By May 12, 2018, US President Donald Trump faces the deadline that could determine whether or not the United States will terminate the Iranian Nuclear Deal. Despite the considerable, recent efforts from European countries, particularly Germany and France, to protect the Iranian Deal, Sen. Bob Corker, the lawmaker most directly in touch with the Trump administration on matters concerning Iran, told CBS on March 18 that “right now, [the Iran Deal] doesn’t feel like it’s going to be extended.” On April 30, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed what he said are “secret nuclear files” proving Iran once covertly pursued nuclear weapons.
While both the Obama and Trump administrations had opposite approaches to the Iranian Deal, they both converge on a single point – sacrificing the Iranian uprisings for what they see as a higher cause. This is an issue that has rarely been discussed.
Obama, and the sacrificing of the Iranian Green Movement
At the heart of the Iranian Green Movement in November 2009, I was among demonstrators in Tehran. We linked the Persian phrase for “he [is] with us” (o ba ma) with the name of the then US president, Barack Obama. We bound the two together in a pact of phonological affiliation, and chanted, “Obama-Obama; ya ba ona ya ba ma” (Obama, Obama; either with them [Iranian regime] or with us [Iranian people]). In contrast to the American tradition of standing with popular democratic uprisings against dictatorships, Obama’s lack of response regarding the Iranian uprising showed he was no longer o ba ma (with us).
In an interview with the BBC in October 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton justified the American position of non-support to the Iranian Green Movement on account of its leaders and supporters asking the US not to become involved in the protest. She added that if something were to happen again, it would be smart for them to say, “We want the support of the world behind us.” Three years later, in her book, Hard Choices: A Memoir, she wrote about the Green Movement, “I came to regret that we did not speak out more forcefully and rally others to do the same.” The Obama administration’s position and Hillary’s justification toward the Green Movement were, in fact, rooted in a larger issue – the Iranian Nuclear Deal. It was Obama’s obsession from the very beginning of his presidency to introduce the Iranian Deal and to turn the two countries from foes to friends, thereby making history in the same vein as President Nixon had with China. Obama succeeded in implementing the Nuclear Deal but sacrificed much along the path, including the Green Movement.
Many in the American media have started taking a hard look at the hidden costs of the Iranian Nuclear Deal. In his new book, The Iran Wars, Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon uncovered new details on just how far Obama went to avoid helping Iran’s Green Movement. As Eli Lake discussed, Obama was not only slow to react, but even downplayed the prospect of real progress, saying the Green Movement leaders did not represent fundamental change. As he pointed out, Obama “feared the demonstrations would sabotage his secret outreach to Iran.” He overruled those advisors who wanted to do what America had done at similar transitions from dictatorship to democracy, such as was the case with the popular uprisings in Georgia in 2003, Egypt in 2011, and Ukraine in 2014. Instead, he ordered the CIA to sever contacts it had with the Green Movement’s supporters, as well as secular and democratic opposition groups. Additionally, he ended US programs documenting Iranian human rights abuses. Solomon reported that Obama’s obsession with the Iranian Deal even influenced his decision on many other issues, including Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. Both American and Iranian officials had told Obama that nuclear negotiations would be halted if he intervened against Bashar al-Assad.
On Dec. 17, 2017, Politico claimed that Obama administration officials threw a series of roadblocks in front of the campaign, known as Project Cassandra, which halted efforts to curtail Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s drug-trafficking and money-laundering operations to help ensure the Iran nuclear deal would stay on track. Former Treasury official Katherine Bauer admitted in a little-noticed testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last February that “under the Obama administration these [Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal.” On Dec. 22 US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered an investigation into this allegation.
Trump, and the sacrificing of the 2017-18 Iranian Uprising?
In his first response to the 2017-18 Iranian protests, Trump supported the demonstrations calling for political and economic change. Despite his discredit among the Iranian people because of his travel ban that targeted Iranians, his further enraging them by inadvertently calling the “Persian Gulf” the “Arabian Gulf,” and his unconditional support to Iran’s biggest adversary, Saudi Arabia, Iranian activists welcomed Trump’s early tweets and called for him “to not be like Obama in 2009,” who didn’t support the Green Movement. However, Trump’s tweets since then have criticized the Iranian Deal and Obama for making the deal more than focusing on the Iranian protesters. On Jan. 4, the US sanctioned five Iranian entities for their work on Iran’s ballistic missile program, but not for their roles in suppressing Iranian protests. The next day, the UN Security Council held an emergency session based on the US request for the Iranian protest that largely discussed the Iranian Deal. France’s ambassador François Delattre warned against “instrumentalization” of the protests “from the outside.” Speaking before the Council, he stated, “We must be wary of any attempt to exploit this crisis for personal ends, which would have a diametrically opposed outcome to that which is wished.” On Jan. 12, the US Treasury Department decided to impose additional sanctions on 14 Iranian entities and individuals, including Sadeq Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, who already had been put into the sanction list of the European Union in 2012 for human rights abuses. The majority of those sanctions were linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program and the Iranian Deal but was justified in the name of Iranian protesters. It seems that for both Obama and Trump, the path toward the Iranian Deal – making it or dismantling it – requires sacrificing the Iranian protests.
Iran’s controversial nuclear program that has brought international sanctions, invasive inspections, and global political criticism to Iran has very little to do with the Iranian people. The Iranian Deal, which the US Democratic Party favored making and maintaining, has made the hardline Iran Revolutionary Guard richer. The Republican Party, meanwhile, favored dismantling it and imposing new sanctions, which also has the effect of making the Iran Revolutionary Guard stronger and richer.
Whether to keep or dismantle the Iranian Deal, Trump must neither forget nor sacrifice the Iranian protesters and the Iranian people. There is still potential for an unprecedented union between the working and middle classes in Iran and Trump for a “peaceful” regime change in the country. In order to make it work, Trump must increase the pressure on the Iranian government. He should take restrictive measures against certain individuals, officials, and institutions that are involved in the suppression of the protesters. He should think of political sanctions over economic sanctions that – as many believe – only benefit the Revolutionary Guard. He should provide financial assistance to US technologies such as UltraSurf’s servers and other firewall circumvention programs that help Iranian people bypass the Iranian government’s censorship. In a major report released on Jan. 10, 2018, the Center for Human Rights in Iran detailed the advances the Iranian government has made in controlling cyberspace in Iran. As of April 25, Iran has been promoting a domestically-produced mobile messaging app, complete with a “Death to America” emoji, in an attempt to mollify and monitor millions of Iranians. This comes after Iran’s judiciary banned the use of the last allowed social media app in Iran, Telegram messaging app, which has been blamed for promoting unrest in the country.
Perhaps the next round of protests – which could very well be ignited by the death of the sickly 78-year-old Supreme Leader – will give both Trump and the Iranian protesters what they want. A peaceful regime change in Iran will automatically be an end to Iran’s controversial nuclear program, the missile program, Iran’s intervention in the region through Shia militias, and its support of terrorism while freeing Iranian people from four decades of Islamic oppression. Until then, Trump should remain committed to the Iranian protesters and be “with us” (o ba ma).
Haidar Khezri is an adjunct assistant professor at the Department of Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS) and senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Middle East (CSME) at Indiana University Bloomington, US.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany