Some of the most inspiring images of the new year — and therefore, in this age of Trump, some of the least noticed — have come from Iran. In sometimes grainy photos and videos posted on the Internet, Iranian women are seen standing atop utility boxes on busy streets, silent and alone, having taken off their mandatory head coverings and holding them up on sticks. At least 29 women have been arrested for these astounding displays of courage and defiance, which risk a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
The women’s demonstrations began during a week of mass protests across Iran beginning in late December, driven not by the country’s educated elite but its working class. The discontent started with rising prices for eggs, but by the time the demonstrations ended, the slogans included “death to the dictator” and “leave Syria,” where the Revolutionary Guard Corps is squandering money and lives.
No, it’s not likely that Iran is on the brink of a revolution that will overthrow a regime that has been the source of so many U.S. strategic problems. But this new season of unrest in the Persian heartland ought to change some calculations in Washington about how best to push back against Tehran’s aggressions across the Middle East — and what to think about the nuclear deal that President Donald Trump is threatening to tear up.
What the ferment makes obvious is that the lifted sanctions and unfrozen assets that Iran obtained two years ago in exchange for curtailing its nuclear activities have not proved to be the boon to Tehran predicted by Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, Iran’s senior leaders have grounds to conclude that they, and not Trump, are stuck with “the worst deal ever.”
The hope of the regime was that the lifting of limits on its oil exports and the return of foreign investment would rescue an economy plagued by stagflation and dangerously high unemployment. They haven’t, in part because foreign investors continue to shy away from a country where corruption is rampant and Western passport holders are liable to be jailed on trumped-up charges.
There are economic statistics to back this up, but the best numbers come from a poll sponsored by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, taken just after the street protests subsided. In August 2015, after the nuclear deal was signed, 57 percent of Iranians said economic conditions in the country were getting better, which probably reflected the hopes for change. Now 58 percent say the situation is getting worse, and 69 percent say conditions are “somewhat bad” or “very bad.” Sixty-three percent blame the regime for this, almost double the number who say “foreign sanctions and pressures” are responsible.
Iranians are still nationalists: More than 70 percent still favor developing missiles and a nuclear capacity. Only 16 percent told the pollsters that “Iran’s political system needs to undergo fundamental change.” Yet far fewer support the regime’s foreign adventures. Forty-two percent say “the government should spend less money in places like Syria and Iraq.” A plurality say Iran should negotiate with other countries rather than try to become a regional hegemon. And though 75 percent say the nuclear deal has not improved living conditions, 55 percent still favor it.
What this tells us is that one of the best ways to counter Iran’s interventions in Iraq, Yemen and Syria is to ally with the large bloc of Iranians who oppose them. In part that means helping Iranians find out what their government is up to; the news that it was planning to cut food subsidies while increasing spending on the Revolutionary Guard was one of the triggers of the protests.
Only a tiny number of Iranians — 8 percent, according to the new poll — get information from foreign radio broadcasts, but more than 60 percent depend on the Internet or apps such as Telegram. The United States could do a lot more to help people get around the regime’s attempts to block these channels. Shamefully, funding for one popular firewall-circumvention service, UltraSurf, was terminated last year by the State Department and Broadcasting Board of Governors. It then crashed during the protests after getting more than 1.2 million hits from Iran in one minute.
Rather than pursue such strategies, Trump seems intent on voiding the nuclear deal by May, basically on the grounds that it was negotiated by President Barack Obama. The pact is far from perfect, as I have argued before. For now, though, it has helped to open a rift between the regime and its public and created a potent new source of pressure on Tehran’s foreign adventures. If Trump kills it, expect some quiet celebrations in Tehran.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post. He is an editorial writer specializing in foreign affairs and writes a biweekly column that appears on Mondays.