By Eleanor Beevor
The future of the Khameini regime and the legacy of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is looking uncertain. Since late December, thousands of Iranians have let loose pent-up frustration over rising living costs in a series of dramatic protests.
Blame is heaping on President Hassan Rouhani, who won a second term in 2016 thanks to support for his diplomatic efforts to lift international sanctions, in exchange for Iran reducing its nuclear capabilities.
Unfortunately, the promised economic benefits have yet to be felt in Iranian households, which regularly struggle to make ends meet. Anger has been compounded by Iran’s reckless spending on conflicts abroad. Billions are poured into Syria to arm Shia militias whilst ordinary people struggle to buy food. As the economic protests bubbled, a new strand of resistance to Iran’s strict religious laws also rose up among them.
Women began removing their hijabs, a compulsory garment in the Islamic Republic, in a brave gesture of defiance. Their stance against the enforced dress code has also garnered support from men, and from women who would still wear it.
There is a palpable desire among certain world leaders to see the protests as a “Persian Spring," heralding the end of the Islamic Republic. President Donald Trump, in a keyboard-based show of gunboat diplomacy, took to Twitter to declare his support for the protesters, and condemned the Iranian government as “brutal and corrupt."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed suit, denouncing the government, and promising a renewed era of friendship between Israel and Iran after its fall. This opportunistic clamouring for regime change is extremely worrying, not least because it suggests the lessons of history risk being ignored. Whatever reasons there are to be angry with Iran’s government – and there are plenty – no one should need reminding that meddling in Iranian politics carries the law of unintended consequences.
It is still far too early to be confident that the protests mark a turning point. The regime might be shaken - government has had to backtrack on their proposed annual budget - but it is a long way from defeated. It has a history of dealing with protests effectively, if unpleasantly, and has certainly not held back on this occasion. So far, 53 protestors have been killed, 8000 imprisoned, and 1000 may be at risk of torture or capital punishment.
But even in the face of this unjustifiable repression, foreign powers must carefully consider what is best for the Iranian people that they claim to support. And they will have to face the fact that, if the regime does outlast these protests, punishing and isolating it will hurt ordinary Iranians the most. Better relations between Euro-America and Iran are in everyone’s interest, whether power changes hands or not.
Isolating Iran with a view of weakening it is at best wishful thinking, and at worst invites far greater risk. It may be hurting economically, but it is not without economic partners. China announced a $600 billion trade deal with Iran in 2016, and also buys a significant proportion of its oil exports. Trump, despite his hawkish rhetoric and campaign promise to end the Obama-era nuclear deal, has extended it for now on condition that the deal’s European partners fix unspecified “flaws” in it.
Iran is safe from further sanctions for a few more months, but certainly not forever. Yet even if the US does end the sanctions waiver, Iran could still accept contracts from Chinese companies in yuan rather than dollars. Whilst the sanctions would cause Iran further economic grief, it would also place it squarely in China’s sphere of influence, with no guarantee of a political transition.
Crucially, an isolated Iran could be far more dangerous than an Iran with at least some interest in cooperating with the West.
“If Iran’s isolation is normalized in the international arena, it is less likely to obey international law, or to see itself as accountable for its actions. In such a case, neither Europe nor America will have any sway over Iran. For a converse example we can look at North Korea, a country whose isolation means that we understand very little of its internal politics, and which presents a far greater security risk because of a lack of effective diplomatic channels," said Bahar Karimi, a specialist in American-Iranian relations at King’s College, London.
It remains to be seen whether there will be a significant shake-up among the current Iranian leadership. State media is rife with rumours that President Hassan Rouhani is about to lose his job. Rouhani is certainly embattled on multiple fronts. Some reports suggest that the economic protests were actually triggered by conservative factions looking to upset his efforts to see through the nuclear deal and its benefits.
Whilst the western press has generally portrayed him as a “moderate”, this status is questioned by many, and may do him little good either way if America pushes for the end of the regime as a whole. Rouhani has also emphasised his own loyalty to Islamist Republicanism in recent days. So what are we to make of him?
“When he was first elected in 2013, Rouhani could have been best characterised as a candidate of the centre-right”, said Karimi. “Yet he became increasingly reformist as progress was made on the nuclear deal. Rouhani is a product of the Islamic Revolution, and he still believes in it. But it is because he wants to ensure its survival, as well as the country’s development, that he is looking to improve Iran’s economy through a warming in Euro-American relations.”
In the absence of a political environment in which alternatives can be freely discussed, it is difficult to say whether the majority of Iranian people still share this commitment to the Revolution’s ideals. Nevertheless, Rouhani’s version of Iranian Islamism remains a far better alternative to the one which mandates threatening the West.
Unfortunately, the more that Trump demonises Iran, the more Iran’s anti-American conservatives can reciprocate in kind, and credibly insist that dialogue is futile. Distasteful though it may be to continue engagement after the vicious crackdowns on protesters, it is still the only path through which things could improve for Iranian citizens. “If the lift in sanctions is maintained and relations improve, the chances of a productive dialogue about issues such as human rights will be much greater than if Iran is isolated,” added Karimi.
Whether the days of the Supreme Leader and his government are numbered or not, foreign powers must resist the temptation to manipulate the protestors’ struggle for their own interests. Critically, they should not abandon their diplomatic leverage. There is little to gain and a great deal to lose by further inflaming tensions, and if the West truly does support the Iranian people above all, then they cannot yet rule out working with their government.
© 2000 - 2021 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)