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).

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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. Then irony is that than continued sanction discord get and prevent the adaptive changes. If Iran is blocked from participation in intl financial marlet’s it can’t implement and abide by international financial transparency and accounoting standards. Sanctions help.empower the wrong people. But let’s face it, the proponets of sanctions don’t care what’s good for Iran, or really the US as a while rather they have their own mostly ideological ax to grind with respect to Iran since continued animosity with Iran does not really promote any US interests but harms many.

  2. Excellent comments. Unlike Trump, I believe the way to bring about change would be for the West to have an open relationship that allows the people to come and visit (and some might overstay). Sanctions are a blunt instrument, unless they are against specific individuals. Too often the regime has been able to control the message by keeping things in a box. Let the people see what goes on outside their country and a number of them will have a better idea.
    Just a day ago, India tested a nuclear capable ballistic missile. There was not a word from anyone objecting or threatening to place sanctions.

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