The resignation by Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and the public response that hastened Iran’s political elites to demand he stay in office, strengthened the hand of the architect of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. But this incident also reinforces an important point: the nuclear agreement itself is a reflection of the popular will of the Iranian people.
Much has been said of the hypocrisy of the Trump administration’s claims to support democracy and sympathize with the plight of the Iranian people. Critics highlight the administration’s reimposition of sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians, as well as its approach to Saudi Arabia and National Security Advisor John Bolton’s support for the MEK—a cultish group formerly listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and that is overwhelmingly despised inside of Iran. Less is said, however, about how the administration’s very act of withdrawing from the JCPOA subverts the prospect for peaceful democratic change inside Iran.
Make no mistake, Iran is no democracy. At its essence, democracy is a system of governance in which “the people” rule. Levels of democratization vary throughout the world and Iran is a case in which the concept of democracy is complex and sometimes misunderstood. Iran’s system of governance exists in a dual state: one marked by a government of elected officials, and the other marked by an unelected ruling class embodied by the Supreme Leader. While the supreme leadership in Iran undercuts the ability of the elected government to carry out its duties unhindered, a civic society persists in spite of such great obstacles. As a consequence of this dual nature, Iran’s government cannot be considered democratic. However, since some of the features of representation do exist, Iranian citizens have engaged the system and staked their claim in the political sphere.
Millions of Iranians participate in election cycles, casting their ballots with the hope of government accountability. Iran’s elections are often marred by the Guardian Council disqualifying candidates.The Islamic Republic has also been credibly accused of voter fraud, most notably during the 2009 presidential elections, during which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared victor despite tremendous public support for the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. When protestors took to the streets in the ensuing Green Movement, their rallying cry was “where is my vote?” With this rebuke, protestors called on the government to recognize their rights and admonished officials by highlighting their participation in a democratic process.
Iranians wanted the JCPOA, the lifting of sanctions, a détente with the U.S., and an open society integrated with the international community.
Though Green Movement protests were violently extinguished, Iranians took to the ballot box again in strong numbers in 2013, shocking observers and Iran’s political elite by electing another reform leaning candidate, “the purple cleric,” Hassan Rouhani. The connection between Rouhani and the Green Movement was clear: image after image depicted his supporters donning the colors green and purple together. These forces were understood to be part of an ambitious evolution in Iranian politics towards a more representative system of governance, especially one that would bring Iran into the international fold.
During his first term, Rouhani’s key initiative was the JCPOA, which was celebrated in the streets of Iran and helped facilitate more reformist victories in the 2016 legislative elections. In 2017, with more than 70% of eligible voters turning out, Rouhani easily took the presidential election. These elections provide further evidence that Iranians were eager to reaffirm their support of the JCPOA, Rouhani’s crowning achievement. This victory also stood as a rejection of Donald Trump’s election in the United States and the new administration’s approach toward, and ultimate withdrawal from, the deal.
Events surrounding the resignation and return of Foreign Minister Zarif is the latest indicator of popular— even democratic—support for the deal.
Events surrounding the resignation and return of Foreign Minister Zarif is the latest indicator of popular— even democratic—support for the deal. Zarif is one of Iran’s most popular political figures, precisely because he favors dialogue with the West and was critical to securing the JCPOA. Though polling shows a decline in public support for the deal given the lack of promised economic relief, a majority of Iranians still favor the JCPOA. Moreover, a strong majority continue to support Zarif, favoring his statesmanship over the obstinate discourse of hardliners. Zarif used Instagram, a public platform, to announce his resignation in order to leverage popular will and hold the regime accountable. The episode solidified Zarif’s position and displayed the determination of the Iranian people in safeguarding diplomacy and emphasizing the merits of the JCPOA.
If the U.S. is genuine in its promotion of democracy, then we must embrace it, even in its smallest doses. The political participation of Iranians, their celebrations of the historic nuclear deal, and their current despair, signals their desires. Iranians wanted the JCPOA, the lifting of sanctions, a détente with the U.S., and an open society integrated with the international community. It was President Trump that dashed those hopes and hampered Iran’s civic society by undermining its democratic objectives.
What is even more disconcerting is what has happened in Iran since Trump’s decision to abrogate the deal. The U.S. betrayal of its JCPOA obligations vindicated Iran’s most autocratic elements. The Trump administration’s actions have cast the United States in the same demonizing light long touted by hardliners, handed Iran’s despots a golden opportunity to weaken reformists, and revealed the U.S.’ abandonment of an Iranian populace that risked everything for an olive branch.