Analysis |

Iran's Protests Are Just What Trump Wants. So Why Is He Silent?

The U.S. could've helped Iran's demonstrators – whose anti-government protests are echoing in Iraq and Lebanon – but chose not to

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Iranian protesters gather around a fire, Tehran, November 16, 2019
Iranian protesters gather around a fire, Tehran, November 16, 2019Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The news from Iran is trickling in. The authorities in Tehran have blocked access to the internet, which has been functioning, according to several assessments, at 5 percent of its capacity. Even so, the mass protests over fuel price hikes seem to be gaining momentum and spreading to many cities around the country. Journalists and activists involved in the demonstrations are describing systematic vandalism of banks, hundreds of arrests and some deaths (about 20, according to one report), among them a policeman who died when a police station was attacked by protesters.

>> WATCH: Iran rocked by protests, as images of Khamenei set on fire, banks burned

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 49Credit: Haaretz

The current wave of demonstrations isn’t the first of its kind. In 2009, the regime brutally suppressed the “green revolution” – weeks of rioting, triggered by claims that the presidential election that year had been rigged. In late 2017 there was another surge of unrest sparked by economic problems, but it ebbed within weeks.

If there’s one realm in which the regime in Tehran has demonstrated its proficiency over years, it’s the systematic, unrestrained oppression of any attempt at mass resistance that could undermine its stability.

When the so-called green revolution eventually petered out, accusations were levelled at the Barack Obama administration. The American president was still new on the job, when he spoke at Egypt's Cairo University – a week before the Iranian election, on June 12, 2009 – about the need for changes in the United States' relations with the Arab and Muslin world. But then Washington fell silent as the Iranian security forces arrested, tortured and killed protesters participating in the revolution that erupted after the election.

The Trump administration seems to be no more involved, at least for the time being. The president is preoccupied with tweeting against the Democrats, who have begun impeachment proceedings against him, and hasn’t had a chance to make time for Iran-related matters.

The United States should not intervene itself in the unrest that's going on at present, but if it had perhaps examined in advance ways to circumvent the internet block in Iran – it might have rendered a needed service to opponents of the regime. Their efforts at coordination and their ability to drum up support for their struggle (mainly, by documenting dramatic moments during the protests) depend to a great degree on whether the internet is functioning at a reasonable level.

The U.S. administration’s apparent indifference to developments in Iran, thus far, is surprising, because the harsh economic sanctions Trump has been spearheading, particularly since the American decision in May 2018 to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, have exacerbated Iran’s economic travails. Trump has been castigated – including by Israel, albeit not openly – for his decision to ignore Iranian attacks over the last half year against targets in the Gulf, culminating in the attack on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities last September.

Yet, in contrast to his intense recoil from military entanglement in the Middle East, Trump adores sanctions and believes they can have an effect. A new wave of demonstrations in Iran, on the backdrop of the economic distress there, only bolsters his case.

The protests in Iran are related, at least indirectly, to the demonstrations taking place against the two pro-Tehran governments in the region – in Iraq and Lebanon.

In Iraq, more than 300 people have been killed, most of them protesters shot by Shiite security forces and militias. In Lebanon the protest has tended to be nonviolent, but it has still been a source of grave concern for the Hariri government, and particularly for the secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. In both countries, what began as unrest driven by the dangerous state of the economy and endemic corruption has been assuming a more anti-Iranian hue.

The tense situation in Iraq is surely being bolstered by the story that appeared in both The New York Times and the website Intercept on Monday morning, revealing about 700 pages of secret documents and correspondence by Iranian intelligence about their covert activities in Baghdad. The trove of papers describes an effort by Tehran to penetrate all layers of Iraqi society, to influence its government’s actions and to persuade Iraqi agents who worked with the Americans to defect to Iran.

Not surprisingly, the reports ascribe particular importance to the activities of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds brigade – who is also in charge of all operations against Israel. About two months ago the Israel Defense Forces' intelligence branch updated its assessment and stated that Tehran is trying to establish a new “equation” in its balance of forces vis-à-vis Israel, and would henceforth try to avenge any significant action threatening Iranian interests or Iran’s allies in the region.

A protester hits a poster of Qassem Soleimani with a shoe during anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 3, 2019Credit: ,AP

Based on reports in the Arab media, there has been a relative lull in the last two months in Israel’s attacks on targets associated with Iran, in the framework of what's referred to as the “battles between wars.” Last month Iranian lawmakers accused Israel of responsibility for the attack on an Iranian tanker in the Red Sea. Last week there was an attempt to assassinate Akram al-Ajouri, the No. 2 man in Islamic Jihad, in Damascus. A missile was fired from the air at his house and his son was killed. Islamic Jihad, which is funded by Iran, has reported that Ajouri himself survived the attack, which it blamed on Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is busy fighting an attempt by the Kahol Lavan party to build a coalition – has in recent weeks frequently mentioned the security threat emanating from Tehran. He even claims that the severity and urgency of those threats is keener than before.

For its part, in light of those threats, the IDF has in recent days been making some changes regarding its defensive abilities. On Monday morning the army announced a surprise exercise by the Northern Command. Its aim, the army explained, is to test the Northern Command’s “preparedness and military capabilities.” This is the second in a series of similar procedures ordered this year by the chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi. The announcement Monday lacked the usual clichéd explanation – that the exercise had been planned in advance within the framework of the IDF's annual training schedule.

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