Let’s get it clear right from the beginning: we don’t know what’s happening in Iran. We don’t know who’s leading the demonstrations, which are turning into riots in some parts of the country. We don’t know who, if anyone, is directing them.
Yes, yes, I know: you want me to explain what’s happening, and if it’s a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. But I’m not going to lie to you: I don’t know – and neither, at this point, does anyone else.
Here in the West, three views have taken root among the commentariat (and, of course, among US government officials: 1) This is a heroic attempt by the freedom-starved people of Iran to – finally! – overthrow the theocracy that has fastened itself on to the nation like a giant parasite. Purveyors of this view cite (sketchy) reports of Iranian demonstrators chanting “Death to Khamenei!”, “We don’t want a theocracy!,” and other anti-clerical slogans. This is the approach taken by the neoconservatives, such as Bill Kristol, shown here on MSNBC declaring that “The Iranian people want freedom” and that’s all there is to it.
On the other hand we have a different view, 2) which we can see given expression on the same video, showing Iranian lobbyist Trita Parsi blaming – wait for it! – Donald Trump. Really? Oh yes, he really means it: it’s all because of economic uncertainty due to Trump’s threats to cancel the Iran deal. This, we are told, caused Iranian banks to refrain from investing in vast new projects, and so the standard of living hasn’t met rising expectations. There may be some truth to this, but not a whole lot: Europe has invested in Iran since the Iran deal was signed: China is also a big player, and this will no doubt increase in the future.
Then there is the third view, which simply ascribes the rebellion to “US imperialism,” and the regime-change apparatus Washington has put into place in order to pull off incidents such as these. This explanation – that the US, the Saudis, and the Israelis are solely responsible for the anti-government protests – lacks the one feature all such propositions require: evidence.
Where is the evidence that our intelligence services, in tandem with the Saudis and Israelis, started and are working to sustain the protests? I’m not ruling this out as a possibility, but if one is going to posit a conspiracy then material evidence must validate it. Furthermore, this explanation flies in the face of logic: Iran is an economic mess, its people are chafing under the rule of the mullahs, and the country is radically polarized not only into battling political factions but also along economic lines. Occasm’s Razor tells us a foreign conspiracy can hardly be the primary cause, although no one denies for a moment that the US and its allies would certainly like to take credit for the New Year’s protests.
All three of the views presented above fly in the face of the facts.
To begin with, the neoconservative view that this is a liberation movement aimed squarely at the mullah-ocracy is contradicted by the origins of the initial protests, which occurred in conservative stronghold Mashhad, Iran’s second most populous city, and spread to other equally conservative provincial towns (e.g. the holy city of Qom). These protests emphasized economic issues and were initiated by hardiners, who oppose President Rouhani and his reformist faction, and blame the reformists for promising economic gains that have not benefited everyone equally. With the Rouhani government planning to radically reduce subsidies and fuel prices slated to rise, the people at the very bottom of the economic totem pole – traditionally supporters of hardline anti-reformist leaders – rose up. The demonstrations are also partially a tax revolt, with car registration fees being hiked and the tripling of something called a “departure tax.” This comports with indications that former hardliner President Ahmadinejad is involved in the protests, a report that has added veracity given that it’s coming from hardline elements – the IRGC.
As the protests continued, it looks like other elements took advantage of the opening, thus the “Death to Khamenei” slogans – and here is where those who reflexively blame any and all protests in Iran on the CIA/Saudis have a point. Undoubtedly there are plenty of Iranians who would respond to a call from outside the country to rise up, either for pecuniary interests or out of conviction, but these are relatively few, which is why the radical slogans calling for an end to the theocracy have been relatively few. Yet one cannot deny that the Iranian people have agency: they can act on their own behalf, in their own name and interests, without being characterized as puppets on a string.
The simple fact of the matter is that we can’t really understand the protests for the same reason we can’t intervene effectively in the politics of foreign lands: because it’s too complicated! There are too many variable factors, their history isn’t our history, and our own “expert” analysts all have agendas to pursue that have nothing to do with the reality on the ground.
The debate here in the US about how to react to the Iranian events isn’t about the Iranians – it’s all about us. It’s about what kind of country we want to be: it’s about our role in the world, and whether we can allow events to proceed all on their own, or whether we must intervene in every instance.
What this means, in terms of US policy, is that the United States government must stay out of it. This doesn’t mean President Trump can’t tweet his support to those who want a better and a freer life. Indeed, he would be remiss in his duty if he refrained from doing so. Freedom-fighters the world over deserve rhetorical and political support, but anything beyond that is counterproductive and dangerous to the very people it is supposed to help. No one like to think that he has to turn his country over to foreigners in order to achieve a free life: such a stance would isolate the freedom-fighters from their countrymen and doom the rebellion to defeat.
The War Party in America is the worst enemy of the pro-freedom element in Iran, for war means repression of dissidents, groupthink, limits on democracy, and the destruction of the social fabric upon which liberty depends. If the Bill Kristols and anti-Iranian Trumpists have their way, and we go to war with Iran, liberty has no future in Iran, or in the Middle East.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.