Despite recent unrest, hardliners maintain sharp edge in Iran
BEIRUT - The Islamic Revolution in Iran was won the moment the Bazaaris — the wealthy merchant class — threw their substantial weight behind Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the monarchy crumbled, its army riddled by desertion.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi capitulated a few days later, on February 2, 1979, and flew off into a wandering exile until he died of cancer in Cairo on July 27, 1980, aged 60. The same day that the Shah fled, Khomeini returned from exile in France to a rapturous welcome.
These days in Iran there are signs that once again the ground is shifting, this time for the ruling Muslim clerics, as the country’s long-suffering people grapple with soaring inflation and financial hardship.
These are steadily undermining the economy while the clerical regime spends billions of dollars on an army of militias to ensure that the Islamic Revolution creates a new Persian empire in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon and eventually the Arabian Gulf and Afghanistan.
The Tehran regime’s commitment to Khomeini’s urging to export the Islamic Revolution seems to outweigh all other issues — dangerously so if the economy continues to decline.
Iran, which, beyond the superficiality of the militant face it presents to the world, is considered more nationalist than revolutionary and it is generally recognised that the Islamic State movement would not have been pushed back without Iran and its allies.
US President Donald Trump is fixated with Iran and scrapping the landmark July 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and US-led major world powers — a diplomatic solution that Trump says cannot work. Such considerations could become costly in the volatile Middle East.
“In practical terms, scrapping and replacing (the agreement) is a non-starter,” James F. Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, observed in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October. “So the administration should instead focus on countering Iran as its top regional priority and decide how it will respond when Tehran pushes back.”
There have been big, though gradual, changes in Iran since Khomeini died in 1989. Those changes have caused the long-dominant clergy to lose ground to Shia hardliners led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), arguably the most powerful single force in the country, which Khomeini created as the republic’s praetorian guard to abjure politics.
Israel is increasingly alarmed by the IRGC’s efforts to establish itself in the western sector of the war-divided Golan Heights, a strategic volcanic plateau in southern Syria that looms over Israel’s agricultural Galilee region.
Israel overran the eastern sector in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in 1981. The Israeli zone has been a buffer against Syrian attack but the IRGC and its Hezbollah militia allies from Lebanon are, by all accounts, turning the Syrian-held sector into a fortress from which to mount missile strikes against Israel.
The current political unrest was triggered by a heavy clampdown on widespread protests in December and January. They were smaller than the protests during a contentious 2009 presidential election, the last serious upheaval, but they were markedly more intense.
Their effect was heightened by demands that not only should Hassan Rohani, the people’s president, and his reformist bloc step down for failing to keep his election promise to bring prosperity to all or at least ease their economic burden but also for the first time there were howls that the clerical regime itself should stand down.
That was an ominous turn of events that is likely to swell if protesters continue to defy the regime.
Demonstrators also criticised Tehran’s policy of “forward defence” — fighting enemies outside Iran rather than in the country itself, diverting funds to distant conflicts rather than improving the lot of its people.
“The protests suggest that nationalism is tempered by its economic cost,” observed analyst Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University, “but despite the public criticism, Iran is not about to collapse under the pressure of imperial overreach. Iranians are sceptical of their government’s regional ambitions but they do not doubt the imperative of defence.”
The IRGC was also a target for the people’s ire, particularly for the billions of dollars it has poured into the war in Syria, as well as Tehran’s proxy armies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Twenty people were killed and hundreds arrested as the protests engulfed some 70 cities, including Tehran, and, for the first time, many provincial centres that have long been considered conservative pro-regime bastions.
The authorities were clearly shaken. They shut down social media websites, along with messaging apps — apparently standard procedure now for countering such street protests quickly.
The streets have been quiet since the protests were crushed in January but the anger still smoulders and it remains to be seen whether the regime, which has not taken identifiable steps to meet the protesters’ demands, is willing to scale down its expansionist wars.
Indeed, there are plans to increase the IRGC’s budget, while cutting back subsidies for the poor.
Expectations that conditions inside Iran might improve were raised by the July 2015 signing of a controversial nuclear agreement that the United States and five major world powers under which Tehran agreed to rein in its nuclear programme in return for the partial lifting of crippling US-led sanctions.
Although that freed some $100 billion for Iran, the bottom line is that the deal was concerned with security issues rather than throwing Iran’s working and middle class a financial lifeline — a point that seems to have been lost in the clamour.
Even if it were only partially true, Western sources insist that much of the windfall has been allocated to bolstering Iran’s military forces and its worrying ballistic missile programme.
It is not clear how much of the current unrest was the result of the United States exploiting Iranians’ frustrations.
It would not be the first time that’s happened but, whether there was outside interference or not, the spread of popular unrest to major provincial cities is an ominous development for the regime.
The mullahs are steadily ramping up the confrontation with Israel, which has vowed it will not allow the IRGC to establish a military presence on the Golan Heights.
Ironically, Saudi Arabia finds itself in the same camp as Israel against a common foe, Iran — a situation that illustrates just how the region’s turmoil has brought about significant geopolitical realignment.
Iran’s hardliners, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, apparently see their decades-old effort to become the region’s superpower producing results and are loathe to pull in their horns now when the signs are so propitious.
This can be seen in how the IRGC and Hezbollah are building military bases in the Golan Heights, despite Israeli protests.
An aerial clash on February 10, in which Israel shot down an Iranian surveillance drone and then lost an F-16 jet to missile fire, underlined how sharp the tensions are.
The next confrontation could trigger a wider shooting war and that may just be a matter of time.
Israel’s retaliatory raids against Syrian and Iranian military installations marked a significant and potentially dangerous widening of the undeclared conflict. Any direct confrontation with Israel could easily spiral out of control because Israel sees the Iranians moving what was once a distant front line hundreds of miles away right up to the Jewish state’s northern frontier.
The Iranians see things through a different prism. “Israel’s claim of Iran’s involvement in the events of February 10 should… be viewed as part of its continued desire to ‘securitise’ Iran,” said Hamidreza Azizi of the Iran and Eurasia Studies Institute in Tehran.
“The aim of the latter remains the same: to increase international pressure on the Islamic Republic to abandon its missile programme and regional activities,” he wrote in a February 22 analysis.