London — Antigovernment protests in Iran have left buses and banks burnt, hundreds under arrest, the internet blocked and an unconfirmed number of people dead. That raises the question of whether the US’s “maximum pressure’’ campaign is starting to deliver.
The unrest was sparked by Tehran’s decision last week to ration and raise the price of petrol. But there was ready tinder to be lit, consisting of the sorts of frustrations that have stoked violence around the globe in recent months, from Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela, to Hong Kong, Iraq and Lebanon.
The protests, according to Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, “are the culmination of rising anger at what is perceived to be a corrupt, out-of-touch ruling class that has consistently failed to deliver on the economy or jobs amid allegations of billions of dollars of corruption’’.
In Washington and Tehran, officials view the protests through the prism of tensions over Iran’s growing influence in the Shiite populated nations of the Middle East. Those frictions have picked up since President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal, a pact which had traded limits on Iran’s nuclear fuel programme for a relaxation of international sanctions.
On Sunday, a spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry blamed the protests on US-backed “saboteurs’’. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that “all the centres of the world’s wickedness against us’’ were cheering at the scenes of violence.
The White House issued a statement in support of the protests, which it said were caused by the regime’s diversion of funds from the domestic economy to pay for the “fanatical’’ pursuit of an alleged nuclear weapons programme and for terrorism.
Yet this is not the first time that a reduction in subsidies has caused demonstrations in Iran, and none to date toppled the government. What made last weekend different, according to Ali Vaez of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, was just how quickly authorities in Tehran moved to use extreme force, including live ammunition, to suppress them.
That was because the regime feels under siege from US sanctions, as well as protests which are challenging Iranian interests in Iraq and Lebanon. Leaders in Tehran fear the US and its allies in the region would interpret any sign of Iranian compromise as weakness, according to Vaez.
“The system still has the will to survive and a fearsome capacity to quell opposition,’’ he said. “I have serious doubts as to whether this will produce the outcomes that the Trump administration wants.’’
US secretary of state Michael Pompeo said on Monday the US would end the sanctions waiver it had continued to issue for Iran’s Fordow reactor, a move he said was the result of Tehran’s continuing enrichment in violation of the 2015 deal.
The US has been ambiguous about whether the ultimate goal of its policy is to force regime change or a shift in Iran’s behaviour. Currently it supports Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, supplies militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and pursues uranium enrichment and ballistic missile capabilities.
But there is little doubt that Trump’s “maximum pressure’’ strategy has hurt the Iranian economy. The crude oil exports on which Iran relies for much of its hard currency earnings have fallen to about 250,000 barrels a day, from a peak of 2.5- million barrels a day in April last year. That has made unaffordable the $69bn that, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, Iran spent on energy subsidies in 2018.
The IMF has forecast a 9.5% contraction for Iran this year, amid 36% inflation that is eating away at incomes.
Before the government blocked internet connections at the weekend, protesters were captured on social media complaining about a lack of job prospects and chanting slogans such as “down with the dictator’’.
Unlike Bolivia, however, where then-president Evo Morales fled to Mexico after the army chief called on him to resign, there is no sign that Iran’s rulers are losing the support of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, or of the Basij militias that were deployed to crush much wider antigovernment demonstrations in 2009.
Instead of reining in its foreign policy ambitions, Iran has responded to US pressure by trying to strengthen its hand, reviving the stalled nuclear fuel programme, attacking tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz and conducting a drone and missile strike on Saudi Arabia that temporarily halted 5% of global oil supply. Iran denies responsibility for the missile attack.
A study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies detailed the extraordinary success Iran has had in extending its regional influence, by enlisting Shiite militias — from Afghanistan to Iraq — to help fight for its interests against much better armed and resourced opponents.
Equally, hundreds of pages of Iranian intelligence agency documents published by The Intercept and the New York Times on Monday shed light on the extent to which Iran penetrated Iraq’s state institutions since its US occupation, triggering the recent Iraqi nationalist backlash even among fellow Shiites.
Sanctions alone are unlikely to deter Iran, according to John Raine, a senior adviser to the International Institute for Strategic Studies who worked on the study. While it is difficult to calculate exactly how much policies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen have cost the Iranian budget, there is little evidence of any sudden change in activity or funding either before, during or after the 2015 nuclear deal briefly lifted sanctions.
By now, collaborating with militias has probably become more useful to the government than its ballistic missile or nuclear programmes, Raine said. “That has been possible only because there was no push back, no consequences” from the West.