Will Iran crack under the strain?

Iranʹs 2017–18 popular uprising heralded a new chapter in the history of the Islamic Republic that, in its fortieth year, is mired in acute and seemingly insurmountable domestic and foreign policy challenges, writes Ali Fathollah-Nejad. Seemingly, there is no end in sight

By Ali Fathollah-Nejad

The Islamic Republic is facing three crises – political, socioeconomic, and ecological – each dramatic in its own right. Politically, the state, characterised by the superiority of theocratic over semi-republican institutions, has shown itself immune to meaningful reform.

The protests that shook the country between late December 2017 and early January 2018, meanwhile, showed the rejection of the Islamic Republicʹs factionalism, which had hitherto offered the Iranian people a choice between the lesser evil (usually, a moderate establishment figure) and the larger evil (usually, the hard-liners) at presidential elections.

Socioeconomically, the country faces similar troubles to other nations in the Middle East region affected by the Arab Spring. These include high unemployment, especially among the youth and women.

A new class, termed the "middle-class poor", has emerged as a result of the neo-liberal shift in economic policies since the 1990s. They formed the social base of the protests, defined as those with middle-class qualifications and aspirations who now find themselves in a socioeconomically precarious position.

Ecologically, desertification and water shortages have already started to undermine the livelihoods of tens of millions, leading to uncompromising anger against authoritiesʹ mismanagement and neglect, and state repression. If the environmental crises are not solved, in a decadeʹs time, half of Iranʹs provinces are likely to become uninhabitable.

Moreover, in three decadesʹ time, the entire country may turn into a desert. The recent catastrophic floods that began in mid-March and lasted until April 2019 in over two-thirds of the countryʹs provinces are a case in point.

People protest in Tehran, Iran, 30 December 2017 (still image from a video obtained by Reuters)
The most radical protests since the inception of the Islamic Republic: the popular unrest in late December 2017 and early January 2018 had an unprecedented geographical spread and was driven by the lower classes – conventionally considered part of the regimeʹs social base. After ten days it was all over, due to repression by security forces and the absence of important middle-class participation. However, the short-lived revolt sent shockwaves across the countryʹs establishment about the sheer depth of peopleʹs dissatisfaction. Moreover sporadic demonstrations by various groups, including women and labourers, have continued ever since

More devastating than the notorious earthquakes plaguing the country, the reasons for the floods – which caused massive devastation estimated at around $3 billion – were primarily man-made and a result of mismanagement.

As a result, immense anger was directed at the authoritiesʹ shortcomings and negligence. Ironically, environmental activists have to date been viewed as a national security threat as their work uncovers the complicity of the rulers in the ecological catastrophe.

"Rally-round-the-flag" effect tapering off

Faced with internal dissent since its inception, the Islamic Republic has learned to master the art of using and abusing foreign crises to consolidate power at home. The longevity of the Islamic Republic can be traced back to a combination of internal and external factors, which are at times interrelated.

Since the 1979 revolution that brought them to power, Iranʹs rulers have wilfully mastered the art of employing external crises to create a rally-round-the-flag effect at home, based on a narrative in which Iran is the innocent victim of unjustified and abusive imperialist powers – which may at times have had a kernel of truth.

The regime has used this technique to disavow and crack down on internal dissenters, portraying them as stooges of malign outside forces. Next to the anti-imperial zeitgeist that generated the revolution, it has been nationalistic sentiments that the Islamist rulers have generally tried to exploit.What is more, a political and economic oligarchy has limited spaces for other sectors of society to meaningfully challenge the status quo, while the political systemʹs sophisticated authoritarianism has blocked the way for serious reform. The regime has not shied away from the crises that created it in the first place, such as the 444-day-long occupation of the U.S. Embassy within the first year of the revolution.

To consolidate its power against rivals, Ayatollah Khomeini chose not to seize the opportunity to end the devastating war with Iraq in 1982. Add to that the permanent rhetorical attacks against the "Great Satan" (the United States) and the "Little Satan" (Israel), which has sustained the bitter antagonism with those states.

However, today the effectiveness of such rhetoric has lost much appeal among ordinary Iranians who have – almost on a daily basis for four decades – heard these narratives of blaming outsiders for internal problems.

The 2017/2018 uprising turned much of the regimeʹs rhetoric about outsiders on its head in one famed chant heard across the country: "Dushman-e ma haminjast, hamash migan Amrikast" (lit. our enemy is right at home; they always say itʹs America).

Strategic loneliness and foreign militias on Iranian soil

On the external front, Iran still suffers from "strategic loneliness", which dates back to the Islamist takeover in 1979 and which is both externally and self-imposed.

On the one hand, Iranʹs post-revolutionary foreign policy has alienated many of its neighbours, fearful of its "export of the revolution" doctrine, while its independent character has placed it at odds with the United States – a superpower largely intolerant of independent actors in strategically vital world regions.

Iranian students pray inside the American Embassy compound before anti-American slogans on the third day of the occupation of the embassy in Tehran, Iran on 6 November 1979 (photo: AP)
"Our enemy is right at home; they always say itʹs America": today the effectiveness of ʹrally round the flagʹ rhetoric has lost much of its appeal among ordinary Iranians. The 2017/2018 uprising turned much of the regimeʹs rhetoric about outsiders on its head in one famed chant heard across the country: "Dushman-e ma haminjast, hamash migan Amrikast"

On the other, its isolation is self-imposed, given the Islamic Republicʹs uncompromising revolutionary rhetoric directed against "the West" and some neighbouring states. As stated above, such enmity has been routinely evoked in an effort to consolidate power domestically.

This perennial hostility toward the international systemʹs most powerful state has overshadowed, and will continue to do so, Iranʹs relations with other powers such as Europe, its pro-Western neighbours in the Middle East, and non-Western great powers (Russia, China, and India) whose relations with Washington supersede those with Tehran.

This situation has sustained a massive conventional military asymmetry to the detriment of Iran, which has been deprived of purchasing Western high-tech weaponry as a result of U.S.-led sanctions.

Surrounded by adversarial countries with U.S. military bases, as well as Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Councilʹs huge arsenals, the Islamic Republic has relied on means of deterrence that include asymmetric warfare, a regional network of mostly non-state actors, and its ballistic missile programme. It has also depended on soft power in the form of anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, and revolutionary rhetoric that has found great appeal among the regionʹs populace, whose own leaders have mostly remained silent regarding U.S. or Israeli foreign policies.

However, this soft power on the "Arab street" has massively lost its appeal after Tehran supported Syriaʹs Assad regime during the Arab Spring. Despite occasional efforts at detente, the Islamic Republic remains far from bridging those antagonisms, not least because it still considers them key to the regimeʹs ideological raison dʹetre and hence survival.

As such, Iranʹs regional policies not only aim to defend the countryʹs sovereignty and national security, but are also connected to domestic power considerations. A key example here is the role played by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its foreign-operations arm, the Quds Force, that is active in Iranʹs regional policies (militarily, ideologically, and economically), which supports its domestic standing as a security and political player and broker.

The IRGC has trained a number of foreign militias – a kind of "Shia international" – especially for its involvement in Syria and Iraq. While these international militias are used outside of Iran, there is growing concern that they might be deployed inside the country to quell growing popular dissent. During the 2019 floods for example, the deployment of hundreds of Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) from Iraq, Afghan Fatemiyoun Division from Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah, for relief efforts, caused some public outcry.

It was claimed that calling upon foreign militias instead of Iranʹs own hundreds of thousands of military personnel was also to normalise their presence in Iran. During the 2009 Green Movement protests, some Lebanese Hezbollah forces were deployed to suppress political protests, as an ostensible effort to avoid solidarity with protesters.

Janus-faced foreign policy

The bipolar power structure in the Islamic Republic also translates into its foreign policy, sometimes referred to as Janus-faced: on the one hand, the foreign ministry and the administration are involved in foreign affairs, and on the other, the Supreme Leaderʹs office (a quasi-parallel government) and the IRGC are also active in foreign affairs.

Despite occasional confusion as to who calls the shots in Iranʹs foreign policy, it would be safe to assume that it is the latter group – the IRGC and the Supreme Leaderʹs office – which gives the key directives, especially in regional affairs.

However, Iranian foreign policymaking also involves elite consensus. Or as Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution succinctly puts it, "Iranʹs approach to the world has always been an ensemble performance, not a solo act, and the conductorʹs baton remains firmly in Khameneiʹs paranoid grip." That the right hand knows what the left hand does can be seen in the composition of the Supreme National Security Council, which makes strategic decisions on security and defence policy based on consensus, and assembles figures from both camps.

In this constellation, there is a strong element of complementarity and division of labour between those two wings. As Karim Sadjadpour aptly put it: "[Qasem] Soleimani [the commander of the Quds Force] serves as Khameneiʹs sword, projecting Iranian hard power in the Middle Eastʹs most violent conflicts. [Mohammad Javad] Zarif [the Iranian foreign minister], in contrast, serves as Khameneiʹs shield, using his diplomatic talents to block Western economic and political pressure and counter pervasive ʹIranophobiaʹ. […] Soleimani deals with foreign militias, Zarif with foreign ministries."A precarious present and an uncertain future

There is no sign that the Islamic Republic can meaningfully address any of the three crises which fuelled the 2017-18 uprising. A year after the mass demonstrations, the country still faces protests, accompanied by a worsening economic situation and the re-imposition of U.S. extraterritorial sanctions following President Donald Trumpʹs unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Interviewed by the IRGCʹs Tasnim News Agency earlier this year, sociologist Mohammad-Reza Tajik – a former advisor to reformist president Mohammad Khatami and a strategist who served as vice minister of the intelligence ministry in charge of psychological warfare – provided an alarming assessment of Iran today. Tajik said, "Iranian society finds itself in decay, in a situation where the past is dying and the future cannot emerge, nor the ability to reform."

On the societal level, Iranʹs civil society remains relatively weak, with its constituent parts – the womenʹs, labour, and student movements – facing repression, and so far lacking the ability to push for an intersectional and cross-class alliance that could truly challenge state authority.

At the state level, the post-Khamenei era is on the horizon, with the possibility that rather than a successor as supreme leader, a leadership council might replace him. This could play out in multiple ways, but the most likely feature seems to be a more prominent role for the IRGC, which could extend its dominance beyond the security, economic, intelligence, and judicial realms into the political one.

Given the depth and size of its internal and external challenges, the Islamic Republic is in regime-survival mode. To avoid a full-scale social explosion, it might opt for a relative easing of public morality, while promoting a nationalist discourse over a religious one.

In regional policies, dwindling resources and increasing domestic criticism might push it to be more cautious, while a threat to regime survival from within may encourage it to seek foreign adventurism to unite people at home. However, this would be a risky endeavour as many of those post-revolutionary rhetorical devices have lost their appeal.

Internationally, U.S. sanctions are likely to continue to deprive Iran of much-needed income and foreign exchange from oil sales, while its international relations will suffer in the shadow of U.S. enmity. Given this position of weakness, Tehran will continue to grant concessions to non-Western great powers in exchange for their political support.

In other words, after a tumultuous past four decades, the Islamic Republic now stands at the crossroads between a precarious present and an uncertain future. This new chapter in the history of the Islamic Republic was heralded by the 2017-18 rebellion and is likely to remain characterised by constant turmoil, as the triple crises of environmental destruction, economic hardship, and political uncertainty persist and even deepen, while the stateʹs responses remain insufficient.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad

© Qantara.de 2019

The full version of this text was originally published by the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.