A small number of merchants in Tehran on June 24 protested against the rapid depreciation of the rial, the Iranian currency. One day later, that small protest turned into the largest demonstration in Tehran since the Green Revolution of 2009, which brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. The Tehran demonstration quickly became political, with people chanting “Death to the dictator!” and "Reza Shah! Bless your soul!" The protests also spread to other cities, including the small religious town of Shahriar near the capital, a traditional stronghold of the clerical regime. This time, the town’s residents chanted "No to Gaza! No to Lebanon! I give my life for Iran!"
This weekend’s mass demonstration serves as a powerful reminder that unrest never diminished after protests in more than 80 cities that made global headlines in December. Since then, Iran has been the scene of daily protests, mainly in small cities, which at times led to deadly clashes with security forces.
Events in Tehran may also signal that opposition to the regime has crossed a pivotal threshold, with middle-class and lower-class protesters joining forces in the capital.
The capital’s merchants took the streets on a day when the value of the rial plunged to 90,000 per dollar, a 28 percent depreciation since May 8, when the United States withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Over the past 12 months, the dollar has appreciated 140 percent from its June 2017 value of 37,500 rial to the dollar. Even before the United States pulled out of the deal, the rial was under so much pressure that Tehran restricted the purchase of dollars and sought to abolish all black-market currency trading. Now that the United States is out of the deal and sanctions are set to return, major multinationals are rapidly cutting ties with Iran. The list already includes General Electric and Boeing from the United States, Total and PSA from France, Siemens and Allianz of Germany, and Danish shipping giant Moller-Maersk.
Until the last weekend of June, Tehran had remained more or less calm; on June 24, protesters at the heart of Tehran’s political and economic center clashed with the anti-riot forces.
The protests may be the fruit of economic grievances, but the majority of the slogans chanted by protesters were sharply political. In addition to wishing “death to the dictator,” marchers declared they “don't want clerical government.” They have also praised the Pahlavi dynasty, a noticeable trend this year; protesters have chanted “Reza Shah! Bless your soul!” in almost every wave of protests since December.
The late June event in Tehran also showed that Iranians remain just as hostile to the regime’s foreign policy as they do to its repression at home. On June 25, Tehran witnessed a rare event in the Middle East. Protesters chanted “Death to Palestine,” a total rebuke of Tehran’s obsession with destroying Israel and funding Hamas. The marchers also changed “Death to Syria” and “Leave Syria! Think of us!” in addition to the now Iranian classic slogan “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon! I give my life for Iran!”
Compared to the Green Revolution of 2009, which mainly saw middle-class protesters take to the streets in the capital, today’s protests are spread across the country and include lower-income Iranians. In Tehran, it seems that middle- and lower-income Iranians have joined together. When U.S. sanctions go back into full effect, upper-middle-class Iranians who lose their economic privileges will likely become more inclined to join the protests. Already, the upper-middle class is losing its ability to travel abroad comfortably because of the restrictions on currency trading, since the rial is worthless in most countries. Likewise, the recently proposed import bans will eliminate access to a wide range of foreign goods that are part of the upper-middle-class lifestyle, such as foreign-made cars, branded clothes, high-end food products, and home appliances.
The Trump administration insists it is not pursuing a policy of regime change, but the United States should act decisively at this moment of vulnerability to undermine the regime’s finances while publicizing its corruption and atrocities. These actions would not involve the use of military force in any way, but they would give the people of Iran a real chance to have a government of their choosing.
The Iranian people and the United States have a mutual interest in seeing an end to the misery that this regime has brought to Iran. U.S. national security would also benefit tremendously from an end to the regime’s quest for nuclear weapons and its aggressive destabilization of the region, including support for terrorism.
The focus of Washington’s economic pressure should be to cut Tehran’s oil exports and its access to hard currency through the international financial system. The United States should also provide technical support to the Iranian people to bypass the internet censorship imposed by Tehran, which restricts access to social media platforms that are key to organizing demonstrations.
Another important step is to restructure VOA Farsi and Radio Farda, the U.S. government-funded Persian language media, to help pro-democracy forces by providing wide coverage of their activities and the regime’s abuses. Over the past few years, Farda and VOA Farsi have lost ground to rivals such as Manoto TV and BBC Persian, Even worse, the latter provided coverage that was favorable to President Hassan Rouhani, while advancing the false narrative that he is a reformer.
As the protests gain momentum, the U.S. intelligence community can focus on facilitating the defection of regime officials, while encouraging them to provide public evidence of its crimes against the people.
Iranians are the most pro-American people in the Muslim world, yet they are saddled with its most anti-American regime. Missing the chance to correct this historic mistake would be unpardonable.
Saeed Ghasseminejad is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @SGhasseminejad. The views expressed are the author's own.