Iran’s regime in most serious crisis since 1979 as it cracks down on unrest

Authorities cut access to the outside world on November 16, an outage that left only state media and government officials able to say what was happening.
Friday 22/11/2019
Iranians walk past the branch of a local bank that was damaged during demonstrations against petrol price hikes, November 20 in Shahriar, west of Tehran. (AFP)
When the fat hits the fire. Iranians walk past the branch of a local bank that was damaged during demonstrations against petrol price hikes, November 20 in Shahriar, west of Tehran. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Iran’s ruling elite has triggered its most serious crisis of legitimacy for the regime since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979 by cracking down on a country-wide wave of unrest while failing to address the underlying causes for the protests, analysts said.

The heavy-handed state response is setting the scene for further tension, they said.

“The regime has entered the most serious and most existential crisis since its creation. Given the deep-seated problems, deterrence will work for a short while only,” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said by telephone. “If there is no change, unrest will break out again and again.”

Amnesty International said 106 people were killed in cities around the country during demonstrations triggered by the government announcement November 14 about a cut to subsidies on petrol, raising prices at the pump at least 50% and 200% for motorists who buy more than 60 litres a month.

The move came amid an economic crisis and a currency collapse that have roots in home-grown problems such as corruption and mismanagement and have worsened under a US sanctions policy of “maximum pressure” that has drastically cut crucial profits from oil exports.

Besides sending “security forces using firearms, water cannons and tear gas to disperse protests and beating demonstrators with batons,” Amnesty International said, the government switched off internet access for much of the country. Authorities cut access to the outside world on November 16, an outage that left only state media and government officials able to say what was happening.

“If that doesn’t take legitimacy away, I don’t know what does,” said Arash Azizi, a writer and doctoral candidate in history at New York University. Iranian authorities began restoring internet access in Tehran and a number of provinces November 21.

“The Iranian regime has huge legitimacy problems but it has also failed to provide the most basic economic prosperity to its people,” Arash said. “I believe that it’s just a matter of time and things would erupt again, so long as there is no fundamental economic or political shift, which is not in sight.”

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about reports of live ammunition being used against demonstrators. US President Donald Trump accused Iran of blocking the internet to cover up “death and tragedy” and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iranians to send photos and other information documenting repression amid ongoing protests, while vowing to sanction “abuses” by the Iranian government.

The jump in petrol prices represents another burden on Iranians who have suffered through a painful currency collapse following US President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the United States from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and the reimposition of US economic sanctions.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani, a moderate who is facing criticism by hardliners three months before parliamentary elections, promised the fuel price increase would fund new subsidies for poor families.

However, the decision unleashed anger among Iranians including Maryam Kazemi, a 29-year-old accountant in the southern Tehran suburb of Khaniabad, who told the Associated Press the new cost of fuel was “putting pressure on ordinary people.”

As state television showed pro-government rallies, top officials of the regime tried to portray the unrest as the result of actions by outside forces opposed to Iran.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on November 20, said the protests were an attack on the country “in the military arena” but not a popular uprising. “The recent actions were security issues, not from the people,” he said. “We have repelled the enemy.”

Rohani also claimed victory over what he called an unrest caused by Iran’s foreign enemies while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said November 21 that calm had returned across Iran. The Basij militia, an IRGC volunteer force whose members were deployed to counter the demonstrators, said the unrest amounted to a “world war” against Iran that failed.

Azizi said that kind of argument was unlikely to convince anyone in Iran because most people saw the economic crisis was a result of political mistakes at home.

“I think that the added problem of the last couple of years is that this is a government that can’t provide you with the most basic economic needs and it’s full of corruption. The corruption involves its heads, its highest officials,” Azizi said.

Fathollah-Nejad said there was no sign that the ruling elites were getting a grip on the socio-economic, political and ecological problems in the country. “There is an insulated mindset that tends to favour more of the same,” he said.

He said unrest in 2017 and 2018 had set the stage for the current situation. “The next chapter could be the last one but, of course, there is no way of knowing how long that chapter will be. What we can say for sure is that the regime has suffered an irreversible loss of legitimacy and this will have consequences,” he added.

“The lower classes have their backs to the wall anyway and they surely will not forget the killings — the image of the regime as an enemy will be strengthened. Even the middle classes — despite their concerns about a lack of alternatives to the regime and about possible chaos in the country — see that the regime cannot guarantee stability either.”

Even a further militarisation of Iran’s domestic political scene through a bigger role for the IRGC would not be a guarantee for calm, because more power for the IRGC “does not mean that they will solve the problems.”

A change of the regime could not be engineered from outside, however, Fathollah-Nejad said.