Middle East

Trump's Iran Protest 'Support' Is Likely to Backfire

Protesters need to score their own first strike before outside support makes sense.

Interference doesn't work.

Photographer: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has openly taken the protesters' side in the recent Iran events, while the European Union has remained neutral or aloof. French President Emmanuel Macron has even criticized the U.S. for taking sides. For all the moral satisfaction the U.S. approach can deliver to its advocates, the European one is smarter.

In the days since economic and then increasingly anti-regime protests broke out throughout Iran, the U.S. administration has fired from all barrels. President Trump has tweeted wholesale support for the protesters and a promise they would see that support manifested "at the appropriate time" -- as close to a declaration of planned interference as it gets. The State Department has issued two statements backing the protesters and condemning the Iranian government. Vice President Mike Pence published a piece in the Washington Post declaring that, unlike the Obama administration, "this time, we will not be silent" in the name of American leadership and the cause of freedom. Pence blamed Obama's non-interference for the Iranian regime's success in suppressing the 2009 Green Revolution and compared the current administration's rhetoric with Ronald Reagan's strong condemnations of the Soviet Union.

Nevermind the condemnations of alleged Russian interference in America's political workings. America is a democracy; Iran has a repressive, corrupt regime. Anyhow, double standards are commonplace in geopolitics and often justified by individual circumstances. It's more useful to look at the U.S. reaction from a pragmatic point of view, comparing it with the European one.

EU diplomats have been in touch with the Iranian government "in the spirit of frankness and respect" to ask it to respect citizens' right of expression. Macron, for his part, has warned the U.S. and its Saudi allies against a "discourse that can lead to war" with Iran and called for continued dialogue with it. It's easy to dismiss the EU position as self-serving (France and other countries have long rubbed their hands together at the economic opportunities in Iran) or argue it undermines the protests; but the approach makes good sense.

Reports and even intelligence from Iran are necessarily sketchy. It's clear, though, that the protests are decentralized and diverse in nature. Some of their participants have purely economic demands. They are dissatisfied with President Hassan Rouhani's performance after he promised to fight corruption and bring about economic prosperity in the wake of Iran's nuclear deal with the West, Russia and China. Others are sick of the clerical regime and the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

There's no united front because the disgruntled Iranians don't agree among themselves on what they want. Backing all of them without going into detail can easily go wrong. The U.S. backed the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that led to the civil war in Syria, then struggled to sort out which groups deserved its support and which had links to terror networks or merely intended to siphon off aid. The same mistake has left Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan unstable for years after their regimes were overthrown.

At present, it appears that a successful revolution is unlikely. The U.S. should be aware of the consequences of backing an insufficiently strong revolt. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced support for Russian demonstrations against a rigged parliamentary election in 2011 and made a permanent enemy of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who used Clinton's backing of the protests as an example of U.S. interference in sovereign Russia's affairs. It has helped Putin's domestic standing and motivated him to hit the U.S. with a propaganda and disinformation campaign in 2016.

Of course, Iranian leaders had no illusions about the Trump administration's hostility even before the protest-related salvo. But now they have evidence of what they call "grotesque" interference into their country's domestic affairs, which they are actively using to rally support -- especially at home, where pro-regime rallies have been called in recent days to counter the protests. External enemies would have been blamed anyway. But providing ammunition for such propaganda helps drive enmity deeper into a nation's psyche and makes dismantling oppressive states more difficult, both immediately and over the long term.

I have a convenient vantage point for these observations. I took part in anti-Soviet protests as the Communist regime was ending in my country and in the 2011 ones, which Clinton so awkwardly backed. I also witnessed the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine.

In the two cases where the protesters succeeded -- the Soviet and the Ukrainian ones -- no external support was necessary. When people have truly had enough, they rebel with a fury, a unity of purpose and an uncanny skill more than sufficient to determine the outcome. Led Zeppelin and a shortage of toilet paper were far more important factors in the demise of the Soviet regime than Reagan's speeches. The cozy lure of the EU, right there on Ukraine's Western border, and not any U.S. effort, determined that nation's historic choice.

In the one case where the protests failed, in 2011 in Moscow, we weren't strong or committed enough to overthrow the regime. But, under dithering placeholder President Dmitri Medvedev, the authorities could have taken a compromise path under pressure. Instead, Clinton's ill-considered intervention pushed Putin to buy increasing amounts of "coup insurance," as he understood it. This has meant years of reaction and wasted opportunity for an entire generation of Russians -- at least those who don't emigrate.

External support is not needed at the protest stage, but strong, well-designed assistance is essential after a successful revolution. That way, only benefits are associated with adopting Western values and propaganda points are harder to score for their opponents. It's also much easier for Western analysts to understand a working post-revolutionary government than to make sense of a disparate, often leaderless protest movement.

For now, the best the West can do is warn the regime in Tehran against using violence to quash legitimate rallies. There's no way to make a protest sustainably successful from afar. Even once there's enough anger and determination to topple the regime, it'll be best for the U.S. to show some patience and only offer support after the Iranians decide what they want to do next. That's how long-term friends are made.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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