National security adviser John Bolton reportedly asked the Pentagon to plan potential military strikes. President Trump, meanwhile, declared, “We ask all nations to support Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.”
While history shows pressure can force some regime restraint, it has never been enough to empower the Iranian people. Despite high hopes in the West, neither Iranian reformers nor the Green Movement has ever amounted to much for a simple reason: The Islamic republic’s security architecture is designed to squelch them.
How then has change come to Iran? History provides some lessons. Mass protest is neither new to Iran nor enough. When the shah sought to raise money by granting monopolies to foreign interests in the 1870s and 1890s, outraged Iranians engaged in mass civil disobedience. Decades later, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq’s willingness to encourage mob violence against his opponents and whip up anti-shah fervor convinced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (and the CIA) that the left-leaning populist had to go. In the post-Islamic revolution period, Iranians have poured into the streets to protest in 1999, 2001, 2009 and 2018. After each protest, the Iranian leadership simply weathered the storm and then tightened its grip.
Change is possible, however. Among the many uprisings, there have been two successful revolutions: The 1906-1911 Constitutional Revolution constrained the shah’s absolute power and created Iran’s parliament, while the 1979 Islamic revolution ended the shah’s rule in favor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran. What separated those two successes from failed mass movements before or after? Organized labor.
Consider the Constitutional Revolution. British scholar Edward G. Browne chronicled the Constitutional Revolution from its midst. When in 1905 the autocratic shah traveled to Russia, the Grand Bazaar in Tehran — the economic engine of the country — closed for five days. “What can [the shah] do in [the] face of the menace of a general strike and riots?” he quoted one correspondent at the height of the struggle. “The Government had to climb down and grant all that was asked of them.”
Seven decades later, it was wildcat strikes across Iran, and especially in its oil fields, that tipped the balance away from the shah. Indeed, while reflecting on his fate following his ouster, the shah acknowledged that anger in the Tehran bazaar and its subsequent strikes helped the revolution succeed.
This explains why the Islamic republic has been so hostile to trade unions. For its first 25 years, its repression succeeded. Then, in 2005, Mansour Osanlou organized bus drivers upset with working conditions and benefits. As the regime denied any strike, millions in Tehran waited for buses that never arrived. Repression and Osanlou’s arrest only accelerated the protests. Ultimately, the regime gave in to their demands. Soon after, sugar cane workers in the oil-producing Khuzestan region also organized.
The George W. Bush administration missed its Lech Walesa moment, but Trump has a second chance. In December 2017, Iranians took to the streets to protest regime corruption and economic mismanagement. Sanctions aside, Iranians question where the multibillion-dollar windfall from the nuclear deal has gone. In June 2018, the Tehran bazaar again went on strike, with merchants chanting, “We don’t want an incompetent Supreme Leader. We don’t want it.” Teachers and other protesters denounced regime terror support and foreign adventurism.
The Iranian public is angry. Strikes are frequent but limited in duration and scope. The reason is fear: On one hand, Iranians want change, but, on the other, they fear protracted action or government reprisals will leave them penniless and their families hungry. A strike fund could reassure them that, if they take to the streets, their families will not starve. And, while sanctions cost billions and military action even more, a strike fund can be measured in just millions.
Within Washington, it is an idea that should garner bipartisan support: Republicans can cite Ronald Reagan’s support for Gdansk shipyard workers, while Democrats already make support for labor a policy pillar. Europeans are essential due to their diplomatic presence in Iran. In an irony of history, Reza Pahlavi, whose father was overthrown in 1979, also endorses the idea as a key to enable nonviolent change. Other civil society activists concur.
What for Iranians is a matter of justice is, for the West, a national security urgency: Every rial the Iranian regime pays workers is one not invested in missiles or terror. Osanlou has already planted the seeds; now it behooves those with the means to water them.