Trouble at home will hinder Iran’s export of its revolution
Despite the customary anti-Western rhetoric and character of Iran’s foreign policy, the chief calculation of its government since 1979 has been the export of its revolution. Specifically, this has meant the exportation of Velayat-e faqih — or guardianship of the jurist — in an effort to extend the de jure rule of a Shiite clergy over a larger geographical expanse.
In reality, this has often been confused and at times contradicted by long-standing geopolitical factors, ethnic and religious fault lines and Iran’s own economic concerns. Now, four decades after the revolution, the contradictions are growing and Iran’s muscular overseas policy lies in the balance, as the regime Ayatollah Khomeini ordained shows signs of aging.
Over the last fortnight, Iran has been racked by protests. Average Iranians, most aged little over 30 and so too young to have monarchical nostalgia, have taken the public outpouring of anger at the death of Mahsa Amini to voice their opposition toward Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council, which is appointed by the clergy. The struggle has been described as a face-off between subjugated and liberal women and an uncaring and out-of-touch theocracy. However, it actually embodies a wider identity crisis that the regime is going through.
Though the events of 1979 are remembered as the “Islamic Revolution,” in reality it brought together different disaffected sections of society, including intellectuals, communists and urbane academics. The presidential system that was installed thereafter was a reflection of this, as are the elected parliament and the Assembly of Experts. However, this presidential system has all but buckled under the pressure of the unelected supreme leader and Guardian Council, whose paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ceased being the vanguard of the revolution but rather adopted the role of unaccountable security force and foreign legion.
Repeated mass protests, which are being met with state violence and counter “hard-liner” mobilization, are a barometer of the increasing social disquiet that the regime has not been able to contain. It is remarkable, therefore, that, as the regime sought to gain the upper hand last week and restore order, the Revolutionary Guards conducted a missile and armed drone strike in Iraq. At the same time, Iran’s proxies in Yemen hosted a large-scale military parade, during which they showcased a variety of Iranian-produced missiles and drones, and in Lebanon recruitment flyers called for Persian-speaking militiamen to travel to Iran. These actions show there is no let-up in the regime’s overseas ambitions and activities.
It is no surprise that, at this moment of crisis, Iranian authorities have blamed the unrest on “rioters” linked to “foreign enemies.” Disregarding local anger, the regime has chosen to couch protests in its wider struggles with the West. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said last week: “Washington is always trying to weaken Iran’s stability and security.” And amid a bitter cyberwar with Israel, the regime has been keen to represent its internet blackout as an act of self-defense from efforts at foreign interference.
Much like 1979, it is the cross-class, ethnic and gender support that makes this movement so significant.
Zaid M. Belbagi
At the UN General Assembly last month, President Ebrahim Raisi held up a photo of assassinated Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, while in the latter’s hometown of Kerman the same picture was being burned. Within this context, how well the regime will be able to internationalize the reasons for its internal instability will be limited. The current situation also affects the stalled nuclear deal talks, as it is unclear whether a regime under pressure will double down and be less minded to reach an agreement and if a US president with midterm elections in November can be seen to be parlaying with an increasingly controversial partner.
Today’s protests are only the latest iteration of dissent in a country that notably saw the 2009 Green Movement emerge in the wake of disputed elections, as well as protests in November 2019 over fuel price rises and rallies this year over the cost of living. The Iranian economy remains mired in a crisis largely caused by international sanctions over its nuclear program. Much like 1979, it is the cross-class, ethnic and gender support that makes this movement so significant. Iran’s teachers’ union has called for a strike and students have followed suit.
It would seem that the other sections of the revolution have reared their head in light of the challenges caused by the regime’s focus on international issues. The fatigue with Iran’s revolutionary overstretch and the economic difficulties it has caused has overlapped with developments in the region that threaten to curtail Iran’s involvement. In Syria, the Assad regime has been less compliant as it seeks to consolidate power. Iraq has strengthened relations with its Arab neighbors as it seeks to reenter the Arab fold and limit the influence of Iran. To a regime struggling at home, foreign adventurism is only likely to make matters worse, as the backbone of the protesters’ angst is not laws governing social matters but rather their economic circumstances.
The republican sentiment of Iran’s revolution against the shah united Iranians from different walks of life in a call for an end to tyranny. However, in its haste to consolidate power and export this revolution, the regime has overlooked the political and economic aspirations of the different sections of Iranian society that took part in it, focusing instead on a set of regional hegemonic ambitions. It is these ambitions that have led to the economic isolation Iran experiences today, which in turn has led to a situation whereby an emotive incident has caused mass social unrest.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.