Brian M Downing
Protests in Iran are in their fifth day and so far 14 people have been killed. The demonstrations changed from bread and butter issues to calls for an end to theocracy. The lifting of sanctions, partial though it was, brought expectations of more jobs, higher incomes, and less inflation. Two and a half years later, the economy has not done so well, inflation remains high, and hopes of more comfortable lives have been dashed.
The nuclear deal also brought hopes for a more open political system. Those too have been dashed. The regime’s stance was signaled even before the nuclear deal was inked when public pronouncements and state-sponsored media intensified their anti-American rhetoric. Since then, the mullahs and generals have moved closer to Russia and China whose governments are similarly ill-disposed toward democracy – and the US. The election of Donald Trump and the reemergence of neoconservatives in government sealed the matter.
Demonstrators complain that the government is spending too much on wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. More attention, they contend, should go to domestic problems. The same sentiment was expressed five years ago when Libyans took to the streets to denounce Qaddafi’s subsidies to foreign countries. Protests led to repression, then to open warfare and foreign intervention. Iranians and some foreign observers see the protests as a chance for political change. Some foreign powers will see them as an opportunity to weaken the Iranian government and perhaps even bring it down.
The mullahs and generals face a dilemma. If they do nothing, the protests will continue to spread and intensify. Too much, and the same thing can happen, only more so. Neither the religious nor military leaders are opposed to using force on their people. It will be all the easier if leaders believe the crowds are not acting on their own.
The leadership publicly blames the protests on foreign powers – the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Hardly implausible, but security officials see foreign intrigue all around them. Add in a measure of fundamentalism and numerous assassinations and bombings, and you have institutions steeped in near paranoia.
It’s unlikely, however, that the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia orchestrated protest movements in one let alone several cities. It’s much more likely that urban middle classes have simply had it with their theocratic-military rulers’ privileges and corruption.
The state’s repressive capacity is probably intact. The IRGC and their Basij militias (mainly working-class toughs) quashed protests after the rigged election of 2009 and are likely gearing up to return to the streets in coming days.
The regional conflict
Iran’s enemies in the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are calculating ways to use the turmoil to their advantage in the ongoing sectarian wars. First, they may encourage Kurdish and Baloch insurgents to launch sympathetic attacks which would add to the regime’s woes and expenses. Second, there are terrorist organizations such as the MeK and various Arab and royalist cells that could also strike.
Third, foreign powers could increase Iran’s expenses in foreign conflicts, which are an important stated grievance in the protests. Attacks on the Houthis in northern Yemen, perhaps in the form of cross-border strikes, and on Hisbollah in Syria, perhaps by IDF and US aircraft, would force Tehran to funnel more money to them or risk a weakening international security situation. This of course would take money away from domestic programs or require higher taxes. This seems the most likely and effective option, though results will be scant in the short-term.
Iran’s only source of financial help is China. Beijing could extend loans or increase its imports, but too much of either risks alienating China’s other energy sources in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. Beijing is more likely to call for calm and continue buying from both sides.
Iran can respond to foreign actions, especially if they are inside the country. The IRGC could assassinate leaders of ex-pat movements. Indeed, a campaign may have begun with the killing of a separatist leader in the Netherlands last November.
Iran could also encourage Shia protests in Gulf countries. Sunni oppression in the last few years has been so irritating that little encouragement would be needed. Arms and explosives could flow in and Sunni powers could themselves face greater domestic worries and dwindling coffers.
Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.