Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ended 2017 with a taunt that he may live to regret.
In response to the Trump administration’s adoption of a hardline policy toward the Islamic republic, including the refusal to certify the nuclear deal, the Ayatollah declared that like Ronald Reagan, President Trump would fail against Iran: “Reagan was more powerful and smarter than Trump, and he was a better actor in making threats.”
The ayatollah bragged that Iran has made great advances in all areas in the decades since Reagan. “This trend will continue under the current American president and any hopes on their part that the Islamic Republic would back off or weaken is futile.”
But while the ayatollah may wish to revive the myth of the United States as the Great Satan, portraying Reagan, and now Trump, as war criminals conspiring against Iran, the Iranian people continue to chafe under the tyranny and corruption of decades of clerical despotism.
With a new wave of protests against corruption and inflation spreading across Iran, including religious centers such as the shrine cities of Qum and Mashad, as well as conservative provincial towns that were once regime strongholds, the ideological, political and economic foundations of the Islamic Republic appear to be unravelling.
The ayatollah’s attempts to blame the protests on foreign conspiracies by Iran’s enemies has not stopped reformists and hardliners from blaming each other for grave failures of governance: the epidemic of corruption, unemployment and inequality ravaging Iran.
After almost 40 years of promising the Iranian people nothing short of an Islamic utopia, the Iranian people are harvesting the bitter fruits of the ayatollah’s “economic jihad.” The regime can’t explain why millions of Iranians can barely afford basic commodities like eggs when billions of dollars are squandered for IRGC’s military campaigns in support of the Syrian regime.
As with Reagan before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Trump appears to have recognized the stakes. While candidate Trump appeared to tar all Muslims and Iranians — including Iranian-Americans — as terrorists, President Trump seems to be aligning himself with the Iranian people. On Jan. 1, he tweeted: “Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”
Trump’s tweets — his support for the Iranian people’s basic economic and political rights — are a welcome break from the stultifying silence accompanying the Obama administration’s singular obsession with a nuclear deal.
But if Trump is sincere in his support for the great Iranian people, then he cannot label or treat the Iranian people — a nation that holds the key to the collapse of Islamic fundamentalism — as terrorists and extremists driven by hatred and enmity for the United States, or the West. In the struggle against tyranny and terrorism, Iranians are our allies and friends. The Iranian people’s struggle against imperialism and fundamentalism is every bit as noble and glorious as our nation’s own battle for independence and, later, stand against communism.
Instead of threatening the Iranian people with sanctions and war — a policy that allows the ayatollah to blame the United States for Iran’s economic and political decline — Trump can draw on Reagan’s sunny optimism: his innate faith in the power of human freedom and dignity. He should join millions of Iranians in calling for an end to clerical rule and the abolition of the office of Iran’s supreme leader.
Nothing imperils the ayatollah’s rule more than a vision and a plan for a free, prosperous, secular and sovereign Iran at peace with its neighbors, a vision not only of the future but of a past that decades of fundamentalism has failed to extinguish.
The bonds of faith, family and friendship binding the Iranian and American people to each other stretch back to Iran’s constitutional revolution of 1906 — not the hostage crisis of 1979. No amount of hatred and enmity can erase this history.
Khosrow B. Semnani, an Iranian-American philanthropist and Utah resident, is the author of “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble” and the founder of Omid for Iran.