AMAC Exclusive By: Aaron Kliegman
The disastrous evacuation of Afghanistan orchestrated by Biden and his foreign policy team is rightly dominating headlines this week. But as Kabul falls to the Taliban, Afghanistan may not be the only place in the Middle East where the Biden administration is bungling its response. Just across the border to the west, Iran has also been rocked with chaos for just over a month – although in this case it could work out favorably for the US, if only Biden can seize the opportunity.
Since July 15, the Iranian people have taken to the streets to protest against their government, a cruel and oppressive Islamist theocracy. Although demonstrations initially began in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan over water shortages and frequent blackouts, they quickly spread nationwide and have evolved into an all-out repudiation of the tyrannical Iranian regime, providing a potential opportunity for the Biden administration to step up pressure on the regime. But Joe Biden appears to be blowing it.
The extent of the water crisis which sparked the protests is shocking. In Khuzestan alone, more than 700 villages have difficulty accessing water. Many residents must rely on trucks sent by the government to get water. And according to the Iranian Department of Water and Sewage, at least 110 cities across Iran have been forced to ration their water this summer amid supply cuts.
To quote Kaveh Madani, the former Deputy Head of Iran’s Department of Environment and current Senior Fellow at Yale University, Iran is “essentially water bankrupt.”
Beyond its continued use of outdated agricultural and irrigation systems, the government also diverts water resources from one province to another without consideration for local populations. In 2018, for example, locals in Ahwaz, a city in Khuzestan Province, protested a regime plan, implemented by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, to reroute Karoon River, a major source of water in the area. The regime also diverted water from another river and undertook excessive dam construction. These projects drained several local lakes and ponds and increased pollution in the affected areas.
Around the same time in the city of Isfahan, located in central Iran, locals accused politicians of accepting bribes in exchange for allowing water to be diverted from their areas.
Regime insiders who control the contracts are always the ones who benefit the most when water is diverted. These same insiders also benefit the most from the hundreds of dams that have been constructed since the Iranian revolution in 1979, most of which were completely unnecessary.
Mohammad Hossein Shariatmadar, the head of Iran’s national center for strategic agriculture and water management, put it well in 2018: Iran is “only five years away from an all-encompassing water disaster as a result of five decades of mismanagement.”
In short, Iranians are angry. And they know who to blame — their corrupt and incompetent regime. But the ongoing protests aren’t just about water.
After initially focusing on water policies, frustrated Iranians across the country are now calling for the overthrow of the entire regime. Chants of “death to the dictator,” “[Supreme Leader] Khamenei, shame on you — leave Iran alone,” and “No Gaza, no Lebanon, my life for Iran” can be heard in towns and cities across the country — including Tehran, the capital.
This has become a familiar story. Back in December 2017, an earlier round of anti-government protests broke out across Iran. Initially focused on the regime’s economic policies, the demonstrations almost immediately turned political, and calls for the downfall of the regime became commonplace. The Iranian protests of 2019-2020 – in which at least 180 people died – were similarly sparked by government corruption and mismanagement, in particular a surprise increase in gas prices, and soon turned into anti-regime rallies.
The reason why this keeps happening is simple: The Iranian people want new government. They increasingly reject not only the clerical regime’s brutal rule, but also the existence of the current regime altogether. They want liberty and to restore Iran to its former place of prominence among the nations of the world.
President Trump recognized this fact and the brutality of Iran’s regime, which is why he loudly supported the Iranian people during each round of protests. He had moral clarity and saw the strategic benefit of weakening and distracting a hardened enemy.
President Biden, in contrast, has been largely silent on the current protests. Eventually, after weeks of unrest, Biden’s State Department released a brief statement supporting the right of the Iranian people “to voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable.” The Department also chastised Iran for its violent crackdown on the demonstrations. But the Biden administration, especially Biden himself, has effectively ignored what’s happening inside Iran.
You don’t have to look hard to find the reason why. Biden, like President Obama before him, is willing to overlook Iran’s belligerence and disregard for the Iranian people’s rights in hopes of securing a deal over the regime’s nuclear program. Indeed, Biden has made it clear he is hellbent on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, from which President Trump withdrew and which Iran now serially violates.
By all accounts, however, returning to the nuclear deal is increasingly unlikely, if not a lost cause. Negotiations are stalled, and Iran is content putting pressure on what it considers a weak Biden administration. But now, with momentum building against the regime inside the country, there could be an opening for the administration to take bold, decisive action to weaken Iran’s grip on region. The only question is, with the nuclear deal drifting out of reach, will Biden seize this golden opportunity?