The Iranian Regime and its discontents by Zemal Sheerani
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a relatively new creation although its Western isolationist doctrine and the radical socio-political changes in Iran as a result of the 1979 revolution have made it appear to be a far more entrenched and infallible state in the minds of Westerners. The continued existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran is certainly something of an enigma; under Pahlavi rule in the Imperial State, Iran’s economy went through a period of growth and industrialisation from 1963-77 which saw GDP rise in real terms by a rate of approximately 10.5% per annum which saw Iran become one of the fastest-growing developing economies in the world. With the revolution, however, came rapid inflation and industrial mismanagement; as a result, an estimated one in five Iranians lives below the national poverty line, and unemployment is soaring at 12% by even the most conservative estimates.
The Iranian Regime has mostly survived with a mixture of state-sanctioned repression of protest movements, religious fanaticism appealing to the conservative clerical base in the country, and expanding spheres of influence through the Middle East by conducting proxy wars with Saudi Arabia through the arming of Houthis in Yemen and support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, by whose hand will the Iranian regime collapse come about from?
First, we must consider the closest regional enemy of Iran, namely, Saudi Arabia. The proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia has often between cloaked under the guise of a religious sectarian conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran. However, in what ex-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has termed ‘the new Cold War’, regional supremacy is the sole objective of both Saudi and Iranian foreign policy. With the long-standing backing of the United States through the sale of arms and U.S. Navy presence in Yemeni waters assisting the naval blockade, Saudi Arabia’s powerful ally had taken a determined stance against Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. Although this close alliance appears to be changing with the Biden administration recently imposing sanctions and visa bans on Saudi citizens owing to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi ordered by Saudi officials in 2018, as well as announcing an end to U.S arms sales to Saudi Arabia however, the impetus for such action against the Kingdom appears to be due to human rights abuses conducted by Saudi Arabia rather than a relinquishing of support for Saudi hegemony in the Middle East in favour of Iran.
The Arab states of the Persian Gulf’s coalition of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates is still a collective force to be reckoned with for Iran. The peace deal between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain last year which was brokered by the U.S has loosened the ‘Iron Wall’ between Israel and its regional neighbours and as such, there has been a notable increase in anti-Iran rhetoric by Israel. The Foreign Minister of Israel, Gabi Ashkenazi, in a recent statement, outlined the threat of the Iranian nuclear program; “Iran is crushing the last vestiges of oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency and continues to challenge and threaten regional stability,” going further to declare denote Iran as a clear regional threat; “Israel sees this step as a threat and it must not go by without a response.” Whilst Israel’s geographical placement make airstrikes on Iranian nuclear sites untenable; the new UAE Israel accord could lead to Israeli-backed airstrikes on Iran by the UAE, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran.
However, it would be short-sighted not to consider the internal threats faced by the Iranian regime by the Iranian people. According to Reuters, November 2019 saw the beginning of a large scale protest movement in Iran now denoted as ‘Bloody November’ owing to the backlash of the State against the riots killing 1,500 protesters. The targeting of Iranian minority groups by the regime since December 2020 Iranian authorities executed 49 people, at least one-third of whom were Baluchi and the executions of prominent anti-regime figures such as wrestler Navid Afkari, has led to wide. scale ongoing protests within the nation. The killing of Baluch fuel traders by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has prompted protests which have led to the disruption of internet usage by the authorities in the southeastern province of Sistan Va Baluchestan. There have been an estimated 8 rallies throughout the province between February 22-26 spanning multiple cities. Iranian pensioners also recently held protests spanning 20 cities across the country due to outrage over dwindling pension payments and the egregious wealth inequality in Iran. While the regime has, in the past, shown itself to be adept at combating such dissent through the use of state-sanctioned violence and methods such as shutting down internet usage rendering the protestors unable to organise efficiently, it would be a mistake to understate the gravity of such persistent anti-regime protests. The U.S-imposed sanctions on Iran under the Trump administration had left the regime unable to placate the populace with basic necessities such as medicine. As a result, poverty has compounded the grievances of Iranians against the regime leading to an environment of continual protests and riots which is fervent ground for internal regime change.
In truth, the future of the current Iranian regime appears to be unstable. While Iran is running out of the number of strategic manoeuvrers it can exercise within the Middle East, perhaps its staunchest opponents reside within its own state. Whether Iran’s future will be shaped by internal regime change or existential threats from the region and the United States remains to be seen, a strong Iran will be necessary for stability in the Middle East for the coming century to offset Arab-Israeli hegemony. Whether that stability will stem from the Islamic Republic is uncertain.