Political Observation - Protests in Iran

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Political Observation - Protests in Iran

It has been a week since protests broke out in many Iranian cities, namely Tehran and provincial cities such as Mashhad, Kermanshah, and Nishapur. These demonstrations were spurred by harsh living conditions such as extreme poverty, unemployment (nearly 3.5 million jobless), high prices, inflation and tax increases. Perhaps, what distinguishes these protests, in particular, is that they began over economic grievances but soon took on a political dimension rejecting Iran's regional policies in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza.

At first, slogans raised by protesters read "Death to the dictator!" and "Death to Rouhani" in reference to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani who failed to achieve his campaign promises to eliminate unemployment and poverty in a country considered the second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia and the second largest gas exporter after Russia. Moreover, the frozen funds recovered by the Iranian government as a result of the nuclear agreement have had no effect on job creation for the unemployed, improving the standard of living for the poor nor investing in health and infrastructure projects in a country where half of its population lives below the poverty line. However, it appears to have been spent financing Iran's regional meddling. The politicized Iranian opposition at home and abroad exploited these events and took an active part in the demonstrations.

Thus, one may ask these questions: Does America have a hand in these protests? Will these demonstrations continue and become a popular uprising that will bring down the current regime or change it? Is Iran on the verge of an American Spring? The US has demonstrated its public support for the protests since the beginning through statements issued by the State Department declaring that “the United States strongly condemns the arrest of peaceful protesters”. With regards to the White House, President Trump tweeted on December 28th, 2017 the following: “Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad. Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including the right to express themselves. The world is watching!” In another tweet on December 31st, 2017, he wrote “…the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!"

In line with the new US strategy towards Iran, America’s support for these demonstrations goes beyond political and media support. It entails supporting the popular movement in order to bring it to the stage of reformatting the regime by relying on internal forces that demand change. And this is what the US secretary of State said in a congressional hearing on the 15th of last June stating: “Our policy towards Iran is to […] work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.”

The appointment of CIA chief Michael D’Andrea, known as "Ayatollah Mike", to head the agency's Iran Mission Center may mean that US President, Donald Trump, is leaning towards a policy of changing the regime in Iran by focusing on intelligence and logistical efforts to cooperate with opponents inside Iran and abroad. These demonstrations will only continue if they turn into an organised public force with clear political demands adopted by political forces at home and supported by one of the arms of the military or security forces in the state apparatus. Thus, the goal of these political forces is to establish a new Iranian Republic or at least transform the role of the clergy into a spiritual one and give broader powers to the head of state. And despite indicators that support this prospect such as protests spreading to many Iranian cities and talk about small splits in the army and the Basij forces, there is currently no political or military party able to pursue this option and ready to take over or lead the process of a change in leadership.

It is more likely that the regime will adopt new reforms in response to the popular movement, thus dividing these demonstrations and preventing the political opposition forces from turning them into a political uprising that is easy to direct towards America’s goals. But in parallel with this patchwork of reforms, the security and military forces will crack down on the leaders of these protests and conduct a large wave of arrests that should paralyze the demonstrations or limit their impact and reach. Choosing the second option, the Iranian regime played the cards of foreign meddling and American conspiracy against Iran as a means of distorting the demands of the protests and preventing them from taking a political dimension in relation to foreign agendas. With the exception of the PMOI and some supporters of the monarchy, no political party inside Iran has clearly adopted these movements to date, giving the regime an opportunity to separate between economic demands and political demands related to a change in the regime or its format.

In addition to countering these protests through the use of Basij and police forces, the regime also organized pro-government demonstrations in the streets, the first of which took place on December 30th 2017. The demonstrators raised slogans condemning the United States and Israel and reaffirming national unity in the face of foreign interference in the affairs of the country. It was clear from the emergence of these pro-regime demonstrations that the latter feared a loss of control and that the general public in Iran would think that what the opposition is doing is the beginning of a sweeping popular revolution similar to that of 1979. The US plans and desire to bring about regime change in Iran or affect reforms will not be achieved unless it has the ability to mobilize or neutralize a military sector capable of upsetting the loyalty to the current regime and thus supporting these popular movements in addition to contacting known political entities internal to the regime or external that can be responsive to American demands but appear to reflect the people's aspirations for change.

However, if the mullahs succeed in keeping the balance of military power in their favour through the allegiance of the army, the Revolutionary Guard and the rest of the security forces and if the regime succeeds in responding quickly to the economic demands and then separating these demands from the political agendas of the opposition parties (the PMOI and the supporters of the monarchy), the United States will fail in changing the current Iranian regime. Based on what was discussed above, it is more likely that at this stage, this wave of protests and demonstrations (even if the territory of Azerbaijan joins the movement) will not reach the phase of affecting a radical change in the regime unless an internal party can lead the street to civil disobedience that paralyzes the country or an important part of it, or unless it has military or security power with foreign support from US intelligence, similar to what happened in the Khomeini coup against the Shah.

The lesson learned from the current Iran protests lies in the fact that even though the Iranian regime (ever since Khomeini took power in 1979) has supported most of America's plans in the region, starting with the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and now the occupation of Syria, that hasn’t stopped the United States and its intelligence services from seeking to change the regime in order to make it more obedient and amenable to the implementation of what the US foreign policy requires within Iran and the region.

After the relative stability of Iraq and Syria and the US transfer of ISIS from the Arab countries to Afghanistan and Central Asia as a means to pressure Russia and China, it seems that the time has come to bring about changes in the regime in Tehran, enabling the new structure to advance its internal plans such as reducing the powers of the mullahs, federalism and regional projects such as Greater Kurdistan, normalization with Israel and full compliance with what the US wants in its relations with Russia and Turkey. All of these are necessary to implement the Greater Middle East Initiative with the aim to maintain US hegemony in the region for the rest of the century.

Although shaking Iran’s relative stability will provide its politicians with the pretext to readjust some of their interventions in the region, seeing as the government in Tehran is in an obvious state of embarrassment after its interventions in some areas have reached a point that goes against the requirements of a US policy that has already paved the way for its interference and pushed them towards it. In Syria, for instance, the presence of Iranian or Iranian-backed militias is in conflict with the political settlement that the Syrian crisis is fast approaching, especially after the establishment of the de-escalation zones, and the fact that the Syrian army and Iranian militias are approaching areas where the Syrian Democratic Forces are present does not align with the US desire to establish a Kurdish state. Therefore, Tehran may find a pretext to ease up its interference or end it altogether according to the internal situation, as well as its interventions in Yemen after the issue of the two Riyadh missiles and in Lebanon after Hariri's resignation.

In conclusion, after it has become as clear as the sun in broad daylight that the United States will abandon its agents or replace them with no regards to their long service if they are no longer useful, or if it is in their interest to discard them. Will those rulers who follow the secular unbeliever realise that they are walking in the steps of Satan himself, as Allah said: “And whoever takes Satan as an ally instead of Allah has certainly sustained a clear loss. Satan promises them and arouses desire in them. But Satan does not promise them except delusion. The refuge of those will be Hell, and they will not find from it an escape.” [4 - 119,120,121]

16 Rabi' al-Akhir 1439h
3 January 2018