President Trump says he will decide by May 12 whether to renew sanctions on Iran if the 2015 nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic is not fixed. He cites Iran’s military threats against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other nations in the region.
Yet he should hold off for now. One big threat in the Middle East may be the rising anger and disillusionment of the Iranian people toward their own regime.
For six months, Iran has witnessed political protests and labor strikes by people ranging from drought-stricken farmers to veil-less women to the country’s non-Persian minorities to the powerful but hard-pressed bazaari merchants.
Unemployment is near an all-time high. Many banks are insolvent. The value of Iran’s currency has fallen by more than a third, forcing the regime to effectively curtail foreign travel and to put people in jail for buying dollars or euros on the black market. The regime also has tried to stem unrest with a ban on Telegram, a popular messaging app used by about half of Iran’s 80 million people.
The ingenuity of Iranians to reclaim their individual liberties should not be underestimated. To bypass rising censorship, for example, dissenters have taken to writing words of protest on paper money for all to read. One popular slogan: “Our enemy is right here. They say it is America.” And in a popular video clip, soccer fans could be heard shouting the name of the shah, who was deposed in 1979.
Any new sanctions aimed at containing Iran hardly seem necessary when the regime is already contained by its own mistakes. The near-absolute rule of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has resulted in absolute favoritism toward a few groups controlling much of Iran’s oil-derived wealth. The regime also may be rotting from within as various factions argue over issues such as the high cost of supporting proxy forces in the region, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Syrian Army.
For the United States, patience toward Iran rather economic aggression would be a wise course. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted at this during his recent confirmation hearings when he stated: “The Iranian people are about done with trying to figure out how it is that they’re going to benefit from the place they find themselves [in] today.”
Nearly 40 years after a revolution resulted in a self-designated cleric becoming Iran’s top ruler, the country is facing its most widespread resistance. Since most sanctions were lifted in 2016, the regime has failed to attract enough foreign investment to meet the expectation of its well-educated people. Mr. Trump may be tempted to push hard at this wobbly dictatorship. But it would be better to see if Iranians can push from within to topple a house built on sand.