Iran marked the 40th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution this week.
For the most part, the rest of the world wasn’t celebrating.
And even in Tehran and elsewhere in the Islamic Republic, the public is restless, reflecting dissatisfaction with economic mismanagement, endemic corruption and endless geopolitical strife.
“After 40 years, Iranians today have to feel pretty hopeless in trying to bring about amelioration of the characteristics that so disappoint people about the Islamic Republic, like corruption and international isolation,” said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
That international isolation intensified this week in Warsaw, site of a White House-convened confab focused on Mideast security (which is also the topic of this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue).
But before and especially during the conference, it was clear that the theocracy’s regionally, even globally, destabilizing behavior, including backing the homicidal Assad regime in Syria as well as terrorist entities like Hezbollah, was the real reason for the meeting.
“You can’t achieve peace and stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran; it’s just not possible,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And seemingly it wasn’t possible for Netanyahu to conceal the subtext of the conference, either. In a since-deleted “mistaken” tweet, he wrote: “What is important about this meeting, and it is not in secret, because there are many of those — is that this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries, that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.”
Netanyahu subsequently softened the bellicosity of his tweet by changing the language to “combating” Iran. And previous pushback from some Western allies — including some NATO nations that dispatched lower-level diplomats instead of foreign ministers or heads of state — led the Trump administration to broaden the agenda beyond an anti-Iran conference.
But the confrontational approach was clear — between Washington and Tehran, and even Washington and London, Paris and Berlin.
Vice President Mike Pence didn’t mince words when he addressed Western allies at the conference, calling on them to follow the Trump administration’s abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal.
Instead, Europeans, in an attempt to honor the 2015 agreement between Iran and major world powers (including Russia and China, who were absent at the Warsaw meeting) have set up a system to continue to trade with Tehran that would evade U.S. sanctions.
“They call this a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle,’ ” Pence said, later adding, “We call it an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the E.U. [European Union] and create still more distance between Europe and America.”
Successive presidents, regardless of party, have had similar concerns about curbing Iran, but have adopted different strategies and tactics. For instance, the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, was the Obama administration’s attempt to keep Tehran from developing a nuclear-weapons program. While President Donald Trump scuttled the deal, his administration, and international inspections, confirm that Iran is in technical compliance with the pact.
Beyond the diplomatic dynamics, the New York Times reported on Wednesday that the administration has “accelerated a secret American program to sabotage Iran’s missiles and rockets, according to current and former administration officials, who described it as part of an expanding campaign by the United States to undercut Tehran’s military and isolate its economy.”
Isolation is a chronic condition in post-revolutionary Iran.
Regionally, Shiite, Persian Iran has historic and deep divisions with most of its Sunni, Arab neighbors (let alone Israel). This in turn affects images of Iran in the United States, said Paul Pillar, nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.
Saudi Arabia and allied Gulf countries “have their own, very distinct motivations to keep Iran as everyone’s bête noire, to keep it isolated, to keep it punished, to keep it down,” said Pillar.
Internal intolerance by Iran’s rigid rulers has also kept Iran down. But not completely out: Over the 40 years, protest movements of varying intensity have emerged, and while none have forced a change of government, they have changed society.
So, too, have technological transformations that have had global impact, including media that counter the government’s narrative.
“There’s been a recognition among those in the regime that they have a harder time controlling the flow of information to the Iranian people than they perhaps hope or expected, for all of the reasons that we’ve seen in lots of other countries over the last couple of decades,” Pillar said.
In fact, said Clawson, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has “been warning for 20 years about a Western cultural invasion. And he’s particularly upset that the invasion took place and he lost; that in many ways Iran is quite a Westernized country.”
And yet this increasingly Westernized country seems reticent to reflect recent Mideast upheavals.
“The best way of describing popular sentiment is there’s an appetite for change because of the economic problems, mainly,” Pillar said. But “even more to the point, they saw what happened with the Arab Spring disruption in nearby countries, and none of that would look attractive at all.”
So while envoys in Warsaw may see external pressure triggering internal upheaval, evolution, not revolution, may mark Iran’s next era.
“Change has been occurring all along, but it’s of a gradual sort,” Pillar said. “I think it’s less likely that we have some distinct set of events that we would consider a counterrevolution; I think we would see more of an evolution, and after another 40 years go by we could say, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of change here.’ ”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.