Iran Middle East
IranSource December 19, 2019

Rethinking Iranian regional influence and internal stability

By Scheherazade Faramarzi

The upheavals in Iraq, Lebanon and inside Iran have prompted a national soul-searching. Iranian politicians, academics, sociologists and analysts—as well as ordinary people—are debating whether the Islamic Republic is weakened and over-extended or even heading toward internal collapse.

The regime so far has not provided an official death toll for the domestic protests, which broke out after a sudden hike in the price of gasoline. It claims it’s awaiting results from the national forensic institute. Meanwhile, authorities have orchestrated a “wide-scale clampdown” to cover up the deaths, according to Amnesty International, which puts the toll at more than 300 fatalities.

The regime has, as usual, blamed foreigners for the upheavals. But few are buying this accusation, not even the Islamic Republic’s own official newspaper, Jomhuri Eslami, which gave a stinging indictment of the regime: “Your mistake is that you are looking for foreign enemies in the recent turmoil. If the honorable officials take a closer look at the facts, they will conclude that the gasoline issue was just a spark that lit the fuse and triggered an explosion in November because of wrong actions due to wrong decisions. Don’t think that the issue is finished and foreign enemies have been defeated. The mistake is to look for foreign enemies.”

The Islamic Republic is also losing credibility regionally. Iraqi protesters blame Iran for corruption, political malaise and militias loyal to Tehran, a blow to a regime that has always banked on its Shia allies.

“The problem is that Iran’s view of Iraq is one-dimensional, seen only from the perspective of religious affiliation of the two countries,” wrote reformist activist Ahmad Zeidabadi. He criticized state media for bragging about Iran’s influence in Iraq, “as if Iraq has no independence and is governed by Tehran. It is natural that such statements… arouse the Iraqis.”

Mostly Shia protesters have burned the Iranian consulate in Najaf and attacked the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Karbala, ripping its national flag and burning effigies of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Iraqis have also launched campaigns to boycott Iranian non-oil products that totaled $13 billion in 2018 and that Tehran hoped to increase to $20 billion next year. The move is certain to further hit the Iranian economy, which is already suffering under the Trump administration policy of “maximum pressure.” A sharp drop in oil exports weakens the country’s ability to send money to Shia paramilitaries. Already, salaries of Hezbollah allies have reportedly been slashed.

“Whether the protesters win or not, Iran is the loser in Iraq and Lebanon,” Iraqi writer Salah Nasrawi told this author. “Iran can no longer fulfill its dream of reaching the Mediterranean and building the empire of the new Islamic civilization as dreamed by Khamenei.” However, Nasrawi said, “The US and its allies will not go as far as tearing up Iran… because that would be very risky, if not stupid.”

“If they succeed in pushing Iran back to the pre-2003 era, it will be good for all… but we are not really sure how Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will react,” he said. “I am sure there is now a lot of rethinking and many people already are speaking out against [IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem] Soleimani’s adventures in Iraq and Syria and their political and economic costs. So Iran is facing a turning point and may have to decide what to do next.”

While Iranians are willing to entertain an Iran returning to its pre-2003 Iraq invasion status, they fear instability at home.“I don’t think they [the Americans] want Iran to become another Syria,” says an Iranian journalist who asked not to be named. “The dangers of Iran becoming like Syria could spread beyond the region. If Iran limps forward it is beneficial to everyone.”

For decades, the regime, especially the reformist faction, has played on fears that if the Islamic Republic is ousted, Iran will be torn apart. Even the most anti-regime Iranians supported their rulers’ regional interventions, especially its war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), or Daesh, to thwart extremist groups setting foot in Iran. Quds commander Soleimani was regarded as a hero by a large number of Iranians. Secular and progressives alike were prepared to sacrifice personal freedoms and even endure economic hardships so long as the country was secure.

But many are reconsidering their positions after the violent suppression of Iran’s protests.

“I wonder now if it would be more damaging to Iran if the regime stays,” explains Sirous, a 40-year-old secular architect. “But there is no feasible alternative… We really don’t know what is good and what is bad anymore.”

The regime, wrote political scientist and reformist Alireza Alavi Tabar in the Kalameh news website, “has been weakened, but it doesn’t mean it is on the verge of collapse.”

Its “political legitimacy has sharply diminished and it has lost the trust of many,” which he partly blames on state-controlled media for “distorting facts and sanctifying violence,” referring to the suppression of the protesters.

The reformists are bearing the brunt of people’s wrath following the protests that were suppressed on their ally President Hassan Rouhani’s watch.  

“I have consistently warned against the use of violence so that Iran does not suffer the fate of Syria and Libya,” wrote prominent reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh. “I also say bluntly that if God forbid people fight against people, the main culprit is the government.”

Tajzadeh and others have made several recommendations to shore up the Iranian state. They include: amending the constitution, allowing political parties and a free press, strengthening civil institutions, abolishing the Guardian Council that selects candidates for elections, and doing away with strict religious rules that do not conform with modern times.

“The Islamic Republic should reconcile with its own people,” says Mohammad Taher Kanani, who has registered his candidacy for parliamentary elections in February. 

Half a dozen ordinary Iranians interviewed said that no matter what happens to the regime, Iran—a nation state with an ancient civilization—is not susceptible to breaking up because its culture and solidarity among the people will not allow it.

But an Iranian analyst who wished not to be identified warns of trouble coming from Iran’s ethnic periphery.

He cites the November 18 clashes in the southwestern Khuzestan province, as a possible scenario that can be repeated and trigger mayhem. According to eyewitnesses who spoke to The New York Times, the IRGC opened fire on protesters who had taken refuge in the marshes in Mahshahr, which has an ethnic Arab majority. Shots were also reportedly fired at the troops from the marshes. Between 40 to 100 people were killed. 

Ali Haidari, a former representative of Khuzestan in the Parliament, warned that if the government continues to use force against Arabs, their “reaction will go beyond the limits of social protests and civil disobedience and will become more radical.”

What is clear from recent events is that neither the hardliners nor the reformists speak for the mostazafin—the downtrodden— on whose behalf the 1979 Islamic revolution built its legitimacy.

“The commotion and civil insurrection of the lower strata has just started and it’s just the beginning of what’s to come,” wrote university professor Ebrahim Fayyaz, who is close to the conservatives.

Scheherazade Faramarzi is a veteran journalist who covered the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, hostage crises and Iran-Contra affair. She went on to report from across the Middle East as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Africa and Europe for the Associated Press.

Image: Members of riot police are seen during ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq November 27, 2019 (Reuters)