Iran at the crossroads: Internal challenges vs. Regional ambitions—Saleha Anwar

It seems as if the Middle East has been in a constant state of war and uncertainty since forever. There are multiple conflicts, several regional and global forces at play, and the rise of cultural chaos in the region. Regrettably, terrifying uncertainty, relentless violence, and unimaginable bloodshed are appearing to be new normal in the Middle East.

Iran, at this time of history, appears to be a losing party. This piece is an attempt to offer a brief background and analysis as to how Iran is the most vulnerable yet considerably dangerous party in the region. Moreover, I outline the challenges ‘revolutionary forces’ are posing to Iranian leadership at home.

From a political perspective, the Middle East has two main regional powers i.e. Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both never went to war directly ever but still share a grave rivalry. Riyadh and Tehran utilize ongoing conflicts in the region to wage proxies on each other for undefined regional dominance. Arguably, that is why permanent tension exists across the Middle East. Notably, the religious divide e.g. Shia vs. Sunni between these two countries further aggravates the enmity. The USA and Saudi Arabia both have been an ally of each other against Iran.

Iran vs. Saudi Arabia: From friends to foes

First off, Iran vs. Saudi Arabia. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979 Iranian Revolution which brought not only regime change but also altered the indigenous political discourse.

Prior to the revolution, Tehran and Riyadh shared good diplomatic ties since both Western-backed monarchies used the same tactics to control and govern the masses. The great revolution toppled the government of Raza Shah Pahlavi. Ayatollah Khomeini, self-declared Supreme Leader, came into power to “reform” Iranian states and society with his “the jihadi-ijtihadi, or combative/reformist approach”  of governance as described by Amin Saikal in his latest work Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic.

More importantly, the replacement of the Shah of Iran with Khomeini marked the turning point in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the USA. Khomeini openly opposed the idea of monarchy treating it as un-Islamic. He was also hostile towards the involvement of the USA in ‘internal’ matters of the Middle East. He, contrary to the earlier practice, put restrictions on the oil supplies to the western world from Iran. One of the other mottoes of the 1979 revolution was opposing the western influence in Iran, which had been exploiting the oil resources of the region. It was the beginning of a historic enmity.

Saudi Arabia, a self-proclaimed leader and representative of the Sunni Muslim world, was not only threatened but also challenged on ideologically grounds. Iran under the Supreme Leader asserted itself and attempted to be the most dominant regional power.  Therefore, the Kingdom’s reaction was both expected and largely due.

Iran’s dream to be regional power vs. challenges at home

Although no full-fledged war is happening between Iran and the USA yet there are some lessons for both parties that militaristically charged situations lead to a greater humanitarian crisis. In the backdrop of the recent tension, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people on-board. Besides, facing international condemnation the crash of the jet created a serious legitimacy crisis for the Iranian political leadership. Protests in all big cities of Iran are a reminder for the Iranian religiopolitical elite that oppressive mechanisms of control do not work in the long run.

Importantly, with already collapsing economic conditions Iran is at the verge of war with the world’s big power. This is one more reason for the Iranian leadership to have some serious self-introspection.

Since Trump administration canceled the nuclear agreement with Iran and announced to have “maximum pressure” on it, the Iranian economy has fallen into a deep recession.

“As a result of the sanctions, Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted an estimated 4.8% in 2018 and is forecast to shrink another 9.5% in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund. The unemployment rate meanwhile rose from 14.5% in 2018 to 16.8% in 2019. The IMF is forecasting zero growth in 2020,” a BBC report noted.

With that Iran’s currency has hit the lowest and living cost has risen dramatically in Iran. Besides, Iran has been engaged in constant proxies in the Middle East which has its own burden on the economy. Iran fight in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen against the USA and Saudis backed militia. This all lashes out Iran’s economy and became one of the reasons that Iranian leaders appear to be turning inward, pulling back from the escalation. But the domestic turmoil which has been generated among the Iranian public is the real challenge and needs to be deescalated.

Iran’s domestic political scenario needs to be explored yet again. The youth seems to be awakened and is demanding more say in the system. As a matter of fact, there were revolutionary forces already present in Iran since the 2011 Arab spring. Young men and women have been demanding democratic rights e.g. civil liberties, political freedom, social justice, and a pluralistic political system. They are now on streets against the government, accusing it of negligence in causing deaths to civilians on Ukrainian Plan, suppressing dissidents, weakening economy and throwing the country into regional turmoil.

Reportedly, these protesters have support from outside Iran. The USA and other pro-democracy organizations are said to be the strong supporters of the educated youth in Iran. But no evidence can be found which may suggest that the USA or Saudis are behind the protests. Iranian youth is demanding reforms and a total change in the governing system. However, these protesters are not only against the unjust government at home but also against foreign involvement of any kind in the region.

Iranian students protesting at Amir Kabir University in Tehran released a statement on January 11, which depicts the sentiments “the only way out of our current predicament is the simultaneous rejection of both domestic despotism and imperial arrogance. We need a politics that doesn’t merely claim security, freedom, and equality for select group or class, but understands these rights as inalienable and for all.”

According to CNN, protesters have been heard chanting “Death to the dictator” which previously they have their famous slogan as “death to America”.  After years of oppression and conservative political rule, Iranians appeared to have decided against their ruling elite. The driving force is, however, tattering and utterly dismaying the economy behind these protesters, not the USA or Saudi Arabia.

Iran appears to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The sane voices in Iran and abroad suggest the Iranian leadership to focus on gaining political legitimacy since the presence of the devil at home means a threat to the survival of the state itself. Deal with protesters before you deal with Saudis.

Published by salehaanwar

I am a Pakistan-based political analyst. I am interested in Political Islam, democracy and authoritarianism. My comments and opinion pieces appear in Pakistan’s leading English language newspapers.

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