Can Iranian protesters achieve their demands while President Trump capitalizes on them to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal and push regime change? We speak to Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council and Dr. Eskandar Sadeghi of the University of Oxford
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Pro-government rallies are being held in Iran today after nearly a week of nationwide protests against the country’s leaders. Tens of thousands have turned out for demonstrations supporting the Iranian government in at least 10 cities. This follows days of clashes that have left at least 22 people dead. The initial protests began with conservatives but quickly spread to other citizens disgruntled with a struggling economy and rising inequality. There are reports those protests are now dying down just as government supporters are turning out. The government has arrested more than 530 people and restricted access to social media in a bid to crack down on the protests.
I’m joined now by two guests: Dr. Eskandar Sadeghi, a research fellow in modern Iranian history at the University of Oxford, and Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council, author of the book, ‘Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.’ Welcome to you both. Trita, I’ll start with you. What do you think is important for people to know about these protests? Am I correct to say that they started off with the conservatives and then morphed into something different?
TRITA PARSI: Yes, this was actually started by conservatives in the city of Mashhad. They were hoping to be able to put pressure and embarrass the more moderate President Rouhani, but it kind of got out of control because this message of economic grievance is something that a very large segment of the population agreed with. There are very legitimate grievances when it comes to the economic situation as well as the social and the political situation. They quickly lost control over it, and instead of just targeting the Rouhani government, it turned into a protest that is targeting the entire regime including the conservative establishment.
It is, however, at least thus far, much smaller than what we saw in 2009 which I mean there were more than a million or two million people on the streets of Tehran at the time. This one tends to be not only much smaller but also including or driven by a different segment of society that has not been at the center of Iran’s political development for the last two decades. It is a poorer segment of the society. It’s a segment of society that doesn’t seem to have had the same buy-in into that idea that you can change a system from within and, as a result, are a little bit more susceptible to shifting over towards seeking a complete overthrow of the regime.
AARON MATÉ: So have the people who took part in the 2009 Green Revolution taking part in this round of protests? Because their main grievance last time, if I have this right, is that they felt as if the elections were rigged against their preferred candidate.
TRITA PARSI: I’ve spoken to people who did help organize some of those protests in 2009, and they were completely taken by surprise by this. They are not driving this. They’re not even a part of it. They’re keeping a bit of a calculated distance from these protests as well. It’s very clear that it is not an outgrowth of a continuation of the Green Movement. This is simply something else.
AARON MATÉ: Eskandar, if you could pick it up on the topic of those grievances that Trita Parsi mentioned, what are the main economic grievances driving the protesters that have come out over the past week?
E. SADEGHI: Well there are several. Obviously as Trita pointed out, it’s obviously quite difficult to sort of unpack them especially because obviously they initially were expressed in the form of economic grievances and then steadily transformed into something else and obviously swept the country in its entirety. Some of the points that did come up obviously: the price of eggs, the price of basic foodstuffs more generally, the price of fuel and energy prices which obviously hit the poor disproportionately, more severely.
These are sort of the primary ones, but some people have sort of speculated that when President Rouhani sort of presented his budget just very recently as he sort of was maneuvering as it were to, how can I say, leverage his influence with the people against sort of conservative factions, what he did express he sort of spoke to various different, how can I say, sort of expenditures which had been allocated to conservative religious sort of institutions within the state which have traditionally been seen as less transparent, less accountable. What this actually did is actually maybe sort of provoked the anger of many people who sort of expected to see this money actually allocated to betterment of their lives. And in tandem with the fact that he was also cutting subsidies for some of the poorest strata of Iranian society.
These sorts of things turned out to be sort of a perfect storm which were initiated by conservative forces in Mashhad and then were taken up. It did sort of emerge out of faction or jockeying between the Rouhani administration and those conservative factions which were obviously trying to some extent to weaken him. A lot of the speculation has been that a big reason why there wasn’t a clampdown or one of the reasons why the conservatives have been especially sympathetic to the initial protests which expressed economic grievance was because they wanted to see Rouhani weakened.
AARON MATÉ: Trita, what about the issue of military spending? One critique of that Rouhani budget that I’ve heard is that there was an excessive amount allocated to military spending spurring people to make those chants that we heard against Iranian foreign policy in terms of its support for Assad or Hezbollah in Lebanon.
TRITA PARSI: Yeah. In this specific budget proposal, the spending of the IRGC, their budget and other things in the military arm were actually increased whereas so much else was being cut down which is something that clearly angered a tremendous amount of people. You do have a situation in Iran in which, in general terms, people tend to be very skeptical of the foreign posture, the regional posture of the government when it comes to resource allocation, the amount of resources that it allocates for these policies.
We have seen moments in which the policies actually have received a significant amount of support. Zogby has done consistent polls on this issue, and we saw, for instance, that in 2014 when ISIS emerged there was a lot of support for Iran’s foreign policy. Then later on again this year, it was and it seems to be a function of the fact that the Trump administration pursued a much more aggressive policy, combined with the fact that ISIS actually struck Iran in the first time with a successful terrorist attack in Tehran that left 17 people killed. You saw then, as a result, support for the regional posture increase again, but under normal circumstances, it tends to be quite low. As a result, it is something that people point to as a reason to object to the policies of the government because it’s simply allocating it in the wrong way.
AARON MATÉ: Well Trita, speaking of normal circumstances, let me ask you. Do you think we’d be seeing these protests and this level of economic stagnation had Trump and the U.S. government lived up to the Iran Nuclear Deal, not taken steps that have deterred investment inside Iran?
TRITA PARSI: I think it is a very big component of it because, at the end of the day, people had the expectation that things were going to really move in a much more positive direction as a result of the nuclear deal. On paper, there’s a lot of things with the Iranian economy that seems to be moving in the right direction. I mean the growth is going to be roughly 4% this year according to the IMF, but that is almost exclusively driven by the fact that the Iranians can sell oil again.
Oil sales don’t create jobs. What you need to do in order to actually create more social justice in Iran is to actually have a far greater amount of job creation because of the large number of young people that are entering the labor market on a yearly basis. To create jobs, you need investments. You just don’t need oil sales. To get investments, you need to make sure that the banks feel comfortable that nuclear deal is durable and that it is not constantly being attacked either from Iran or Trump or someone else.
That sense of durability has not existed primarily because the Trump administration has made it very clear that they’re looking forward to killing this deal. That has been a major factor as to why investments have not come into Iran. There’s many other factors as well. There’s also of course the Iranian government’s own corruption, mismanagement, etc., but had these investments come in, there’s a significant likelihood that the economic situation would have looked different and that we wouldn’t have had a scenario in which the expectation gap had become as significant as it is right now in which, on the one hand, people expected things to move forward and become much more positive, and on the other hand now with this budget, there’s austerity measures that is cutting their standard of living significantly.
AARON MATÉ: Eskandar Sadeghi, how do you approach this issue? How do you apportion the blame here? On the one hand, the impact of the sanctions over many years and the fact that Trump has created a climate where the benefits of the Iran Nuclear Deal are not being received because investors, banks as Trita described, are scared to put their money there for fear of the potential consequences. And on the other hand, you have Rouhani’s policies, the austerity measures that Trita mentioned, and an overall neoliberal orientation or at least that’s the critique of it.
E. SADEGHI: Yeah. Just to echo Trita, I think he’s very sort of correct in pointing out sort of, one, the combination of austerity measures which Rouhani obviously inherited an economic situation from the Ahmadinejad administration where inflation was running over 40 percent, unemployment was extremely high. What he was actually trying to do was obviously … He basically partook in this austerity or monetary policy in basically trying to push down inflation because that, in turn, would have an impact on prices which, in turn, would very much effect the lot of the core.
But what that actually has done, as Trita actually said … It hasn’t actually created the jobs. That’s exactly because the Trump administration has put so much pressure, has been so antagonistic. I mean I’ve spoken to plenty of individuals who were previously thinking in the last months of the Obama administration were very optimistic and hoping to do business in Iran and obviously very quickly changed their minds. Obviously I think this is part and parcel of what the Trump administration very much wants to do. Trump was very clear and repeatedly stated that he wants to destroy this deal.
The best way he can probably do that is obviously to really destroy the center in Iran. If you recall even before the most recent election, individuals like Elliott Abrams and [inaudible 00:11:31] are very much calling for Ebrahim Raisi — Raisi, the competitor to Rouhani — to be elected, and actually said this would be to the benefit of the political agenda. So I definitely think there’s a sort of invested or shared interest, as it were, between the Trump administration and various sort of neoconservatives in Washington but also conservatives within Iran who want to see a weakened center and sort of a moderate or centrist government.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Speaking of neocons, let’s talk about that and how hawks, anti-Iran hawks here in the West have utilized the Iran protests for their own agenda and the willingness of Western media to play along. Just today in the New York Times, the op-ed page ran a piece by Reuel Marc Gerecht, who is a senior fellow at something called the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. who, by his own count … He says “I’ve written about 25000 words about bombing Iran. Even my mom thinks I’ve gone too far.” That’s a quote from him.
Trita, you actually confronted another anti-Iran neocon yesterday on national TV on MSNBC, Bill Kristol. Let’s show that clip.
Billy Kristol: Let’s be more respectful of the Iranian people’s desire for freedom.
TRITA PARSI: With all due respect, you’ve been arguing to bomb Iran for so long so I don’t know if you’re really respecting the Iranian people. You’ve been advocating killing Iranians so I don’t think you or the Trump administration have the credibility to now say that you care for the Iranian people.
Billy Kristol: I don’t-
MSNBC Anchor: Hold on. Let’s get something clear.
Billy Kristol: It’s not about me. It’s not about me.
MSNBC Anchor: Hold on.
Billy Kristol: It’s not about me. It’s about the Iranian people. Do you stand with the Iranian people? Do you stand with the Iranian people against the regime?
TRITA PARSI: Of course I do. That’s exactly why-
Billy Kristol: Okay. Good. Fine. We’re in agreement. We’re in agreement. [crosstalk 00:13:15]. We’re in agreement then-
TRITA PARSI: … move towards a more democratic situation without killing them.
MSNBC Anchor: Trita-
Billy Kristol: I couldn’t agree more.
MSNBC Anchor: … Bill Kristol is not advocating to kill anyone. Let’s make that very clear.
TRITA PARSI: No, on the contrary, there’s been all of this argument for taking military action against Iran instead of actually having this nuclear deal that has been working.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Trita Parsi telling Bill Kristol that he’s been advocating killing Iranians, and then Trita also correcting the MSNBC anchor when she tries to say quite the contrary. It was interesting, Trita. At the end of that clip, Bill Kristol had that opportunity to respond. He just shook his head and deferred. But your thoughts on that exchange? It went viral afterwards.
TRITA PARSI: Look, I find it bizarre that they have the audacity to pretend that they care for the people of Iran just because they’re willing to jump on a protest right now. For years, they have been advocating bombing Iran. For years, they’ve been advocating sanctioning Iran and even explicitly saying in some cases that we want to take food out of the mouth of the Iranian people. When you treat the people in that way, I don’t think you can give them the benefit of the doubt for them to suddenly switch around and pretend as if the care for the people. They lack any credibility to speak now as if their recommendations actually are to be able to benefit the Iranian people.
They’re just trying to take advantage of this current situation in order to advance the agenda that they’ve always had which is to start some form of a confrontation with Iran in order to change the balance of power in Iran to be more favorable towards Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. This has been a critical agenda item of theirs for years, and they’re seeing an opportunity to push that. We should not let them fool people to think that they care for the Iranian people. They’re just using the Iranian people and their suffering as an instrument right now.
AARON MATÉ: Eskandar Sadeghi, we’ll wrap with you. The key questions, the key issues for you going forward now especially as it appears … Although this might not be the case, it appears today that the protests are dying down. Your thoughts on the question of: Is genuine change possible within a reformist agenda as embodied by the President Hassan Rouhani?
E. SADEGHI: I think anyone who has studied Iran who has invested time looking at its history even since the Rafsanjani period, but if we particularly look at 1997 and the election of Mohammad Khatami and what he did achieve even though it did have various limitations and it was a very difficult sort of struggle and there was a backlash, we have to look at some of the achievements of the period.
One of the key ones is the ability of his administration to institutionalize local city and village elections. This sort of gave … Hundreds of thousands of people actually participated in these elections, and they had a massive, massive impact on sort of transforming Iranian self-conception or conception of themselves as citizens who had agency who could define and determine their political destiny. That’s one particularly important one.
The role of the press. Anyone who’s familiar and reads Farsi and follows the news can see how vibrant the Iranian press has been in the past. Today, you can palpably see since 2013 how much more critical, how much more emboldened sort of reformists are in the Iranian context. I think we need to really acknowledge the achievements. It’s true as Trita said that the expectations, the high, people do want to see faster pace of reform, but we have to really see what has been achieved. Even just most recently with the Rouhani administration, one can see sort of countless …
These protests are unusual. There’s no doubt about it, the whole breadth of the country and the nature of them and the class which is actually participating in them, but we have seen repeated strikes, repeated sort of demands from teachers, from various different workers asking for their rights. This is the best way, I think, going forward by respecting, sort of allowing moderates in Iran, allowing the reformists in Iran to open that space whereby Iranian civil society can burgeon and grow and continue to thrive and continue to try and hold its government to account.
It’s not going to happen by external interference. it’s not going to happen by Trump’s irate and ill-informed tweets. It’s not going to happen obviously as a result of sanctions and warmongering and threats. The only criticism I do have with respect to Rouhani and obviously the reformists is that they really do need to rethink their political economic outlook especially because, since 1997, they’ve very much been obsessed with decreasing the size of the state privatization, lowering inflation, and whatnot. They really do need to think of an alternative model which, again, really does take heed of the working class and sort of lower strata Iranian society’s basic needs and demands and demands of social justice.
Especially since 2009, they’ve been preoccupied obviously with … Sorry. Since 1997, with representing the middle class of Iran and focusing on sort of essentially liberal freedoms: the right to free speech, the right to form associations, and these sorts of things which are absolutely essential for any kind of democratic society. But in the process, they have to some extent forgotten these basic socioeconomic issues of socioeconomic justice which are absolutely indispensable.
The hope going forward is that they really do take this onboard and, rather than a kind of haughty response to these protests and sort of dismissing them as the work of the rabble and whatnot, that, no, these are actually genuine grievances which is being acknowledged. But still, I think they need to go further and offer really concrete proposals of how they intend to go forward in the coming weeks and months.
Simply so, the situation, this instability can’t be taken advantage of by the likes of the Trump administration and by external actors which … They are very glad. You can just see sort of the glee which many of these individuals or these neocons or the Netanyahu government and whatnot … The glee with which they are overlooking kind of this instability, but nevertheless, we have to sort of stay hopeful. We have to hope that Rouhani can come out of this and actually does have the wherewithal with which he can rethink and really give his economic agenda and give some concrete proposals to the Iranian people which they do deserve.
AARON MATÉ: Well since Eskandar mentioned Trump, I have to ask Trita Parsi one more question which is that Trump faces a new deadline this month on whether or not to wave Iran sanctions under the nuclear deal. The importance of that decision, both for the nuclear deal and for how it might bear on Iran’s internal dynamics right now when it comes to this movement for increasing democracy?
TRITA PARSI: [inaudible 00:20:23] thing, but essentially when it comes to the nuclear deal, there’s some very critical deadlines next week in which the United States is obligated to renew wavers on the sanctions as long as the Iranians are living up to their end of the bargain. The reports by the IADA confirm that the Iranians are in compliance. There’s a very high likelihood that Trump will use the current protest as a pretext to do what he had planned to do anyways which was to not renew these waivers and, by that, put the United States out of compliance with the deal potentially triggering a process that could see the deal collapse as a result of that. In the midst of all of this, there’s something likely going to happen that will create a massive international crisis.
AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Dr. Eskandar Sadeghi, research fellow in modern Iranian history at the University of Oxford, and Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian-American Council, author of ‘Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.’ Thanks to you both.
TRITA PARSI: Thank you.
E. SADEGHI: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.