Remember Those Protests in Iran?

by Paul R. Pillar

Accountability in policy debate in the United States is sorely lacking. One reason is the casual use of hypothetical alternative histories and of related assertions that by their nature cannot be proved or disproved. Arguments that policymaker X would have gotten a better result if he had only done Y instead of Z get repeated with an air of certainty even though they often are nothing more than evidence-free and analysis-free “woulda coulda shoulda” rhetoric.

Another reason is the short attention span of the public and the shifting of attention away from a subject before events have a chance to confirm or undermine assertions made about it. An old piece of advice to those predicting some catastrophe is to use a time frame of a few years—close enough to get people’s attention and to sell books, but far enough in the future that most people will have forgotten the prediction when it turns out to have been untrue. The same thing goes for predictions of something good. In the era of Donald Trump, when almost every day there is something new and outrageous to grab attention and to steer debate—such as over which particular scatological term the president used in the course of insulting more than one-fourth of the world’s nations—the optimum time frame for accountability-free predictive analysis has no doubt greatly shortened.

Both of these reasons are applicable to the debate about how to respond to the protests that broke out a few days before the turn of the year in the streets of Iran. A major theme of the Trump administration and its supporters, dominating their rhetoric from the first days of the protests, was that President Obama had erred in not reacting more strongly than he did to an earlier round of Iranian protests in 2009. The rhetoric was not clear about exactly what a different response would have achieved and how it would have achieved it, but it was certainly an example of the coulda shoulda mode of argumentation. Vice President Mike Pence was out front in declaring that the administration would not make the mistake of Obama’s “silence.” That assertion about silence was false; Obama was not at all silent about the protests. But Obama tempered his administration’s response to avoid giving credibility to Iranian regime accusations about U.S. interference.

Anyway, the most recent protests have died down, and it is not too soon to ask of Pence: “Well, Mr. Vice President, your side was in control of U.S. messaging and policy this time. The administration could say or do whatever it wanted in response to the protests. So what did the administration accomplish?”

The answer appears to be…nothing. Of course, the current U.S. leadership cannot be held responsible for every aspect of how protests in a foreign country have gone, any more than Obama was responsible for what happened in 2009. But to the extent there was a difference in how the two administrations handled these episodes—and in the end, there wasn’t much difference—the Trump administration’s response was no better in fostering civil and political rights in Iran than anything its predecessor did. And the protests this time have fizzled out, more quickly than they did the last time.

The Trump administration is ill equipped to pose as a friend of the Iranian people. In terms of sheer numbers, Iranians are the nationality that Trump’s Muslim travel ban has most adversely affected. Trump’s inconsistent record on human rights and fondness for authoritarian leaders remove credibility from his claim to be a champion of human rights in Iran, even if he adds credibility to the Iranian regime’s claims of U.S. interference in Iran’s internal affairs.

Also needing some accountability are those who proclaimed while the protests were ongoing that the Iranian regime was “on the brink” of collapse. Here the appropriate caveat is that incidents such as street protests can, together with similar incidents, have a cumulative effect over time, and a commentator might be right about a long-term process even if wrong about the timing of a collapse. But timing matters. Revolutions are rare events. Someone who continually cries that, with a little nudging, one is about to happen is offering a prognosis that is no more useful than that offered by someone who says a revolution will never happen and later claims to have been right most years.

Moreover, in this case the “on the brink” criers are probably wrong about both the process and the eventual outcome. Their predictions take no account of the regime’s willingness and ability to adapt, including adapting to the economic and political demands of their populace. President Hassan Rouhani has publicly acknowledged the legitimacy of some of those demands. Iranian leaders are not stupid, and like most political leaders elsewhere they would prefer to retain power. Yes, the effects of even once-a-decade protests are cumulative. But rather than some sudden collapse that sweeps away the Islamic Republic in one blow the more likely effects will be adaptive changes, at least some of which will be favorable from the viewpoint of an outside democratic observer.

The news cycle and the American public’s attention-deficit disorder, especially when amplified and distorted by presidential tweetstorms and other outbursts, work against holding to account those guilty of policy analysis malpractice. But we should try to apply accountability whenever the opportunity arises.

Photo: Mike Pence (Gage Skidmore via Flickr).

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. re: “American public’s attention-deficit disorder”
    I think the citizens get it.
    Reuters/Ipsos Opinion Poll – Jan 17
    –President Trump 39% approve
    –Congress 23% approve
    –America’s direction 30% approve

  2. Indeed, nothing came of it but this will still be held up as a rousing foreign policy success contrasted to Obama’s ‘appeasement’ just as his bombastic rhetoric towards N. Korea is hailed as a success.
    N. Korea is the country that has developed a miniaturized, two stage thermonuclear weapon and ICBM in Trump’s first year as President.

    It’s called style over substance, the blowhard Rush Limbaugh accuses liberals of taking credit for do nothing policies just to show they care but Neocons are the masters of such posturing.

  3. Regime-change enthusiasts have tried to rewrite the events of 2009 to suit themselves.

    The 2009 protests started because a presidential candidate named Mousavi had cried foul when election results showed Ahmadinejad had won a second term. Mousavi, the leader of the so-called “Green Movement”, was never able to show how or where this alleged election fraud occurred, as his own campaign monitors had signed-off on all the ballot box counts.

    Furthermore, considering that Mousavi was a hardline former Prime Minister who criticized Ahmadinejad for being too soft in nuclear talks with the US and who also campaigned on a promise to return the revolution to its “True Khomeineist roots”, not to mention that his candidacy had been vetted and approved by the same regime that supposedly engaged in massive election fraud to keep him out of office, there was really no need for any election fraud at all.

    Mousavi was not a threat to the system or a dissident, he was very much part of it. So the Green Movement was not a dissident, anti-regime movement though (as in the latest demonstrations) there were opportunists who tried to seize it. The actual reformist told the US to butt out wanted Obama to not get involved since foreign support would be deemed a “kiss of death” that discredits them as foreign pawns.

    All in all the Green Movement represented a small faction of reformists and was limited mostly to Tehran.

    Never the less, to this day, the Western media will spin 2009 as a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the regime, and then will spin these latest demonstrations as the “greatest challenge since the 2009 demonstrations” when in fact neither were particularly challenging to the regime (and in fact one of the complaints of the latest demonstrations were the govt removal of free cash payments made to the poor which led to inflation) while in reality Iranians as whole have in fact massively improved their living standards since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, thereby undercutting the claim that this was about economic deprivation.

  4. If we go back in history for about 40 years during every US president since Ronald Reagan, Iran’s regime has created their own phony uprising by their diehard supporters in order to identify and capture and sometimes eliminate the agents and/or sleeping cells of the US, Israel and most recently Saudi Arabia! Dr Hossein Zadeh, economic professor in US, is claiming that economic growth in Iran during Rouhai’s presidency has been much improved relative to Ahmadinejad’s time but it has more room to grow! Having known that, the recent uprising started in Mashhad which is one of the most conservative cities where Shias live started by the two religious leaders and it got out of control and very quickly the sleeping cells tried to exploit the situation! However, the individual agitators and the sleeping cells were left on street by themselves after the average people realized and found out of their intentions and went home! At the end the individual agitators, as the regime called the as agents, were caught! The identified cells were also discovered and removed!
    With such a complex society no wonder the west, the US in particular, US Media specifically Fox no News and many Iranians whom escaped Iran during revolution were dancing in joy in light of the protests in Iran! The escapees from Iran are still hopeful that they will return to Iran with the CIA help and will install Reza, the Shah’s oldest son, as their monarch again! What a joke for those who’d never forget 1953!?

  5. During the recent Iranian protests, there was nothing for the US to do. Or, Thank God! The US did not do anything. Whenever the US interferes in Iran (or any country for that matter), I grab my wallet. Because it is going to cost everyone, everything.

    Iranian freedom (If that is what they truly want) will unfortunately require Iranians to struggle for that freedom. Marching around the countryside chanting clever slogans on the streets of small towns, demanding everything from the return of the Shah to the departure of Khamenei never works. Because Marching never works. Chanting never works. Even hot Iranian girls “taking it off” (the gov’t mandated hejab) never works.

    What Iranians don’t seem to understand is you can’t change anything, if you don’t change anything. Marching and chanting slogans is what the Islamic Republic government taught them to do. They know it lets young people let off some steam, they can hang out with some girls, and that everyone will eventually get tired, and go home. Which minus a few arrests and public beatings, is essentially what happened.

    Iranians never have a goal in mind.
    Which should always be the immediate unconditional resignation of Khamenei.

    Iranians never have a Plan.
    Which should always be to march to Khamenei’s home in order to demand his resignation.

    And Iranians never have a strategy.
    Which should be to pile as many people (ideally 10,000-20,000) in and surrounding Khamenei and trapping him in his home. Make it logistically impossible for the security forces to physically remove 20,000 people, who are not throwing stones, not fighting back, and merely sitting down, singing and whistling all night so after 24-36 hours of it, fearing for his life, Khamenei actually quits. Because like most dictators, he is a shivering coward.

    As long as Iranians have no Goal, No Plan, and no Strategy, none of their so called “Protests” will ever achieve anything. They will continue to be sheep, and Khamenei will be their all too eager Shepherd. And sheep are always meant to be either slaughtered, or shorn.

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