Iranians took to the streets this week to protest both their government’s downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet and its initial statements denying culpability. Such protests are more common than many Americans realize. While every few years, mass Iranian protests make international headlines, far more common are everyday protests: striking Iranian labor unions questioning their government’s priorities, or Iranian Kurds demanding accountability for the death of a woman who some reports said was threatened by a government official.
Such civil society activism highlights what is missing from America’s debate on Iran policy: the Iranian people. No doubt – misguided U.S. policy in the broader Middle East adds fuel to the fire, be it with military strikes devoid of broader strategy in Iraq, Syria, or Yemen or billions of dollars dumped on aid programs that don’t get results.
One of us writing is a liberal who supported the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and the other is a conservative who opposed it, but action absent a regional strategy is something we’ve both seen for years. The pattern has driven us to ask in a recent book we co-edited, what really causes instability in the Middle East — a question we’ll also tackle Wednesday evening at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.
For too long, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been addicted to dictators and autocrats, neither of which care for their people. And this gap between the people and their leaders is the main factor driving instability and violence. Iran is a perfect example of this: No U.S. administration, from Carter to Trump, can claim lasting success on Iran policy. Democrats and Republicans alike have had blind spots and strategic flaws in their approach to Iran – and the main shortcoming is failing to recognize that the people of Iran are the main center of gravity.
Before the tit-for-tat U.S.-Iran military exchanges of the past week, Iranians had taken to the streets to demand their government improve their lives. The regime, as always, has tried to rally the Iranian public around the flag, but distraction can never be a long-term strategy for the regime.
Pivot back to America’s election cycle, and it is hard to find much mention of the Iranian people in our political debate about Iran. On the right, Trump’s backers hope hardship will lead the regime to offer fundamental concessions on its nuclear and missile programs. The left, meanwhile, sees the Iran debate through the lens of debates about the 2003 Iraq war. Many progressives, aghast at finding common cause with neoconservatives, turn a blind eye to Iranian human rights and use social media to tar legitimate human rights advocacy as cover for military-led regime change.
Engaging Iran’s people need not delegitimize Iranian activists with direct ties to foreigners. Enabling technology infrastructure for Iranians to bypass internet censorship, for example, is a win-win strategy for both Americans and Iranians. Iranian labor unions are bold, independent, and effective, and deserve their American and European counterparts’ moral and technical assistance.
Help Iranian environmentalists who suffer repression because the Iranian regime fears citizens organizing on issues that impact their lives directly. Far wiser than sending warships to the Persian Gulf would be dispatching hospital ships to Dubai or Abu Dhabi with offers of free medical care to Iranian war veterans, especially given the regime’s poor track record of treating its own. Open the floodgates to Iranian visitors rather than banning them, family members of senior regime officials excepted.
Debate about sanctions and diplomacy is legitimate, but when foreign policy becomes a political football and when partisans reduce countries to templates upon which to wage partisan battle, everyone loses. Creative bipartisanship, in contrast, can help both Iran and the United States.
Brian Katulis and Michael Rubin are co-editors of “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East.”