The Iranian Protests of 2017-2018, called “Sedition 1396” by Iranian officials, are interesting to Americans for several reasons, including President Donald Trump who has tweeted about them repeatedly. First, the Iranian government is a US adversary, so the failures of Tehran and/or any civil unrest directed at Tehran is favorable to Western audiences. For Trump, then-President Barack Obama’s attempt to work with Iran, even in the wake of the brutal 2009 crackdown on Green Revolution protesters, creates a political and personal incentive to support Iranian protesters. Second, Iran is a distant land, so it is easier for Americans to unite against the Iranian government instead of agreeing on what needs to be changed in the US governments. Third, Americans, like most Peoples, sympathize with the plight of the Iranian People, because they feel just as economically marginalized as the Iranian protesters.
That said, the truth is that there is little reason for the outside world to pay attention to protests within Iran’s borders , except for a shared belief in democratic principles and the regional implications. If the Revolutionary Guard has truly crushed the budding political movement as officials attest, there will be no noticeable change. In all likelihoods, civil discontent in Iran’s borders will silently continue to grow unless Iran undergoes a number of political and economic changes. This festering civil unrest will, of course, periodically explode into protests, but Tehran may be able to contain them for some time without making any substantive changes. Although unlikely, the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their allies would love to see the government of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei collapse. If protests continue and overwhelm the ability of the Revolutionary Guard to crush the civil unrest, Tehran would be forced to focus all of its attention on the protesters. This could have major implication across the Middle East.
In a bid to become a regional power, Iran has devoted significant resources and attention to foreign affairs and external military campaigns. Although Tehran is sensitive to interference in Iran’s internal affairs, it has no qualms about hypocritically meddling in the affairs of other nations. Not only has Iran supported Hamas and Hezbollah for years, it has been engaged in largely successfully military interventions in Iraq and Syrian while it has also supported the Houthi Rebels in Yemen. Since the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 US invasion of Iran, Iran has been able to capitalize on massive changes across the Middle East by making a number of strategic investments. Today, those investments are yielding dividends in the form for growing influence, yet a growing foreign policy footprint is costly and time consuming to maintain.
If the Iranian government is distracted with internal affairs, it will not be able to expand, or even sustain, its foreign policy footprint. Given the primary concern of Iranian protesters is access to economic opportunities, it will be very difficult for Iran to continue spending money on foreign projects as the Iranian People demand Tehran focus on domestic affairs. It will be especially difficult for the Revolutionary Guard to maintain control in the face of ongoing protests while conducting military campaigns in neighboring countries. The Islamic State, for example, has collapsed, yet the threat of guerrilla warfare remains. As such, Syria, which also relies on the military might of Russia and Hezbollah, might be able to barely afford a withdrawal by Iran. Russia, however, is attempting to avoid military entanglement in Syria as the Syrian Civil War rages on. Consequently, the Iranian Protests could actually offer hope for Syrian revolutionaries as well.
The American People and the United States government are right to provide moral support to Iranian protesters, because their demands for freedom and access to economic opportunities is the same thing the American People demand and expect. The same is true of the other Peoples and governments of the world. Donald Trump risks being blamed for starting the protests, but the US President should support peaceful protesters inside and outside of the United States. It is true sustained protests in Iran and the disruptions due to political changes benefit the US and its allies, yet sustained protests in Iran also benefit the causes of other Peoples, including the Iranian and Syrian Peoples. Not only must the Iranian People fight for their rights, freedoms, and futures, they must fight for the freedoms of those other Peoples suppressed by the Iranian government. Recognizing the sentiments behind the 2011 Arab Spring Revolutionary were never truly satiated or extinguished, the Peoples of the Middle East should see the protests in Iran and join forces, because they all deserve freedom and opportunity.
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