Little has been really reported, but over the course of the last six months, across the Middle East, protests are shaking the pillars of power. In Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, people have taken to the streets to express frustration with corruption, mismanagement, and austerity. While the protest movements in each country are rooted in domestic concerns particular to that country, Iran, as one of the main outside backers of powerful elites in both Lebanon and Iraq, is at the foundation and the orchestrator of each crisis. The protests are a challenge to Iran’s legitimacy both regionally and within Iran itself. They constitute a severe political crisis that could have lasting strategic ramifications.
Tehran’s crisis of legitimacy will endure regardless of whether the present uprisings in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran itself are suppressed in the near term. While the Iranian leadership may not recognize it, the protests reflect a broader rejection of the Islamic Republic’s system of governance among segments of the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Iranian populations.
Iran’s playbook for responding to public concerns⏤repression, not concession, will only exacerbate the erosion of its standing over the longer term.
The targeted killing on January 3rd by a U.S. drone commendably killed the mastermind of Iranian aggression, Major General Qasem Soleimani, and upended Iranian assumptions about declining American power in the Middle East.
But this act by President Trump by itself, was likely intended to both restore U.S. deterrence, while at the same time create a pause and a roll back of Iranian power for a reason. Perhaps the strike quite likely was an intended opening salvo and impetus in a concerted strategy to bring about the internal regime collapse in Tehran.
In October and November 2019 Iran experienced its most significant turmoil in a decade by way of protests and demonstration in nearly 200 cities across the county. Similarly, and intentionally, U.S. sanctions orchestrated the decision by the regime to reduce subsidies on gasoline sparking mass demonstration across the country during that timeframe. From the cities of Mashhad to Ahvaz⏤Iranians have taken to the streets to express their anger at the policy change, which increased the price of a liter of gas by at least 50 percent. For a segment of the Iranian public, who are already suffering under economic stress again, due to stifling U.S. imposed sanctions and decades of economic mismanagement by Iran’s successive governments, the unexpected gas price hike was too much to take.
Further, Iran has witnessed episodic, if not generational, waves of protests. The student protests of 1999 and the Green Wave or Green Revolution protests in 2009 were similar in that both were fueled by reformist political hopes and triggered by regime injustice. With the University of Tehran as their epicenter, the 1999 protests were a collective explosion of frustration by students who had seen the unelected power centers of the regime routinely block the reformist promises of President Mohammad Khatami. Similarly, 10 years later, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets when the hardliner incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in an election marked by widespread irregularities and fraud. Although the protests began in condemnation of what was perceived to be a rigged election, the rhetoric of the demonstrators became more radicalized as the protesters were met with the violent suppression of police forces and Basij paramilitary units.
The slogan “death to the dictator,” a reference to Iran’s supreme leader⏤the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, became one of the hallmarks of the 2009 protest movement. In other words, what had begun as a pro-reformist movement which gradually took on anti-regime overtones, which unfortunately lacked U.S. support thanks to Obama biased support of the regime. By comparison, the protests in December 2017 and January 2018 showcased anti-regime sloganeering very early on. These demonstrations began as hardline-instigated demonstrations against the Hassan Rouhani government, but have quickly evolved into protests against Tehran and the Islamic Republic itself.
This year’s protests have moved the needle even further in the anti-regime direction. The crowds have adopted chants that include a mix of taunts against the supreme leader and even pro-monarchist sentiments. Their slogans are punctuated by the intermittent destruction of symbols of regime authority, including banks, and government offices. Protesters have also attacked statues of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, and offices and theocratic institutions affiliated with his successor, Khamenei.
In response, the Iranian government blocked access to the internet across most of the country. Without internet access, Iranians lost their main tools of organization (via apps like WhatsApp, Instagram, and even Twitter) and of communication with the outside world. As access has gradually been restored to parts of the country, images, stories, and videos of the violence used against Iranian civilians have started to emerge. I’ve discussed this over the course of the last month or so highlighting numerous reports and images of the IRGC’s Basiji paramilitary forces, i.e.; the regime’s version of the Gestapo and the NAZI SS firing into crowds from sniper positions, random shootings into rushing into crowds, as well as security forces swinging truncheons from the backs of motorcycles, and beating protesters indiscriminately⏤all have been posted to social media. At the same time, Iranians are sharing stories of friends and family members missing or confirmed dead. Early estimates already suggest upwards of 1,500 or more Iranians killed during that period.
Furthermore, the protests certainly signal that the collective impact on Iranian population because of the economic strain is beginning to take a toll on Iran’s social fabric, and quite likely are the early death throes of a collapsing regime. The decision to change the fuel policy was abrupt, and perhaps is more than impulsive.
The government is grappling with how to respond to an unrelenting campaign of U.S. economic sanctions. U.S. pressure has sent the economy into recession and skyrocketing inflation, with the currency has lost 60 percent of its value against the dollar.
On this harsh terrain, President Hassan Rouhani is trying to design a budget for next year that reduces expenditures and raises exports of other products that are difficult for the United States to sanction. This is where gasoline comes into play. Reform of gasoline subsidies has long been on the government agenda, and it makes sense from an economic perspective. Gas prices in Iran are among the cheapest in the world, at about $0.65 per gallon before the reforms. On the downside, artificially cheap gasoline fuels overconsumption, corruption, and smuggling⏤mainly to Iran’s neighbors, where the gasoline is much more expensive. At the same time, oil is sold in large quantities to faraway consumers using a complex system of shipping and insurance companies, ports, refineries, and banks⏤providing U.S. authorities ample opportunities to stop transactions.
Ironically, coercion remains at the core of the state’s response. The Islamic Republic has deployed a familiar cocktail of repression: a massive police presence, internet shutdown, and the vilification of protesters as agents of foreign powers. The regime’s elites⏤from Khamenei on down, are united in emphasizing the importance of these reforms. The Iranian state has a monopoly of force and the institutional capacity required to make tough choices about economic reforms. There is little reason to doubt that Iran will implement this policy and violently put down those who oppose it.
Different from previous years protests is the fact that they are not happening in a vacuum. There is also an important regional angle here. Likewise, the protests in Iran are echoing the ongoing protest movements in Lebanon and Iraq. Iran is deeply invested in both countries. Iranian clients are part and parcel of the ruling establishments⏤Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Shia militias in Iraq, and at the center of the corrupt machinery that the Lebanese and Iraqi protesters aim to overturn. Iran has heavily backed the status quo in both countries and has been reportedly tightly involved in the Iraqi government’s crackdown on protesters in late December.
In Iraq especially, Iran has become one of the key targets of the protest movement. Any memory of Iran’s assistance in defeating the Islamic State among the Iraqi Shia has been overcome by notions of Iran as an occupying power.
Iran’s massive political influence project in Iraq has made it an arch villain. Iran is now even losing the sympathy of its co-religionists in Iraq and may be losing them in Lebanon as well.
Iran’s external project is on shaky ground because of its economic situation. Tehran has spent nearly four decades building Hezbollah into the strongest political and military force in Lebanon, and it has spent the past 15 years doing the same with its Shia militia clients in Iraq, technically make Iran the most formidable power in the region.
But that power is not eternal. Iran has invested in militants. Militants can fight wars and take territory, but they are generally poor at governance. So long as conflict persists, governance takes a back seat to security. While Iran’s power resides in its militant clients, the legitimacy of those clients stems from the communities they represent. So, what we are seeing in Lebanon and Iraq is that a significant portion of those communities, particularly the young and underemployed, no longer see their ruling establishments as representing the interests of the people. If the protests in Iran are any indication, a segment of Iranians has come to similar conclusions about its own leaders. In all cases, Iran’s regime is viewed as a significant part of the problem.
From a strategic perspective, the protests in Iran, as well as those in Lebanon and Iraq, compound the pressure on the ruling regime. Although it is perhaps unlikely that these protest movements will lead to meaningful change, they evince the shaky ground undergirding the Islamic Republic’s project both at home and in the region. Iran’s leaders are thus facing a crossroads⏤that being that they can change course, or they can pursue more of the same, ignore the demands of the people with the belief that coercion, aggression, and an unflinching dedication to their ambitions will be sufficient to overcome this moment unscathed. Iran is more likely to adopt the latter approach. But as the region’s recent history has shown, repressing the popular desire for good governance and justice does not end that desire and could beget even further instability.