| May 18, 2022 06:00 AM
In 2009, Iran erupted. Iranian elections have never been free in the Western sense: The clerical regime carefully vets who can run and often eliminates more than 98% of the candidates before the first vote is cast. Still, Iranians were outraged when the regime blatantly changed vote tallies to ensure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s corrupt, Holocaust-denying president, got a second term. Protests erupted in every province, every major city, and most large towns. Iranians not only denounced Ahmadinejad, but they also condemned Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and called for an end to the Islamic Republic.
As the protests stretched from days to weeks, Iranians grew frustrated with then-President Barack Obama’s muted response, often chanting, “Obama, Obama, you are either with us or against us.” Only subsequently did it emerge that Obama sought to downplay any support for the protesters because he did not want to endanger his secret outreach to Khamenei. This led to a series of negotiations and hostage ransom that replenished Iran’s treasury and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Today, President Joe Biden has a rare opportunity for a do-over. Anger is boiling in Iran at increasing bread prices. The Russia-Ukraine war has disrupted much of Iran’s wheat imports, which had reached record levels even before the war. Much of the shortfall in domestic grain production, meanwhile, is due to regime corruption. The river ran dry in Isfahan last year, for example, not because of climate change but rather because the regime dispensed no-bid contracts to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-owned companies to build unnecessary dams solely for the profit of the military.
During Nowruz celebrations for the Persian New Year, many Iranian city dwellers left home because raising prices and food scarcity — chicken is also in especially short supply — meant they could no longer offer the traditional hospitality that marks the holiday. Rumors, meanwhile, circulate on Iranian social media that the Iranian government is about to implement bread rationing. The government, for its part, rails against the bakery profiteers and promises subsidies to the poorest.
Bread riots have long been a third rail in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. Wheat shortages due to heavy snow forced the regime to deploy security forces across several northern provinces in 2008, while slashing subsidies led to deadly riots in Egypt in 1977 and again 40 years later. Many Iranians do not understand why they lack wheat when Khorasan, Iran’s northeastern province, has traditionally been a breadbasket for the region.
There has always been a socialist component to the Islamic Revolution. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini and those surrounding him melded Islamism with various Marxist influences. The regime promotes a command economy while often rooting its decisions in an amorphous concept of social justice. Today, however, Iranian leaders have difficulty distracting the public with the rhetoric of class warfare when poor Iranians see the leadership rather than the disappearing middle class as the source of the problem.
Iran is a tinderbox, and rising bread prices and shortages could be the spark that sets off the conflagration.
As Iranians protest the regime that has failed to keep its promises and transformed Iran into an international pariah, the question for Biden is whether he will repeat Obama’s mistake and turn his back on the Iranian people in order to grease a process with the regime they hate. Alternately, he can stand aside and declare that the Iranian people have the same right to freedom and liberty as the Ukrainian and American peoples do.
Should Iranians control their own destiny, the nuclear impasse will fade away — first because it is the ideology of the regime that threatens and second because, economically and from an energy standpoint, there is no logical reason for Iran to invest in nuclear energy.
Let us hope that, as Iran erupts, Biden is farsighted enough to see the big picture and not repeat Obama’s mistakes.
Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.