Iranian protests rattle ruling clergy, take world by surprise
Washington - The unrest in Iran has taken the world by surprise. Neither the West nor countries in the Middle East were prepared for the wave of nationwide protests in which at least 21 people have died and that have shaken the regime in Tehran.
As international leaders struggle to come up with a response, the fate of the nuclear deal with Iran and Tehran’s role in the region hang in the balance.
Starting December 28 in the northern Iranian city of Mashhad, the anti-government unrest, triggered by dissatisfaction with economic conditions, spread throughout the country.
US President Donald Trump and his administration offered public support to the protesters. “TIME FOR CHANGE,” Trump tweeted. The US State Department sent a message to the demonstrators that they would “not be forgotten.”
The rhetoric masked the fact that Washington was caught off guard by the protests, the largest in Iran since the Green Revolution following the presidential election in 2009. “This was not on our radar,” one US official told the Associated Press. Washington imposed new sanctions against Iranian entities but the measures were targeted against Iran’s ballistic missile programme and not related to the unrest.
Analysts said Trump might use the protests as a reason to terminate US participation in the international nuclear agreement with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The US president, who has called JCPOA the “worst deal ever,” must decide by mid-January whether to reimpose sanctions against Tehran that were suspended under the pact.
European governments, some of which have important economic interests in Iran, and the European Union were slow to react to the Iranian crisis. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini waited until January 2 — five days after the start of the demonstrations — to issue a statement denouncing the violence.
Reports said European countries were trying to discourage efforts by Washington to have UN bodies issue strong statements against the Iranian government.
Among Arab countries, the official response was also muted. Iran’s main rival, Saudi Arabia, issued no official statement. The silence was at least partly motivated by concern that support for anti-government action in Iran could give credence to claims by Tehran that the unrest had been organised by Iran’s foes abroad.
The public’s reactions in the Gulf region were largely supportive of the protests. Missile attacks by Iran-supported Houthis at Saudi territory only ratcheted up resentment in the Gulf of Tehran’s regional policies. Turkey, which has sided with Iran in the conflict between Qatar and a Saudi-led group of Arab countries, echoed Tehran’s view about the unrest. Israel openly supported the Iranian protest movement and criticised the “cruel regime” in Tehran.
Protesters criticised the budgetary burden of Iran’s involvement in neighbouring countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen with the unrest leading to questions as to whether Tehran’s quest for a bigger role in the region was coming to an end.
Iran’s growing influence had triggered fears among Sunni countries that a “Shia Crescent” from Iran towards the Mediterranean was taking shape. The wave of protests, however, put a spotlight on Tehran’s weaknesses, Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics, told the Washington Post.
“Before the protests, you had this dominant narrative that Iran is unstoppable, Iran is undefeatable, Iran is as solid as a rock,” he said. “The protests have undermined the posture of the Islamic Republic in the region, as the unrivalled superpower.”