Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Recognizing the Limitations of American Influence in Iran

| Feb. 14, 2018

It is unsurprising that we once again observed brave portions of Iran’s citizenry taking to streets and squares across the country to demand accountability and change given that they have spent every day of their lives under the heavy weight of repression, corruption, economic inequality and decades of unaddressed grievances. It’s also unsurprising that the protests were followed by a wave of strong opinions from U.S. politicians and pundits about what the United States should do about them. Vice President Pence asserted in a  Washington Post op-ed that “the last administration’s refusal to act ultimately emboldened Iran’s tyrannical rulers to crack down on the dissent.” According to this view, it seems the explanation for the crackdown on the 2009 “Green Movement” protests in Iran can be found in Washington’s actions (or, more precisely, alleged inactions) and, by extension, the fate of this latest round of protests rests with the U.S. government. While U.S. statements and actions and, importantly, the context in which they take place can and do play an important role, many pundits are falsely assuming that the outcome of the protests is centrally dependent on the United States.

Similar false assumptions were made to explain the result of the 2011 protests that ended Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year reign in Egypt—and by some of the same people. In this case, however, the Obama administration was criticized for the opposite “crime”: failing to stand behind an authoritarian regime beset by popular protests. According to this line of argument, Mubarak’s pro-American regime could have survived the January uprising with U.S. support, thereby averting the chaos of the last several years and the ensuing degradation in U.S.-Egyptian relations. If only President Obama had stood behind Cairo during its time of need, then the United States would still have a reliable partner at the head of the Arab world’s largest country. As with Iran, the United States held in its power the ability to make or unmake a foreign government.

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For Academic Citation: Nowrouzzadeh, Sahar and Andrew Miller.“Recognizing the Limitations of American Influence in Iran.” The National Interest, February 14, 2018.