Events adhere to a well-worn narrative. A civilian population frustrated by a lack of economic and political freedoms, massive youth unemployment and widespread corruption. For example, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may control up to 40 percent of the economy. Food prices and rises in the cost of living trigger riots more often than any form of political dissatisfaction in the Middle East. This is a life and death issue, not one of mere aspiration.
The regime’s response has not varied from its time-honored approach, or that of its ally, the regime in Syria. It has escalated its repression with mass arrests, cutting off the internet, and use of live ammunition. Countering opposition rallies with pro-government rallies holds little water, just as it is shorn of any credibility in places like Syria. Officials claim that protesters should apply for a license to hold any march as if this was a realistic proposition. It will deliver on one promise, that the protesters will “pay the price.”
The blame game is on steroids. It is always the dark arts of foreign powers at fault, never the myriad failings of the regime. Like other regimes, it is never willing to address its own fundamental shortcomings and cares not a whit for the well-being of its own people.
Tehran was given a huge bonanza as a result of the nuclear deal and sanctions relief, but much of this money has financed its proxies across the Middle East rather than benefiting its citizens.
What makes this even more galling is that Iran was given a huge dollar bonanza to try to sort out its economy as a result of the Iran nuclear deal and sanctions relief. Estimates vary from $30 to $150 billion; a slush fund fit for King Midas, which could have been deployed to stimulate the economy, produce jobs and do what governments are supposed to — work for the benefit of their people. If only.
As many feared, much of this money has fled Iranian shores to finance the regime’s proxies across the Middle East, which routinely destabilize and undermine the integrity of other states, not least Syria. Whilst Iran is not uniquely to blame for all that has transpired, its role has been huge and destructive.
Totting up the costs of the regional grand plan is nigh on impossible. The cost to Iranians of its war in Syria lies in the billions; helping the Syrian regime out with around 60,000 barrels per day of oil, lines of credit, as well as military assistance. More billions were frittered away on supporting Shiite militias in Iraq. And how many millions of Iranian people’s money does it shovel off to its chief proxy Hezbollah? It has been suggested it could be as much as $800 million to $1 billion a year. Hamas acknowledges that Iran has become once again its largest foreign backer, with the group possibly getting as much as $60-70 million annually. Islamic extremism is also a grateful recipient of Iranian largesse, and aid to the Houthis in Yemen appears to be on the rise.
What do Iranians get in return for all this? The funding is largely a one-way street, with no return on investment. Iran, or most notably the IRGC, has picked up reconstruction and other contracts in Syria, as well as lucrative pieces of real estate. Will this benefit the Iranian unemployed or those protesting on the streets of Iranian cities?
The Persian leopard will not change its bloodied spots. Yet how can the region react effectively? The options are limited. Providing clandestine help for the protesters risks confirming the Iranian regime’s dark narrative. Escalation could only lead to more bloodshed, as in Syria. Regional interventions and support for proxies have little track record of constructive success.
Internationally handling Iran has proved nearly impossible. Former US President Barack Obama wanted to engage Iran, but sacrificed any ability to limit the regime’s regional ambitions for the sake of a nuclear deal. President Donald Trump talks the talk but it is unclear at this stage how he intends to walk. Perhaps on this occasion doing nothing is the best solution, but for Trump the temptation may be too much, not least as he has yet another chance to engage his favorite pastime — to do things differently than Obama, who was criticized for doing so little during the 2009 protests.
The Iranian regime knows at its core that it is from the Iranian people it has the most to fear. It is a pity that it seems to be against its DNA to work for them, not against them.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University.