Dennis Horak was Canada’s head of mission in Iran from 2009-12 and Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2015-18. He retired in 2018 after a 31-year diplomatic career.
The violent demonstrations that have erupted across Iran since last Friday are worrying for the government, but the prospect of them leading to a significant shift in Iranian policy or regime change are dim.
While the ostensible reason behind the outburst was the government’s decision to reduce fuel subsidies (in what they contend is an effort to rebalance the country’s increasingly scarce resources toward the poorest elements of society), public discontent has a broader target.
Put simply, many Iranians are fed up. Sanctions are biting and Iranians are feeling the pinch. Many are frustrated by a system and approach that have benefited only the very few in the privileged class, while decimating the livelihoods and savings of the average Iranian worker and family.
Rampant corruption and economic mismanagement are long-standing afflictions in Iran, and it’s safe to say that few believe the government’s claim that revenue saved by reducing fuel subsidies will actually find its way into the pockets of Iran’s poor.
Iranians, judging by some of the calls from demonstrators, have also had enough of subsidizing Iran’s regional adventures in places such as Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza and Syria. While many Iranians may be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and likely take pride in Iran’s ability to play a decisive leadership role elsewhere in the region, many would prefer the government to turn its full attention to the challenges at home during this particularly challenging time.
There are echoes in Iran of what we have seen happening in Iraq and Lebanon over the past several weeks, where demonstrations have challenged the ruling elites in a sustained demand for fundamental change in how those countries are being governed.
Some of those on the streets in Iranian cities may, in fact, be inspired by what is happening in Baghdad and Beirut (where, ironically, Iranian influence is one of their grievances). But the Iranian regime is on much firmer footing.
The leadership of the Islamic Republic has seen all this before, most notably in 2009 with the Green Movement demonstrations that brought millions into the streets following disputed elections, and in 2017 when protests erupted in 80 cities over poor living standards.
The regime has an established and well-tested playbook on how to deal with these challenges. The security forces have responded harshly, with tear gas and bullets, and they have shut down the internet. The protesters, drawn from a cross-section of Iranian society, have been labelled “thugs” and “counter-revolutionaries” supposedly under the control of Iran’s foreign enemies.
The tweet put out by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday declaring Washington’s backing for the demonstrators – “As I said to the people of Iran almost a year and a half ago, the United States is with you” – will only reinforce the false narrative inside Iran that this is a U.S.-led movement.
Mr. Pompeo’s open support is likely driven (in part at least) by the desire not to repeat the same supposed “mistake” former president Barack Obama made when he rightly refused to publicly declare U.S. support for the Green Movement, which some Republicans falsely contend ultimately helped doom it. Mr. Obama got it right; Mr. Pompeo hasn’t and that’s a problem.
Many Iranians will dismiss the charge of foreign influence as a transparent attempt by the regime to shift attention away from the legitimate grievances that have driven ordinary Iranians into the streets. But these accusations – fed by Mr. Pompeo’s tweet – risk tainting the demonstrators and their reasonable concerns.
The allegations could resonate among Iranian fence-sitters and supporters of the regime (of which there are still millions) who have long memories of U.S. interference and bristle at the Trump administration’s barely concealed desire for regime change.
It will be difficult for the Iranian government to address the specific grievances raised by the protesters.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has already voiced his support for the fuel price hike, making any walk-back difficult. Additionally, there are too many powerful forces inside the system that have an ideological and geopolitical conviction regarding the need for foreign adventures to realistically expect any meaningful change on that front either (notwithstanding how welcome that would be in the West and even among many in the region).
The Iranian government may be able to soften the impact of some of its measures, but significant concessions are unlikely. The Islamic regime is almost pathologically wary of the risk of caving into pressure, whether it comes from the streets of Tehran or the White House. Compromise, in their view, only invites further demands.
Iranians are famously resilient and that is being acutely tested now as the economic hardships mount. But it’s also important to remember that, despite decades of pressure, the regime has demonstrated its own resilience (backed by brutal force when necessary) over the past 40 years. That’s a reality we cannot ignore when we think about where all this is likely headed in the weeks ahead.
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