The American Enterprise Institute by Michael Rubin
Prior to beginning nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Iranian economy had shrunk 5.4% according to Iran’s own statistics. The Iranian currency was in free fall and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Nevertheless, simply to get Iran to the table, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry approved nearly $12 billion in incentives, an amount equal to more than twice the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ annual budget. When even supporters of the Iran deal say they believe it could have been better, the basis of their criticism is that Kerry and his team squandered the leverage provided by Iran’s financial desperation.
But, whatever the merits of the deal—historians will have the ultimate say on whether it was wise or naïve—one thing is clear: Ordinary Iranians expected to benefit from its conclusion. After all, the deal unfroze tens of billions of dollars of frozen assets and lifted barriers to trade. European leaders have raced to invest in the country, no matter that this often means partnering with businesses controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Even that money is not the sum total of all that has flowed into Iran. The Obama administration, for example, has paid more than $1 billion in ransom for Us hostages.
Here’s the problem for ordinary Iranians: Even if the Islamic Republic now operates back in the black, Iranians have not experienced much if any economic benefit in the aftermath of the deal. Iran’s state-controlled media and their various agents of influence might try to argue that the problem are the remaining terror sanctions, but Iranians know better. The quagmire in which the Iranians find themselves in Syria costs the Islamic Republic billions, as does Iran’s continued adventurism in Yemen, and its continued military build-up. (Note: Be wary of those who downplay Iran’s military spending by comparing it to that of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The statistics Iran releases are not reflective of reality; Iran’s true military budget is a closely-held secret).
This means that as Iran heads to presidential elections in May, ordinary Iranians may be reticent to participate in the charade knowing that once again even self-described reformists have failed to meet their expectations. This angry apathy is a dynamic which the Iranian leadership very much fears.
So what should the United States and Europe do? For those who believe that Iranians deserve a better tomorrow and that the last US administration’s strategy of legitimizing and empowering the regime endangered rather than enhanced US national security interests, then perhaps it is time to tap into Iranian unease with the inability of their leaders to provide.
Left-of-center European groups like the Greens should support overtly Iran’s nascent independent trade union movement. If Iranian leaders are forced to invest more in salaries than in ballistic missiles, that’s a win for both the Iranian public and for the outside world. At the same time, it’s essential that US leaders of both parties drill in the point — both in Western media and in Persian-language media targeted to the Iranian audience—about the true reasons for the continued poverty of ordinary Iranians: Let the Iranian people direct their anger where it is due—at the corrupt clerical and Revolutionary Guard class that has run Iran into the ground while enriching themselves to the tune of millions and, in some cases, billions of dollars.
Historically, Iran and the United States have been friends and partners. The last four decades have been an aberration, but not one that needs to be accepted as permanent. President Obama had a choice to side with the Iranian regime or the Iranian people. He chose the former. President Trump should understand that it is in the interests of both Iranians and Americans and progressives and conservatives to side with the latter. Growing unease among Iranians at their government’s failure to improve their lives even after the Iranian nuclear deal provides a real opportunity.