Protests in Iran have surprised everyone including the elected government and its unelected masters in clerical robes or rivals in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) uniform. Though protests began on December 28 in Mashhad, the holiest (it is the resting place of Imam Reza, the only one of the 10 Imams of Shias buried in Iran) and second-largest city of Iran, the events have been in the making ever since Donald Trump took office as US President.
President Hassan Rouhani was first elected president in 2013 on a plank to bring a civil rights charter, restore economic growth and improve relations with the western countries.
US President Barrack Obama was then grappling with the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria and eventually the fall of Mosul and declaration of the Caliphate in June 2014. Countering the Bashar al-Assad regime by encouraging Gulf rulers to bankroll disparate Sunni groups in Syria had only worsened the chaos, from which sprang the ISIS. To counter this mutated radical Islamist force, the US committed air assets and some military advisers but was unwilling to deploy ground troops. Obama concluded that to counter ISIS, Iran needed to be unshackled as it was the only force with the will and ability to deliver. The 2015 Iran-P5 nuclear deal was the condition precedent to that arrangement. The price was to re-balance relations with traditional allies Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The deal, as Saudis and Emiratis correctly read it, emboldened Iran to gather Shia allies in a crescent extending west from Iran to the Mediterranean, resurrecting the footprint of the great Persian Achaemenid (550-330BC) empire. Iran, with the Russians joining in to grab an opportunity to regain influence in West Asia, stabilised the Assad regime, decimated ISIS, helped liberate Mosul and now confronts Saudis and their allies in Yemen. Iranian ascendancy has made Israel nervous, as it perceives an existential threat from Iranian ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. The danger always was that once Iran was entrenched in West Asia, it was unlikely to exit. After all, Iran was the first regional hegemon two-and-a-half millennia ago. Obama, thus, was keeping many banking sanctions operational on the pretext that they related not to Iran’s nuclear programme but to Iranian support to terrorist groups like Hezbollah.
President Rouhani managed the internal consensus for the nuclear deal by convincing the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that with sanctions gone, foreign investment and technology will flow ameliorating the economic mess left behind by his predecessor Ahmadinejad. That never happened, as the residual US sanctions still scared investors, as perhaps did signals from the cash-rich GCC members.
President Donald Trump got elected, snarling at Iran and the nuclear deal — which the other signatories feel Iran is not breaching — put Rouhani between the people no longer willing to wait and the conservatives led by the IRGC chiding him for being befooled. The behaviour of North Korea, defiant and pugilistic, just because it has nuclear devices would also be viewed internally as what Iran could have done if it had not abandoned its enrichment programme.
Unlike the street protests in 2009 — unrelated but a precursor to the Arab Spring — triggered by the controversial win of Ahmadinejad, the present protests were started by a conservative Rouhani rival, Ebrahim Raisi, who incited people over high food prices in Mashhad. It is possible that conservatives were attempting to weaken Rouhani or create a pretext for a crackdown because some weeks earlier, the government loosened headgear rules for women. But what they did not expect was that the public ire will even envelop the country’s Supreme Leader.
Because the crowds are leaderless, and the IRGC and its affiliate, the Basij, have adequate experience and muscle, the protest will likely be put down quickly. Supreme Leader Khamenei attributed the protests to foreign money, intelligence and foreign forces. President Rouhani made a calibrated appeal saying people have the right to protest but violence must be avoided.
President Trump continued his twitter diatribe calling Obama “foolish” in returning money to the “brutal and corrupt” government of Iran. It is said that revolutions erupt when the hope of a better future is dashed. Low oil prices, security expenditure in IRGC operations abroad and sanctions seem to have driven the Iranian people to the brink. Iran, incidentally, unlike most Islamic nations, has a history of street protests and a tradition of “Bast” where refuge could be taken in designated mosques or post 1848, in foreign legations by people protesting against their rulers. In 1906, British Legation gave refuge to 12,000-16,000 people, finally resulting in the Qajar ruler permitting a constitution and National Assembly.
It is difficult to predict how power is rebalanced between the Supreme Leader, President Rouhani and outside players like IRGC. But Iran holds tangible assets in West Asia and in Afghanistan, where Russia and Iran are keeping channels open to the Taliban because of their shared fear of ISIS replanting there after its Syria-Iraq debacle. The new “Great Game”, has just begun. Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is re-visiting UAE next month, must realise that a Shia-Sunni divide, exacerbated by Trump, will be difficult to bridge.