Iran’s Non-Tahrir Moment

Rebecca Burns

The political class is cheering that, as the economy continues its tailspin and basic needs become unaffordable, the people are finally rising up — in Iran.

On Wednesday, hundreds demonstrated against the sinking value of Iran’s currency, which has sent prices surging. Merchants in Tehran’s central market closed their shops in protest, and hundreds advanced on Iran’s central bank, chanting anti-government slogans. The crowd was dispersed with batons and teargas, and police continued to patrol the city’s central bazaar on Thursday. 

That the Iranian rial hit an all-time low this week is, of course, partially the result of U.S.-led economic sanctions. Since a new round took effect in July, the prices of basic foodstuffs have reportedly been rising by the day. The unrest this week has led many politicians to applaud that sanctions against Iran are working—which belies the claim that they haven’t been about regime change from the beginning.

The stated goal for increasingly harsh sanctions, which target the country’s oil sales and financial transactions, is to force Iran to back off its nuclear program. Economic sanctions are often passed off as a softer form of coercion than military action, and are endorsed by many as an alternative to war. But there is little evidence that sanctions work to achieve their ostensible outcomes – instead, they often serve the foreign policy objectives of the powerful states implementing them.

In January, a U.S. intelligence official acknowledged to the Washington Post that regime collapse was one of the goals of sanctions in Iran, though the remarks were later qualified. Other supporters of sanctions in Iran have been quite forthright about both the the crippling effects of sanctions and what they’re intended to accomplish. In an endorsement in the New York Times, Nick Tough Love” Kristof laments the collateral human devastation that he saw while visiting Iran, but assures readers that we must remain focused on the big picture when it comes to things like sanctions and sweatshops:

The economy is breaking people’s backs,” a young woman told me in western Iran.

I regret this suffering, and let’s be clear that sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians more than senior officials. I’m also appalled that the West blocks sales of airline parts, thus risking crashes of civilian aircraft.

Yet, with apologies to the many wonderful Iranians who showered me with hospitality, I favor sanctions because I don’t see any other way to pressure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on power. My takeaway is that sanctions are working pretty well.

…No one can predict the timing, but Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have shown that unpopular regimes that cannot last, don’t.

Oddly, at their most blunt, advocates of sanctions espouse something akin to an accelerationist view of regime change: Once we make conditions bad enough — like by causing plane crashes, among other things — people will revolt against the hated government in question. Are we now seeing the beginning of an Iranian version of Tahrir Square, as submitted by the chattering classes?

Not necessarily. President Ahmadinejad was already doing a pretty good job of making things worse for the average Iranian by cutting oil and food subsidies, dismantling the private sector, and cracking down on trade unionists. But while deepening neo-liberalism in recent years has sparked a wave of wildcat strikes and and slow-downs in Iran, those demonstrating this week were members of the business class who have most often supported the country’s status quo.

Or, as put somewhat less delicately by commentator Daniel Dicker in the Huffington Post:

These are not Arab Spring”-like demonstrations of lower-class people seeking greater influence in the administration of their government and their lives, these are people with careers and money who are seeing their economy gutted by economic sanctions.

So far, the groups protesting inflation are primarily merchants and currency traders disconnected from either the democratic reform movement or Iran’s labor movement. External sanctions have served as the justification for intensifying crackdowns on activists in Iran, and have been denounced as collective punishment by leaders of the Iranian women’s and labor movements. They are unlikely to empower genuine movements for change, unless those movements are directing the strategy of economic isolation, as was the case in apartheid South Africa.

But trade and finance sanctions may work in another way: by peeling away the support of the business class that does not contest neo-liberal reforms but is seeing its ability to profit from them harmed. It’s a lot easier to imagine a U.S.-friendly Iran emerging from this context than from an actual popular rebellion. Sanctions against Iran are not really an alternative to war — they are another way of achieving the same ends.

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Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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