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Has US misread the Iranian street?

Why We Wrote This

Recent street protests over Iran's economy seem to suggest the country could be vulnerable to outside pressure. But Iranians say the White House has miscalculated, resulting in increased unity instead.

AP
President Trump (l.) on July 22, 2018, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Feb. 6, 2018. Mr. Trump tweeted late on Sunday, July 22, that hostile threats from Iran could bring dire consequences.

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Mutual hostility between the United States and Iran has defined the geopolitical strife between these arch foes since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Yet if Iran has a dependable, vocal, and flag-burning anti-American minority, it has also had a quieter but consistent cohort of private citizens who have viewed America as a beacon of hope. But there are signs that sentiment is changing. Recent protests in Iran critical of the government’s economic and foreign policies had seemed to create an opening for the US to press Iran to curb its regional ambitions. Rather than sow discord, the Trump administration’s confrontational rhetoric, withdrawal from the nuclear deal, and restored economic sanctions seem to be pushing Iranians toward more unity. “If there were some hope [in Washington] that with some kind of pressure from outside that Iranians would be encouraged to go out on the street, Trump is giving the wrong signal,” says a veteran analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “The hatred, the distrust, the dissatisfaction … toward the establishment is growing here, no question about it,” says the analyst. “But … what Trump is doing” makes the prospect of a popular uprising even more distant.

President Trump’s escalation of anti-Iran rhetoric and increased US pressure against the Islamic Republic have been a boon to Iran’s noisy minority of hard-line, America-obsessed flag burners.

But the US campaign is doing more than strengthen the hard-liners. Amid a broader administration effort to deepen instability among Iranians torn by their own political and social divides, there are signs the Trump-led targeting of Iran may be backfiring, as Iranians coalesce against a foreign enemy.

One result is a newly belligerent anti-American tone from Iran’s centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who has advocated outreach to the West. Another is reconsideration by a sizeable portion of Iranians who – quietly, but unmistakably, for decades – have professed admiration for the American people and have long viewed America as a beacon of hope.

Administration officials say they are “supporting Iranian voices” by abetting anti-regime sentiment and taking advantage of frequent local protests in Iran. But, say Iranians and analysts, the apparent lack of a US strategic vision for a post-regime Iran, and administration officials’ association with the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) – an exiled, cult-like opposition group reviled inside Iran – have instead yielded rare levels of Iranian unity.

“If there were some hope [in Washington] that with some kind of pressure from outside that Iranians would be encouraged to go out on the street, Trump is giving the wrong signal: ‘You come to the street and make instability, and we will make the MEK come to power,’ ” says a veteran analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named.

“The hatred, the distrust, the dissatisfaction … toward the establishment is growing here, no question about it,” says the analyst. “People are protesting here and there. But … what Trump is doing” makes the prospect of a popular uprising even more distant.

Citing "current America and these policies," which had shown the US to be "totally unreliable," Tehran dismissed an offer by Mr. Trump Monday to meet Iranian leaders with "no preconditions." The White House later clarified that it has no plans to change its policy of ratcheting up pressure and sanctions on Iran.

Ordinary Iranians have taken to Twitter using the hashtags #ShutUpTrump and #StopMeddlingInIran to condemn US actions.

“Trump’s craziness has no end. But our unity is endless, too. So the more he shows his teeth, the more we will show our fists,” says Saeed, a clean-shaven student of mechanical engineering at Azad University in Tehran who says he supports reformist politicians.

“We have passed all those hurdles in the past and this one, although it is more serious than ever, I’m sure we will successfully leave behind,” says Saeed, who only gave his first name. “It is Trump who will be thrown away or, in the words of the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], will be ‘thrown into the dust bin of history.’ We will stand behind the establishment forever.”

Mutual hostility between the US and Iran has defined the geopolitical strife between these arch foes since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

'Never, ever threaten'

But the Trump administration’s particular animus toward Iran is especially counterproductive, Iranians and analysts say. As the US seeks to check what it calls Iran’s “malign activities” and extensive influence across the Middle East, it is ratcheting up sanctions and explicitly attempting to turn Iranians against their clerical leaders.

Last week, Trump replied to a warning from Mr. Rouhani not to take Iran’s military capability lightly by tweeting, in all capital letters, that Iran should “never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”

Iran’s Qods Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, replied, addressing Trump: “Come, we are ready. If you begin the war, we will determine the end of it.”

After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, several thousand Iranian citizens in Tehran were among the first – and among the very few – in the Middle East to hold a spontaneous candlelit vigil in solidarity with the United States.

Yet today Iranians also are reeling from being included – alongside Somalis and Yemenis – in a blanket seven-nation White House travel ban, even though an estimated one million Iranian-Americans live in the US.

They are baffled by Trump’s unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. And they are feeling the bite of new US sanctions designed to put “unprecedented” economic pressure on Iran by cutting it off from the outside world, forcing all third-country business to withdraw, and blocking the sale of any Iranian oil.

“We have always expected the Americans to come to our rescue, but that has happened only in words and not action,” says Ramezan, a retired teacher in Tehran. “Look at Trump.… He does not even let us visit his country. Do you think we could expect such a fool to save us from a bunch of other fools?”

Solidarity with protesters

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the stakes in a speech July 22 in southern California to a group that included Iranian-American supporters of the MEK – an organization that was on the US list of terrorist groups until 2012. It has for years paid top former officials, including current National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump’s personal lawyer and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to shill for its Iran regime-change agenda.

Mr. Pompeo said the Trump administration “dreams the same dreams for the people of Iran as you do,” and pledged solidarity with Iranian protesters while listing cases of corruption and human rights abuses. But he also said the US had “an obligation to put maximum pressure on the regime’s ability to generate and move money.”

That speech brought home to Iranians the challenge of forging detente with this White House, says John Limbert, a former US diplomat who was among the 52 hostages taken at the US Embassy in 1979 and held captive for 444 days.

“What’s striking are these totally insincere and unconvincing professions of how much we support the Iranian people and their aspirations,” says Mr. Limbert, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and author of the book, “Negotiating with Iran.”

He summed up the Iranian view: “Here is this person [Trump] who says he’s going to kill millions of us, they’re going to strangle our economy… and they are going to support our aspirations for democracy. How stupid do they think we are?” says Limbert.

'A limit to our patience'

Yet, even as Iranians are disparaging of Trump and his approach to Iran, when it comes to their domestic woes, they spread their blame further, to chronic mismanagement and corruption at home.

“Unity has always been our choice against enemies. This time it has to be even more vigorous because we are facing a special one, who has no ethical boundaries,” says Leyla, a soon-to-retire health ministry employee in Tehran.

“But there’s also a limit to our patience,” she says. “Our officials have to see people’s problems. If they need our backing, they must do something for our livelihood.… Things will break down and even unity won’t work when you have no bread.”

Iranians for two centuries have witnessed the negative result of outside interventions, and in the US case it was a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 that many regard as laying the foundation for the Islamic Revolution, decades later.

“It’s hard to believe that Trump or the American administration is on the side of the people,” says the Tehran analyst. “ ‘By hurting people you can’t be on the side of the people,’ this is what some say.”

“I know some young people who were really disgusted with the regime … but some of them are not so sure about revolution anymore, because the MEK image here is not what these people want as the new leadership,” says the analyst.

“These activities by Trump and his aides to get close to the MEK scared lots of people – indirectly helping people move away from the idea of revolution against the mullahs,” he says.

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