Paul Pillar

Epistemology, Rhetoric, and the Iranian Protests

Arguments that have long been used against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear program, raise additional challenges to consistency.  If the current protests are a good thing—and the aforementioned anti-Iran American hardliners seem downright excited about them—one needs to note that this is happening with the JCPOA having been in effect for two years.  Wasn’t that agreement, according to the agreement’s opponents, supposed to have given Iran a windfall that unduly and prematurely relieved economic pressure on Tehran?  The opponents try to square this circle with the notion of the regime diverting the “windfall” to foreign adventurism while making citizens suffer.  This notion usually gets conveyed without any supporting data about economics and fiscal policies (and Rouhani’s policies have emphasized domestic economic improvement about all else).  It also raises another inconsistency.  If the current protests really are as much of a regime-shaking occurrence as some American hardliners contend, wouldn’t any Iranian leader with at least half a brain and a desire to stay in power use the “windfall” to buy domestic support rather than wasting it away on foreign adventurism, if that really were the choice?

By treating the protests as a vehicle for pressuring the regime to change non-nuclear policies, the American hardliners also run into inconsistency with all their prior opposition to doing any business with the Iranian regime, of which opposition to the JCPOA has been a part.  If this regime is as irredeemable and thoroughly dominated by hardline fanatics as the American hardliners have repeatedly portrayed it, who could possibly emerge from such a cauldron to respond positively to street protests?  Thus we get intellectual contortions such as trying to argue in the space of a single paragraph that it was a mistake in the past to “be in the business of currying favor with the regime’s ‘moderates’ ” but that today the protests provide an occasion to “strengthen the arguments of pragmatists arguing for a change in policy”.

Regardless of whether the eventual overall outcome of the current protests is good or bad from a U.S. point of view, it would be just as mistaken for supporters of the JCPOA to claim credit for whatever good comes out of them as for opponents to make such a claim.  The JCPOA needs to stand or fall based on its intended purpose, which was to close all pathways to a possible Iranian nuclear weapon.  The economic underperformance that has spawned discontent in Iran, as manifested in the current protests, has multiple sources.  Economic mismanagement by the regime is one.  Sanctions are another, including non-nuclear sanctions that the United States keeps in place today.  Moreover, even the lifting of nuclear sanctions has not brought much of the hoped-for economic benefit to Iran, given uncertainty in the private sector—uncertainty the Trump administration has vigorously stoked—about the future of the JCPOA, with the private sector knowing of the U.S. Treasury's ability to punish even non-American businesses for any future sanctions transgressions.  The Rouhani government also probably raised Iranian economic expectations to an unreachable level as it worked to sell the agreement over hardline Iranian opposition.

Another guideline for American commentators of any persuasion is to be mindful that such commentary is not only part of an American debate but also is heard by Iranian ears.  This includes ears in the regime, where, as with regimes everywhere, the perception that a foreign government is trying to overthrow you is a big disincentive to doing any business with that government or trusting its promises.  Also listening are the protesters and other citizens of Iran.  Regardless of the sympathy we have for them, American expressions of support will not be fuel for keeping the protests going.  No would-be protester will go out in the street and risk arrest or worse because some U.S. leader encouraged him to do so.

The much more likely hazard is to taint Iranian opposition with the stain of foreign involvement.  For any Iranian movement, a perception that the United States put it up to whatever it is doing is a political kiss of death.  Those in the United States urging a more active encouragement of the protests dismiss this hazard by saying, “No matter what we say and do, the regime will seek to blame the United States for the protests.”  Of course it will; that’s the sort of accusation almost any regime in such a situation will make.  But that’s beside the point.  What matters is whether the United States makes such accusations appear credible, in the eyes of Iranians in the street and Iranians in general, by what it does and what it says.

Certainly there is a role for declaring strong support for the right of Iranians or any other people to express their grievances peacefully, and for condemning any use of force against such expression.  The line between such declarations and a posture that gives credibility to the Iranian regime’s accusations about foreign interference is admittedly thin.  But the line exists, and Americans do no favors to the Iranian people by crossing it.