At a time when the expansion of Iran’s regional network of militias has never been more salient and dangerous, its attempts to divert the focus abroad could prove to be more than a rhetorical tool.
As seasoned Iran experts have observed, no single grievance, nor the objectives of a distinct faction, do justice to the complexity of the current crisis. It seems to have started in the holy city of Mashhad, the powerbase of ultra-conservative former presidential candidate Ebrahim Raeesi, with a conservative gathering against the record of President Hassan Rouhani.
Other cities, villages and rural areas then rode the wave, turning it into a nationwide rally with multiple demands. The regime responded by deploying the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia, a repression that has already killed dozens and led to hundreds of arrests.
In the first few days of demonstrations, a few regional and global media outlets (including Al Jazeera) portrayed events as mild dissatisfaction with the government’s economic performance. This was met with wide disapproval and criticism on social media.
Unemployment and rising prices are a critical issue in Iran today. In the post-nuclear deal economic opening, in a country that experienced double-digit growth in 2016 and is expected to grow by more than 4 percent in the next few years, the scale of unemployment is politically unsustainable. Reliable estimates place youth unemployment at 40 percent (double the official figure), with more than half of the population under the age of 30.
Yet nepotism, corruption, mismanagement, environmental decay, the multimillion-dollar business conglomerates controlled by the IRGC and the religious establishment, and the regime’s radical revolutionary vision, are among the long list of grievances. There are reports that leaked details of a proposed government budget involving subsidy cuts, and a several-billion-dollar increase for the IRGC, could have been one of the main drivers of the uprising.
The enduring internal disapproval of Iran’s regional meddling under the guises of “resistance” and “revolution” remains a significant feature raised by protesters. Echoing again on the Iranian street were the nationalist slogans “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, Our Lives Only for Iran,” and “Leave Syria, Find a Solution for Us.”
In the absence of easy options to quell protesters besides brutal repression, the regime could see in the various militias it has fostered across the region an opportunity to reunite ranks.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
Under the cover of declared objectives such as the destruction of Israel, the overthrow of pro-US Arab governments and the fight against Daesh, the radical project of Khomeinism has made unprecedented strides in recent years. And with Daesh largely on the run in Syria and Iraq, the longer-term consequences of the expansion of Iran’s multinational network of militias across the region are now laid bare.
Norman T. Roule, former national intelligence manager for Iran at the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, recently said that “fueled by funding, weapons and training” from the IRGC, “this multinational web of groups has transformed Iran from a largely localized security challenge to a region-wide threat to multiple US strategic interests and partners, while simultaneously minimizing Tehran’s exposure to international blowback for its actions.”
Under pressure at home, the regime can fuel one or more of the many fires it has been nurturing through its Hezbollah-cloning strategy. Risks of escalation or an all-out conflict abound. In Syria, the status between Israel on the one hand, and Hezbollah and pro-Iran militias on the other, is effectively one of war.
Only two weeks ago, the Syrian Army and Iran-backed militias moved deeper into West Ghouta, the last opposition-held enclave southwest of Damascus, near the Israeli border. This makes Iran’s goal of establishing a permanent presence in the Syrian Golan Heights closer to fulfilment. If a full conflict erupts between Hezbollah/Iranian militias in Syria and Israel, it will add to the complexity of the war in Syria and turn all of Lebanon into a conflict zone.
In Iraq, despite the government’s efforts to dissolve the Popular Mobilization Units and integrate its fighters into the regular army, concern is mounting about the formation of an alliance of pro-Iran political and military groups ahead of May’s parliamentary elections. These groups have repeatedly threatened to target US bases and personnel in Iraq.
The IRGC could also step up its support for the Houthis in Yemen, a radical movement modelled on Hezbollah, or foment further violence in Bahrain.
Tehran’s radical adventurism abroad, and the billions of dollars spent in Syria, on Hezbollah and various militias, are among the causes of the crisis placing the Iranian regime on edge. But absent easy options to quell protesters besides brutal repression, the regime could see in the various militias it has fostered across the region an opportunity to reunite ranks.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida