Does U.S. President Donald Trump think Iranians are fools with goldfish memories, who cannot remember the CIA-sponsored coup in their country in 1953?
Does he also think other governments in this ancient part of the world were not alarmed by Trump’s tweet voicing support for Iranian protesters, perhaps with the exception of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates?
It is not necessarily because these governments support the regime of mullahs in Iran. And they do not necessarily support Iran’s military involvement in civil unrest in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, or reported weapons support to groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Hashd al-Shaabi.
No. They are worried that the U.S. policy of supporting military coups in Latin America and the Middle East from the 1950s to the 1980s may well be back with Trump, and the same thing may happen to their governments. They will therefore be more likely to take harsh measures to crush every democratic protest in their country, justified by Trump’s open intervention in Iranian affairs.
Perhaps Trump wants to satisfy the most aggressive wing of the Republicans in Congress by referring to the Iran Democracy Act of 2003. But public encouragement of protesters by the U.S. president (and also by the Israeli intelligence minister) only contributes to them ultimately being denounced in Iran as “foreign agents.” It will only damage the demonstrations against price hikes and unemployment at a time when huge budgets are given to the Revolutionary Guards to fight in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Protesters may also be exhausted by living under the strict rules of a theocratic regime in which women are granted little place.
Responsible Americans like Philip Gordon, who was the Middle East coordinator of former U.S. President Barack Obama, have voiced objections to Trump’s words. “High-profile public support from the U.S. government will do more harm than good,” Gordon wrote for the New York Times on Dec. 30, adding that it would be better for Trump to “keep quiet and do nothing.”
Iran was also the stage of widespread protests in 2009 over allegations of irregularities in the re-election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was closely in line with the country’s “Supreme” religious leader Ali Khamenei. The election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013, with his pledge of ending Iran’s isolation, led to the nuclear deal within the U.N. system, with the approval of the U.S. under Obama.
Trump and his anti-Iran partners in the Middle East may be hoping that protesters are crushed with maximum force, thus triggering more antagonism. But Rouhani is using the protests as an opportunity to weaken Khamenei and his use of the Revolutionary Guards as a foreign policy tool, thus undermining Rouhani’s efforts to secure more integration with the world. That is why he has praised Iranians’ “right to protest,” unlike Khamenei, and says they should see this as an opportunity to reform the system in Iran. It is state TV and state-run agencies – generally under Rouhani’s control - that are extensively reporting the widespread protests, which could certainly prompt envy for opposition groups around the world, including in Turkey.
For Rouhani, the protests could be presenting an opportunity to curb the hardliners in the regime – if of course Trump permits it and restrains himself from commenting too much. Khamenei on the one side (representing the hardliners of the Islamic regime) and Trump on the other side may well be the two biggest obstacles to Iranians who want to live and work in a freer country.
Let me also just add a footnote about the 1953 coup: It was staged by Shah Reza Pahlavi in cooperation with the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6 in order to protect his chair against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil resources.
Pahlavi ended up giving most of Iran’s oil riches to U.S. and U.K. companies, ruling his country under an oppressive, absolutist regime whose misdeeds were ignored by the West. His rule eventually came to an end with the Islamic Revolution in 1979, after which he was forced to escape to the U.S. and died in exile in Egypt the next year.