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January 25, 2018 3:22 pm

Protests in Iran: The Mullah Regime’s Autumn

avatar by Avi Melamed

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People protest in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 30, 2017, in this picture obtained from social media. Photo: Reuters.

Public protests that began in the Iranian city of Mashhad on December 28, 2017, ignited a wave of mass demonstrations in dozens of cities across the country. The demonstrations were fueled by economic and societal challenges, and people being infuriated with government corruption and the suppression of individual rights.

Though the protests have significantly decreased, one should not be misled — the current protests are significant. The protests are also very disturbing signal to the mullahs’ regime because the unrest:

  • Was fueled by real and deep economic stress;
  • Spread very quickly;
  • Took place in the traditional strongholds of the regime — Mashhad, Qom, etc.; and
  • May foreshadow the emergence of another grassroots movement.

Furthermore, the protestors:

  • Included conservatives and religious political circles — the regime’s traditional base;
  • Attacked the symbols of the Mullah regime, including schools that certify Shiite clergy; and
  • Killed Iranian police officers and attacked the regime’s symbols of power — indicating that the wall of fear is cracking.

The protests could significantly impact the Iranian regime’s decades-long strategy, which it has sophisticatedly implemented towards its mission of becoming a global Shiite superpower. The dozens of billions of dollars that Iran has invested to that end, together with the growing numbers of Iranians killed in Syria and Iraq towards this vision, further fuels public discontent, because the Iranian people expect the regime to allocate resources at home to improve their lives and their future.

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The protests come at a bad time for the regime, as it faces growing difficulties that jeopardize its investment in practically all eight of the regional arenas of the Iranian-Arab power struggle.

In Syria, the US and Russia now agree that a political arrangement is needed to end the war. Some proposed parts of that framework might include free elections, a new constitution, a peaceful process of the transition of power, and the evacuation of foreign militias from Syria. Iran is disturbed with that direction. Losing its foothold in Syria — the lynchpin of its regional infrastructure — would render decades of investment in Syria to prop up Assad to be a waste.

In Yemen, the disintegration of the Iranian backed Houthi-Saleh coalition in December 2017, and the military achievements of the Saudi-led military coalition, have weakened the Houthis. Thus, they may be motivated to agree to a political compromise to end the war before they are further weakened. Yemen is located at one of the most strategic and sensitive points in the world. In the Houthis, Iran saw an agent valuable in its goal to counter the Saudis, and a good long-term investment; for Ian, losing a foothold in Yemen would mean losing an invaluable strategic base.

Iran operates in southern Iraq, as if it were its own territory. As Iraq approaches general elections — scheduled for May 2018 — major Shiite political and religious leaders openly reject Iran’s influence in Iraq. Furthermore, the fact that Iraq has officially announced that ISIS has been defeated, takes away the Iranian excuse for its direct military presence in Iraq which was “to fight the war on terror against ISIS.” A weakened foothold in Iraq would, among other things, compromise the Iranian corridor that the Mullah regime wants to continue to fortify, from Iran to the Mediterranean.

In Lebanon, Iran’s most important proxy — Hezbollah — is struggling: financially, because Iran can’t send money as it once did; this is compounded by economic sanctions imposed on Hezbollah by the US and major Arab Gulf states; domestically — because its Shiite base is getting more angry at the growing Sh’ite death toll to save the Assad regime — the Lebanese in general are angry at Hezbollah for the chaos they caused in Syria in the service of Iran, resulting in 2,000,000 Syrian refugees — a major burden on the crumbling Lebanese economy. A weakened Hezbollah compromises Iran’s ability to wield its power.

In the Gaza Strip. Iran’s support for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc. meant that they could turn the heat up on Israel at will. But the October 2017 reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, brokered by Egypt, aims to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip. Should Hamas ignite another war in the service of Iran, they will further fuel the bubbling rage of the Gazans, who already blame Hamas for their economic distress. Hamas will also face Egypt’s rage, and they will hold Hamas responsible for the collapse of the reconciliation. A restrained Hamas weakens Iran.

2018 finds the Iranian regime facing a major dilemma: Continue to exhaust its resources cultivating and financing regional agents and proxies to do its bidding in pursuit of regional domination and the creation of a crescent shaped Shiite Persian Empire — or change course, and allocate those resources to addressing the challenges at home and thus abandon its mission?

So what’s next?

Three specific upcoming events that may significantly impact the course of developments in Iran are:

1. Donald Trump’s tough policy on Iran.

2. Iran’s budget, which is expected to go into effect on March 21, 2018. The suggested budget includes cutting subsidies for basic commodities, which was what sparked the protests. Failing to adjust the budget could reignite the protests.

3. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is very sick and may not stay in power long. This could result in a power-struggle within the central power circles in Iran.

The “autumn” of the regime does not threaten its existence. However, failing to profoundly and quickly address the challenges at home may cause a “Mullah Regime’s Winter” in the shape of a massive eruption of an uprising in Iran — which will jeopardize the endurance of the regime.

Avi Melamed is the Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence & Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, DC and Gettysburg College, the founder of Inside the Middle East: Intelligence Perspectives and the author of Inside the Middle East, Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth. www.avimelamed.com.

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