Despite US President Donald Trump’s diplomatic gestures and postures, his invasive and radical policies against Iran do not appear to be either in line with or aimed at assisting the country’s civil society or promoting human rights and transition to democracy. Quite contrary to this, the Trump administration’s strategies toward Iran are aimed at harming and debilitating the country’s attenuated middle class and civil society. In other words, Iran’s educated urban middle class is deliberately and maliciously targeted by US sanctions and aggressive policies.
The middle class in Iran is the propeller of the civil society’s dynamism and progress. Traditionally, Iran’s middle class has been moderate, supporter of democracy and willing to interact with the international community. Moreover, at the time of political and economic stability, the middle class has been an advocate of free economy and political participation and proved to be capable of uniting and encouraging other social classes to take part in elections. This social class has managed to play a significant role in influencing the outcome of numerous elections in the country.
The middle class’s propensity toward incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and 2017 presidential elections is indicative of their determination to present a peaceful, tolerant and moderate image of their country to the world.
This social class supported and welcomed the performance of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the leadership of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran’s negotiations with P5+1, the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015, Zarif’s smiles and walks with John Kerry on the streets and, in general, the presentation of a different image of Iran to the global community.
Iran’s young and educated middle class was the architect of this positive and promising image. The country’s civil society was celebrating the creation of this new atmosphere in their hearts and in the streets, while the failure of the project of spreading Iranophobia, on the one hand, and promotion of Iran’s greater international prestige and legitimacy as well as prospects of sustainable development and greater attraction of foreign investors, on the other, could turn Iran into a more powerful state and make its middle class more hopeful and the policy of negotiation and interaction globally stronger. In addition, in case these scenarios had unfolded, Iran’s moderates and reformists could have gained greater popularity nationally and internationally.
However, this image was not something desired by the new governing team in the US – comprising Trump, John Bolton and Brian Hook, Saudi Arabia’s young and adventurous leader – Mohammed bin Salman – and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Therefore, the anti-Iran team concluded that greater stability will lead to the weakening of the securitized atmosphere in Iran, strengthening of the country’s middle class and, thus, presentation of a more positive image of the Middle Eastern state nationally and internationally. Therefore, the US put on its agenda withdrawal from the JCPOA, reimposition of severe unilateral sanctions and designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps as "a foreign terrorist organization" to intensify economic pressure on Tehran.
Despite Trump’s political and diplomatic gestures and postures, he firmly believed that Iran’s middle class was the main cause of the failure of the anti-Iran team’s project of spreading Iranophobia and hence they should be either victimized or punished!
Undoubtedly, Iran’s urban middle class is in danger and will definitely weaken further in case the sanctions’ noose is tightened. If put under greater economic pressure, the social class might become more conservative losing their critical and protesting voice. This, per se, will lead to the creation of a more uniform political atmosphere in Iran. In addition, in case the present situation lingers, the middle class could gradually lose their legitimacy and influence on political and economic spheres. At the same time, this situation could be exacerbated by the increasing power and influence of extremists and promotion of populism in the country. Since the middle class still has a lot to lose, they will become more distrustful of the West and more dependent on the establishment. Under such circumstances, Trump and his allies will leave the scars of their hands forever around the neck of Iran’s attenuating middle class.
* Giti Pourzaki (PhD) is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Islamic Political Thought, Research Institute of Imam Khomeini and Islamic Revolution, Tehran, Iran.