GLOBALIST | 5 DECEMBER, 2019
Iran Feels the Strain
Sanctions and protests
The regime installed through an Islamic Revolution in 1979 is facing strains that it possibly had never envisioned and prepared for. It had weathered many storms--the war with Iraq, a whole raft of sanctions starting in 1979 when students seized the American Embassy in Tehran. This was succeeded over the decades by American and UN sanctions designed to pressurize the country to give up its nuclear programme by targeting its nuclear and defence infrastructure, trade, assets overseas, banking , financial aviation and shipping services and individuals considered point persons for Iran’s programmes in these fields etc.
The UN sanctions however had not applied to Iran’s oil exports. But once Iran signed on to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the P5+1, commonly called the Iran Nuclear Deal, which led to UN sanctions being lifted on 16 January 2016, in exchange for Iran promising to keep its nuclear programme within defined parameters, there was a hope that, though not treated as a normal partner, Iran might be able to somehow manage its affairs as long as oil revenues continued to flow.
But the regime had perhaps not taken President Donald Trump seriously when he declared during his campaign that the renegotiation of the Iran Nuclear deal would be one of his priorities calling the JCPOA a "disaster", "the worst deal ever", and so "terrible" that could lead to "a nuclear holocaust".
Despite opposition from most of his NATO and other allies and a certification from the IAEA in 2018 that its inspectors had verified that Iran had implemented its nuclear-related commitments since the agreement, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the USA from the deal-some say at the urging of Israeli PM Netanyahu- and on November 5 2018, reinstated all the previous sanctions against Iran. He followed up by seeking to throttle Iran’s revenue flow by declaring that countries that bought Iranian oil would also face sanctions.
More sanctions followed. On 16 April 2019, a day after the United States designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the social media platform Instagram blocked the accounts of the IRGC, the Quds Force, its commander Qasem Soleimani, and three other IRGC commanders. in June 24, 2019 after a U.S. drone was reported to have been downed.
The cumulative impact of what Trump and his administration describe as a policy of “maximum pressure” to force Iran to toe the American line on its nuclear programme and its domestic and external policies has been rising inflation, growing unemployment, a slumping value of the Iranian rial, and reports of continuing state corruption. The targeting of Iran’s oil sector has led to a slump in sales and revenues forcing the regime to look at alternative means of raising resources for the domestic economy while at the same time maintaining its influence in countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
It was this search for alternative sources of financing the economy that led to an already inflation hit population being told on November 15, 2019 that gasoline prices were being increased by 50% to help fund cash handouts to the poor. Just like the proposed whats app tax that had led to an unbelievable and still continuing upheaval in Lebanon, the Iranian governments announcement of a gasoline price hike was met with protests that had spread to over 100 towns and cities with demonstrators demanding that senior officials step down.
The government warned that the unrest would be curbed with Supreme Leader Khamenei calling the protestors thugs and the disturbances a result of an American and Israeli conspiracy. Iran’s security forces said that they had detained a detained German, Turkish and Afghan -dual nationals – who had been trained and funded by foreign intelligence services to ... stir up civil disobedience in Iran and provided with equipment to be used for sabotage. There were references to the 1953 CIA sponsored coup against Prime Minister Mossadeq that brought back the Shah of Iran.
The state did what it had done in the face of past protests and unleashed the security forces. The internet was shut down for 10 days to prevent any dissemination of what was happening. Reports said that in Mahshahr, a city of 120,000 people where the Revolutionary Guards crushed protesters on Nov. 18, 100 people were killed. While Iran refused to confirm the fatalities Amnesty International had put the figure at 208. As in Lebanon and Iraq, unlike past protest demonstrations in Iran, this one too did not have an identifiable leader and was seen as a spontaneous response of an angered and fed up citizenry. It is significant that in some of the videos on social media posted by Iranians in the country chants of “Death to the dictator. Time for you to step down!” were heard. President Rouhani had for the release of any unarmed and innocent people who were detained during the protests and was constituting consisting of the ministers of interior and justice and his legal adviser, to investigate the unrest and propose compensation for Iranians who lost loved ones or suffered financial loss. Supreme Leader Khamenei had called on the judiciary to show “Islamic mercy” and draw a distinction between people who had demonstrated against the gasoline prices and those who had pillaged and burned public property. He was also reported to have approved the term “martyr” to be used for citizens who were “caught in crossfire and riots and died without playing any role in instigating them,” But these moves appeared unlikely to assuage the protestors whose objective now seemed to be to call the senior leadership to account for the Iranians' travails.
From the government’s side Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli estimated that as many as 200,000 people took part in the demonstrations. He said demonstrators damaged more than 50 police stations, as well as 34 ambulances, 731 banks and 70 gas stations in the country. Mir Hossein Mousavi a notable opposition leader under house arrest, had compared the crack down with the 1978 Tehran’s “Black Friday” Jaleh Square massacre by the late Shah of Iran’s troops. This single incident is often cited as the turning point that eventually led to the success of Ayatollah Khomeni’s revolution and the ouster of the Shah. Mousavi’s comments appeared to suggest that the present regime had arrived at a similar juncture.
Iranian suspicions of a US role in keeping the protests alive appeared to have some substance. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said on “Fox & Friends” that the United States was supporting the protesters and that “we’ve done our best to make sure they can continue to communicate by using the internet,”. His reference was said to be to an American operation, dating back several years, to provide ordinary Iranians with tools to encrypt communications and other ways to communicate without government interference. Iran had called the US action and interference with its cybersovereignty. Pompeo had blamed Iran for all the troubles in the region and also said that Iran was secretly transferring its missiles to Iraq. There were reports dismissed by Penatgon officials that moves were afoot to place 14000 additional troops in the Middle East to counter Iran which some observers said could be planning anti American actions.
President Trump had declared that punishing sanctions for 18 months had made Iran a different country and many believe that the impact of the sanctions has fed the unrest. It would not be farfetched for Iranians to realise that they are witnessing in their own country what has been happening in Lebanon and Iraq—simple economic issues being used to trigger what eventually become leaderless mass protests against the regime.
What would be even more of concern to Iran is the fact that both in Iraq and in Lebanon Iran has been also singled out for criticism and attack. In Lebanon there were protests in Shia strongholds against Iran’s protégé Hezbollah leader Nasarallah. In Iraq in the holy city of Najaf Iran’s Consulate General was set ablaze and the Iranian flag replaced by an Iraqi one. the senior-most cleric Ayatollah Sistani supported the demonstrators who among other things were seen on social media striking images of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Quds Force leader General Qassem Soleimani.
General Solemaini had visited Iraq twice after the protests started and many of those opposing the current system said it was at his behest that the security forces had been unleashed on the protestors. Despite the Iranian’s asking Muqtada al Sadr to quietly take control of the protests and Solemaini promising that Iran would ensure PM Abdul Mahdi’s continuation, the interventions by Ayatollah Sistani had led to Mahdi stepping down and the process to select his successor beginning.
Gen. Hossein Salami the Head of the Revolutionary Guards had told a gathering that the U.S.A, Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia were fueling the protests and that the rise in gasoline prices was a “mere pretext” for an attack on the nation. Guards spokesman Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif said the protests had been initiated by royalists seeking the return of the Pahlavi dynasty toppled by the 1979 revolution, and the exiled Mujahideen Khalq armed opposition group.
Will Trump’s “ massive pressure” succeed the way he would want it to—bringing Iran to heel. So far on the nuclear front the Iranians have remained adamant starting new centrifuges and reportedly enrichment at the Fordow plant which according to the Nuclear Deal was to be converted into a nuclear, physics and technology centre. While stating that Iran is open to talks the country’s leaders have made it clear that they would do so only if the USA comes back as a party to the Nuclear Deal. In the meantime they have made almost regular announcements of the degree of enrichment that they have achieved.
There could be a consideration, however remote, that Trump may be ousted in the next elections and a possible Democrat becoming President might look at the nuclear deal in a less prejudiced manner. American commentators do not believe that any new President would be willing to undo what Donald Trump did with the deal without Iran giving something in return more than what it has given so far. There is also little chance of the regime in Iran giving up and in all likelihood the standoff will continue; the crackdown will intensify to end the protests before the scheduled Parliamentary elections in February 2020; and threats from the Revolutionary Guards to crush all who cross the red line will echo.
The critical factor is whether the army and guards will continue to stand behind the regime or, as happened with the Shah, the troops say enough. The guards continue to lose people in Syria and to some extent in Iraq. So far there has been no sign that the Revolutionary Guards will abandon the clerical regime. But they are by far the most powerful force in Iran and, if perchance, the turmoil cannot be controlled, some among them might make a case for a change of leadership.
It has happened in other countries where the uniform steps in –it could also happen in Iran if the ordinary Iranian is willing to face the crackdown and yet continue to protest. And the Americans continue with their well known games of upending regimes especially under a President who has shown scant regard for treaties and agreements and- as the American media itself puts it- for the law.