3. The economy plays a big role in the dissatisfaction.
In 2018, Donald Trump decided to pursue a high-risk, high-reward policy toward Iran. He exited a nuclear deal that Barack Obama had negotiated three years earlier, which had lifted many sanctions in exchange for Iran’s taking steps away from being able to build a nuclear weapon. Trump reimposed those sanctions and added new ones, betting that doing so would force Iran to accept a tougher deal and maybe even destabilize the government.
Over time, the sanctions — combined with Iran’s pre-existing economic problems — plunged the country into an economic crisis. “Many Iranians are struggling to make ends meet, thanks to an economy decimated by mismanagement, corruption and sanctions,” Vivian, who is The Times’s Cairo bureau chief, told me. “Some are even offering to sell their organs.”
In the past — say, when Rouhani first got elected, in 2013 — lots of Iranians felt genuinely optimistic that things would turn around, because Rouhani promised that the nuclear deal with the U.S. would help open up the economy and boost trade, along with getting the sanctions lifted. But the mood darkened when those benefits failed to materialize before President Trump scuttled the deal.
With the election of Raisi, a hard-liner who has spoken against returning to the deal and whose government hasn’t shown much flexibility in negotiations with Western powers over the last year, Iranians who had hoped for a recovery felt like there was no way things would improve.
Does all this mean Trump’s policy is succeeding? Many experts say it’s too soon to make that judgment. The policy has sharply raised the risk that Iran will soon have a nuclear weapon. And a week or so of protests does not mean Iran’s regime will collapse. If the regime does collapse, however, it will be fair to revisit Trump’s Iran legacy.
4. Biden is taking a tougher approach toward Iran than Obama did.
In 2009, during the last major wave of protests, Obama did relatively little to support them, out of a concern that Iran’s government could then portray the demonstrations as the work of foreign agitators.
This time, Biden is pursuing a more confrontational policy. “Part of the reason that there was a different kind of approach in 2009 was the belief that somehow if America spoke out, it would undermine the protesters, not aid them,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, who also served in the Obama administration, said on “Meet the Press” yesterday. “What we learned in the aftermath of that is that you can overthink these things, that the most important thing for the United States to do is to be firm and clear and principled in response to citizens of any country demanding their rights and dignity.”