leaders took the speech as another sign of Obama’s weakness.
The Green Revolution broke out immediately after the accusations of widespread voter fraud in Iran’s June 12 presidential election. The harsh and violent reaction of the Iranian government, which used violence to try to suppress the peaceful protests, disappointed Obama, but he was unwilling to give up his effort at diplomatic outreach. He overruled objections from Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton, who wanted the U.S. to clearly condemn the violent reaction of the Iranian regime, hoping that Ayatollah Khameini would bring it to a halt. But instead, Khameini endorsed the crackdown, convinced that Obama would do nothing to stop it. He was right.
The Green Revolution was brutally crushed while the U.S. stood by and watched in silence. Hillary Clinton would later say that her failure to speak out at the time to condemn the Iranian regime was her biggest regret as Secretary of State.
Obama’s refusal to stand up to the Iranians in the face of the gravest provocations set a pattern for his appeasement policies towards Iran and other enemies of America that would last throughout his presidency.
Obama’s refusal to confront Iran led to the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal, tolerance for Iran’s support of international terrorism, the survival of the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar Assad at the cost of half-a-million Syrians killed, and the blocking of U.S. efforts to halt the international criminal activities of Hezbollah.
It was the beginning of a long decline of U.S. influence around the world during Obama’s presidency.
Thanks to its military partnership with Russia, which rescued the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Iran’s strong influence over the Iraqi government, Iran is today on the verge of creating a continuous Shiite land bridge stretching from its border all the way to the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon. Iran has also helped the Houthi rebels fight the Saudi-led Sunni coalition to a standstill in Yemen, and only Israel stands in the way of its total regional dominance.
WHY IRAN STILL HATES THE U.S.
But Iran’s main enemy, which its leaders call, “the Great Satan,” remains the United States.
The hatred of Iran’s Shiite leaders for America goes back to 1953, when the CIA, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, joined with Britain’s MI6 intelligence service to engineer a coup which overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. The British wanted him out because in 1951 Mosaddegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian oil company, which is now known as BP. It was the height of the Cold War, and Iran’s oil was considered to be a critical strategic resource for the U.S. and its allies. The CIA wanted Mosaddegh ousted because it didn’t trust him to stand up against the further expansion of the Soviet Union. As a replacement, the U.S. and Britain installed the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, as their corrupt but compliant puppet ruler of Iran.
For the next 25 years, the Shah did the bidding of his Western sponsors. At their request, Iran also served as Israel’s primary oil supplier.
THE SHAH’S COMMON ENEMIES
The U.S. made the Shah incredibly rich, while the Iranian people chafed under his secularizing rule, enforced by his notorious Savak secret police force. By the late 1970s, the Shah was deeply hated by Iran’s Islamic leaders as well as its secular, pro-democracy advocates who initially conspired together to oust the Shah from power.
The ideological and spiritual leader of the revolution was Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was exiled to France in 1964 for the next 15 years. He promoted the concept that the Shah had betrayed Iran’s Islamic heritage and that the secular Western culture which the Shah tried to impose on Iran was a plague that had to be ruthlessly eliminated.
Massive public demonstrations and civil resistance to the Shah’s rule began in 1977. By the end of 1978, the protests and strikes had paralyzed the country. In January 1979, the Shah, who was dying from cancer, had lost control and was forced into exile, never to return. The caretaker government the Shah left behind soon collapsed, leading to Khomeini’s triumphant return to Iran from exile on February 1.
On April 1, Khomeini declared Iran to be an Islamic republic. He excluded the secular and pro-democracy activists who had participated in the Shah’s ouster from the new Islamic government.
His power was enforced by ad hoc Islamic militia groups which would later become the IRGC. They immediately embarked on a campaign to rid Iran of Western culture.
JIMMY CARTER’S IRAN HOSTAGE CRISIS
In October, when the Shah came to the U.S. for cancer treatment, the new Iranian government demanded his extradition to stand trial for treason. The U.S. refused. On November 4, one of the Islamic student militias invaded the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and took 52 American diplomats hostage. Iran’s Islamic government made no effort to release them.
Demands for the return of the hostages by President Jimmy Carter were ignored. An attempt on April 24, 1980 to set the hostage free with an airborne raid by U.S. Delta Force commandos ended in an ignominious military disaster. Equipment failure caused the mission to be cancelled, but not before an accident at a makeshift U.S. air base in the Iranian desert resulted in the destruction of two aircraft and the death of 8 U.S. servicemen.
The plight of the hostages was a constant political embarrassment for Carter and contributed to the defeat of his bid for re-election in 1980 by Ronald Reagan. The hostages were held for a total of 444 days, and were finally released into U.S. custody just minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.
U.S.-Iranian relations never recovered. Subsequent U.S. presidents, with the exception of Obama, considered Iran to be America’s sworn enemy, and the ayatollahs made it clear that they felt the same way about “the Great Satan.” However, Iran’s leaders had learned from their experience with Jimmy Carter that a week U.S. president could be easily pushed around and manipulated, and they applied that lesson very effectively in their dealings with Obama.
IRAN’S LEADERS ONLY RESPECT STRENGTH
To this day, the hatred of Iran’s Islamic leaders for America and the Western culture it represents remains undiminished. Iran’s leaders only respect a president like Reagan, who showed he was willing to stand up and use America’s strength against Iran when necessary.
Obama never showed that strength, but Donald Trump has begun to do so, through his refusal to certify to Congress that Iran has been complying with its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal. His willingness to approve new U.S. sanctions against Iran back up Trump’s demands for a renegotiation of the nuclear deal. Trump insists he will never permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons, he will force it to halt its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, compel it to end its support for international terrorism and stop threatening to destroy Israel.
The history of U.S.-Iranian relations over the past 40 years shows that Iran’s Islamic leaders will never agree to improve its behavior voluntarily.
While it would be unrealistic to expect the current wave of protests sweeping Iran to lead to a quick collapse of the regime, it may serve as a useful distraction while the Trump administration and Israel strengthen their defenses and build up their regional alliance to halt the spread of the Iranian threat.