Washington on the watch as Iran protests gather steam

The protests show that the Iranian people have lost confidence in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani.
Sunday 19/08/2018
At an impasse. An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran.  (AFP)
At an impasse. An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The Iranian regime faces a major threat to its existence from protesters who are becoming increasingly vocal and from US-imposed sanctions that are weakening the country’s economy, a panel of Middle East experts said.

The protests that began in December and have been applauded by US President Donald Trump show that the Iranian people have lost confidence in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani and want regime change, the experts said August 15 at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank.

“Iran is in a pre-revolutionary state,” said Nader Uskowi, an Iran-born expert who was a senior US military policy adviser under US President Barack Obama and is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “People have lost confidence in the regime to solve the problems. They don’t trust the regime because of corruption and because of failed policies.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 16 announced the creation of an Iran Action Group to direct the US State Department’s Iran-related activities and coordinate a “global effort” to change Iran’s behaviour.

Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst with the RAND Corporation, said Rohani is politically finished. He offered Iranians the possibility of a better life through moderation but that failed. “So he really has nothing else to offer at this point,” Nader said.

Nader called the Iranian protests “the biggest civil disobedience movement in the world.”

As the protests have mounted, they have become increasingly troublesome for the regime because they are drawing such a wide range of people and the protesters have chanted slogans that directly challenge the Iranian leadership.

“They’re saying things like ‘Death to Palestine’ and ‘The enemy isn’t America, the enemy is here,’” said Behnam Ben Taleblu from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The chants are an angry reversal of regime-favoured slogans “Death to America” and “America is the enemy.”

“When you see the social classes coming out — the women’s movement, environmentalists, truck drivers, trade unionists — you begin to realise this regime is conceptually in trouble,” Taleblu added.

Iran will face a crossroads in November when the United States is to reinstate sanctions on the Iranian oil sector, which will intensify the economic pressure brought on by the August 7 resumption of US sanctions on the Iranian financial sector and certain exports.

“Iran is going to come under a virtual economic blockade,” Nader said. “The regime will have to make hard decisions in November whether it wants to support [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and Hamas. The sanctions are putting tremendous stress on Iran’s regional position.”

Iran’s support of Assad in Syria and Hamas in the Palestinian territories helped fuel resentment by Iranian civilians, who say the regime has squandered the goodwill and financial windfall from the nuclear deal signed in 2015 that lifted global sanctions in exchange for Iran curtailing its nuclear programme.

Trump withdrew the United States from the deal, calling it deeply flawed because it did not curtail other Iranian activities such as its ballistic missile programme.

“When people expected some dividend from nuclear deal, the regime pocketed the money for themselves. They paid Assad, funded foreign adventurism and terror. [Citizens’] lives didn’t get better. They got significantly worse,” said Mariam Memarsadeghi, an Iran-born human rights advocate. “Added to the tyranny of the last 40 years, it’s an explosion.”

The analysts said that, although he has stated repeatedly that he is not pursuing regime change, Trump’s policies are clearly pushing Iran in that direction. As protests and pressure mount, Trump will play a key role in determining the future of Iran through his public statements and pressure on Iranian proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

“The Trump administration, whether intentionally or not, has adopted a regime-collapse strategy,” Nader said. “If Iranians rise up, it will be key what the United States does, the signal it sends, the policies it adopts.”

Despite Trump’s support of protesters and pressure on Iranian leaders, the analysts expressed concern that Trump lacked “moral clarity” and might be lured into thinking he can make a deal with Iran’s leaders, as he tried to reach an agreement with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a Ronald Reagan in the White House, who believed so strongly in freedom,” Memarsadeghi said, recalling the US president from 1981-89 whose public support of Russian dissidents helped bring down the Soviet Union. “We have to be careful the Iranian government does not manage to convince the US that it is abiding by this and that and that Donald Trump doesn’t get really happy about making a deal.”