Iranians in Tehran and beyond have been in the streets for nearly two weeks, protesting the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after she was arrested for wearing her headscarf too loosely. As with the many other anti-government protests in Iran over the last decade, Western hopes are high that this time it will be different, that a younger and more liberal generation of Iranians will finally succeed in overthrowing or at least significantly reforming the oppressive theocratic state that has controlled the country for nearly half a century.
I'm not sure those hopes will be realized, as much as I share them. But however these protests go, I do feel confident saying this: They do not vindicate "maximum pressure," the onerous sanctions regime instituted by former President Donald Trump when he withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and continued by President Joe Biden to this day. They do not prove that recent U.S. policy toward Iran has been moral or wise.
That's not to say maximum pressure has had no effects on life in Iran—far from it. U.S. policy has been very effective over the past few years in adding to ordinary Iranians' suffering, damaging our reputation as a trustworthy actor and exemplar of liberty, and ensuring that, if the Iranian government is indeed weakened or overthrown, the country will destabilize with a stockpile of enriched uranium it would not have had the deal remained intact.
The idea that broad sanctions will motivate ordinary people to demand positive changes from their governments makes sense on paper. If U.S. sanctions make people cold and hungry, and Washington explains that the cold and hunger will go away if only the government of the targeted country will do X, Y, and Z, then, it stands to reason, the people of that country will push their rulers to do X, Y, and Z. Facing mass discontent, the government will comply, and the sanctions will go away, and U.S. interests will be advanced via a win for democracy.
But in practice, broad sanctions rarely work this way. Indeed, research suggests they only rarely work at all. Targeted governments often have a strong sense of national interest which makes defying U.S. pressure worth the domestic turmoil it brings. Sometimes, as has happened in Iran, sanctions rally nationalist sentiment and strengthen hardliners by giving the public and their oppressors a common enemy in the United States. (People are not so stupid as to fail to realize that whatever reason is given for the sanctions, their direct cause is a decision in Washington.) And, often, the public has very limited power to force their government to change course, to do the desired X, Y, and Z. It's not as if Iranian protesters can simply vote out Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, renegotiate the nuclear deal themselves, or organize a national referendum doing away with the modesty laws that landed Amini in police custody.
And that raises another strike against the case for crediting maximum pressure with sparking Iranians' demands for more freedom: The instigating event for these demonstrations is about personal liberty, not shortages and financial hardship. Iranians do protest economic troubles, including over this past summer, often mixing critique of Tehran and Washington. The starting point here is different, though. Indeed, what makes this round of protests so tantalizing as the possible start of a new era is that they're about much more than shortages.
Yet if Iranians trying to liberate their own country were looking for a "well-wisher to [their] freedom and independence," the "benignant sympathy" of an example of governance better than their own, U.S. policies—maximum pressure, along with Trump's exit from the nuclear deal and Biden's unwillingness to make fairly minor timing concessions to restore it—have hardly situated us well for the role. Instead, rending that diplomatic framework has painted Washington as unreliable and capricious, more interested in exercising U.S. power than taking practical steps to advance peace, liberty, or stability.
And if these protests do succeed in toppling or significantly weakening the regime in Tehran, potentially placing it in open domestic conflict with parties as yet unknown, Trump's blow to stability should be judged even more egregious. Before the U.S. exit from the nuclear deal, outside observers confirmed Iran was compliant with its terms, which included strict limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium. Since 2019, however, after the U.S. withdrawal the previous year, Iran has gradually moved out of compliance with the deal as well, acquiring more than 10 times the permitted amount of uranium that it was allowed under the deal and enriching it to 60 percent instead of the permitted 3.67 percent.
If the regime were to fall, where would that material go? We don't know yet, but we do know Iran may be on the precipice of an internal crisis with an added element of risk which would not be a factor had U.S. policy not been so reckless.
At this stage, unfortunately, there's no easy way to undo the harm the Trump and Biden administrations have done here. It takes time to restore trust and reputation, and nuclear diplomacy remains in its four-year limbo. Aside from granting permission on Friday for Elon Musk to offer Iranians internet access through his Starlink technology, the Biden administration largely has not used its year and a half in office to lift sanctions that have made life measurably more miserable for the Iranian people. Now the administration is reportedly considering adding even more sanctions to signal its disapproval of Tehran's brutal response to the protests.
If the Iranian people win their freedom, it will be no thanks to Washington—no thanks to Trump, and no thanks to Biden.