Iranian regime sees major challenge in region’s protests

Protest movements are like wildfires the leadership in Tehran can’t ignore because they could engulf Iran and Tehran can’t extinguish those flames.
Sunday 03/11/2019
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (C-L) during the graduation of military cadets in Tehran, October 30. (AFP)
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (C-L) during the graduation of military cadets in Tehran, October 30. (AFP)

From Lebanon to Iraq, Iran’s hard-won empire is ablaze as anti-government protests spread like wildfire. Well aware of the perilous circumstances, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must make an impossible choice: To use Iran’s scarce economic resources to stabilise his allies and proxies in the region and risk worse conditions and social unrest in Iran or use the funds in the country and leave allies and proxies to their own devices.

Khamenei’s initial response indicates he is opting for the former but he also appears to be redefining the roles of Iran’s regular military to safeguard the regime.

At the Air Defence Force Officer Academy on October 30, Khamenei, addressing “those who care for Iraq and Lebanon,” said: “The main priority is to remedy insecurity. The people of these countries should know that the enemy is trying to create a void by disrupting the legal structures. The only path for the people, to achieve their legitimate demands, is by pursuing them within the legal structures.”

Khamenei added: “The enemies had similar designs for dear Iran but, luckily, the vigilant nation entered the arena in time. The armed forces too were prepared and the conspiracy was neutralised.”

Khamenei’s reference to preparedness of the “armed forces” was surprising, since Iran has, in its 40-year history, never used the regular military to suppress domestic unrest. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), rather than the regular military, has traditionally secured the survival of the regime in the face of domestic opposition.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and Khamenei’s statements may reflect his willingness to break the IRGC’s monopoly on suppression of the opposition at home and perhaps even the IRGC’s monopoly on operating beyond Iran’s borders.

Khamenei’s s talk of a “special mission for the armed forces” reflects change in the role of the regular military: “The armed forces must be careful of sedition and must have the necessary posture and preparedness to counter it… since sedition is worse than massacre and murder,” he said.

The Iranian leadership appears to share Khamenei’s concern about developments in Lebanon and Iraq.

Hassan Hanizadeh, political analyst quoted October 30 by the Fars News Agency, a megaphone for the IRGC, warned against “conspiracy against the axis of resistance,” a reference to Tehran’s allies in Lebanon and Iraq. He claimed that “the hands of the elements of the Ba’ath regime and Shia movements dependent on the American Embassy [in Baghdad] are completely visible in recent demonstrations and gatherings in Iraq.”

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, international affairs assistant to parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, on October 29 likened the developments with the process leading to the civil war in Yemen and accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of engaging in “political terrorism.”

Brigadier-General Esmaeil Kowsari, IRGC Sarallah Headquarters deputy, on October 27 said: “In Lebanon and Iraq, people have legitimate demands but Saudi Arabia, the United States and the Zionist regime have their [own] people among the protesters who see to it that they deviate from their own demands.”

Likening the political crisis in Lebanon with the prelude to the civil war in Yemen and calling protesters foreign agents of the Ba’ath Party are ominous words that reflect Tehran’s fear of the protest movements.

Protest movements are like wildfires the leadership in Tehran can’t ignore because they could engulf Iran and Tehran can’t extinguish those flames because of the sorry state of Iran’s economy.

Khamenei may indeed be counting on Iran’s regular military this time around but the fire may prove too formidable, even for the combined forces of the IRGC and the regular army.

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