It was a reprise of the stick-and-carrot approach he took with North Korea — first threatening it with nuclear destruction, and then agreeing to a summit with the country’s leader he once derided as “Little Rocket Man.” President Trump, after threatening that if Iran persists in menacing the United States it “will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before,” reached out to the Islamic Republic, offering to meet its leaders “without preconditions.”
“I’ll meet with anybody,” the president said in Washington. “If they want to meet, I’ll meet. Anytime they want.”
Senior Iranian officials and military commanders dismissed Mr. Trump’s outreach and offer to talk as “a dream” and a contradiction to his having pulled the U.S. out of the Iran deal this past spring and renewed sanctions on Tehran. But the significance of the American offer was not lost on many of Iran’s citizens.
One media report quoted Jamshid Moniri, a 45-year-old building contractor who contended that his words summed up what many ordinary Iranians think, as saying, “Of course we should talk to Trump. What is wrong with talks? We’d be nuts not to talk to him.”
Another Iranian on the street, 50-year-old businessman Reza Asghari, asserted, “We can’t even make preconditions for direct talks. Who are we to do that? We need jobs, not more tension.”
His comment hints at why, when it comes to the U.S., at least part of the Iranian citizenry seems to no longer be on the same page as the clerics who control their country. It’s the economy, mullah.
The Iranian currency, the rial, lost 80 percent of its value over the past year — and continues to drop in value. Foreign investors have left to avoid the reimposed American sanctions.
Priced in rials, the costs of houses and cars have quickly doubled. People fear their wages in the Iranian currency could soon become practically worthless.
Ghader Safarzadeh, a taxi driver, calculated that with the rising dollar, a cab ride that last year earned him the equivalent of $5 now yielded him $1.50. “We can’t live like this for very long,” he said. “What should be first is the economic welfare of the people,” he added.
There have in fact been almost weekly low-level protests over prices or wages in various places in the country, and experts say that the demonstrations have the potential to spread if the economic freefall worsens.
Protesters have long complained of regime corruption and mismanagement that has led to severe water shortages and significant price hikes on basic foodstuffs. Another source of citizens’ ire is Iran’s generous spending on military adventurism in Syria and Yemen, while ordinary Iranians at home are suffering. Protesters in Arak were filmed shouting, “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon. My life for Iran!”
Israel — which is regarded by Iran’s leaders’ as the “little Satan” to the U.S.’s “big Satan” — has been addressing the Iranian public directly. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has used social media to speak to Iranian citizens, stressing that the hardships they endure are unnecessary and would be alleviated if their government would only abandon its geopolitical adventurist goals. In one video, PM Netanyahu unveiled a Farsi website created in Israel that contains “detailed plans on how Iranians can recycle their wastewater,” as Israel successfully does.
He continued: “Iranians shout ‘Death to Israel!’ and in response Israel shouts ‘Life to the Iranian people!’” and vowed that the “hatred” of a “cruel regime” would not stand in the way of “respect and friendship between our two peoples.”
All of which obviously bodes well for the possible pressure that might be brought to bear on Iran’s leadership, which claims to express the Iranian people’s will.
It would be naïve to imagine that anything like an about-face will be done anytime soon by Iran’s mullahcracy. But it isn’t unreasonable to take heart at the fact that the Iranian regime is under unprecedented pressure from both without and within. It may have brazenly rebuffed President Trump’s offer to engage in conversation. But unrest among its citizens is not something it can ignore indefinitely. And that’s a good thing.