In the confrontation that has unfolded with the Islamic Republic of Iran over the last couple of years, US President Donald Trump has often insisted that he is not seeking to overthrow the clerical regime in Tehran led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet, the temptation for a policy of “regime change” in Iran has never disappeared in Washington. It is often accompanied by the hope that mounting external pressure and deepening internal dissent will combine to produce a “regime collapse” in Tehran.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has presided over the Islamic Republic for more than three decades, has been successful so far in fending off these external and internal challenges. He has put down repeated mass uprisings and neutered attempts from within the elite to reform the system. But can he cope with the intended and unintended consequences of Trump’s decision to eliminate Qassem Soleimani, a leading figure in Iran’s political, military and diplomatic hierarchy?
The widespread assessment after the killing of Soleimani was that Iran would inevitably escalate the confrontation. What happened after that was quite the opposite. Tehran set up a token retaliation for domestic political consumption and quickly called for de-escalation. Khamenei was realistic enough to recognise that military escalation against the US, which enjoys overwhelming military superiority, would be suicidal for the regime.
As he welcomed Tehran’s decision last week to stand down, Trump also addressed the people of Iran. “We want you to have a future and a great future — one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world.” Trump also told the Iranian leaders that America “is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it”. He reminded the shared interest between Washington and Tehran on combating the Sunni extremism of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “ISIS is a natural enemy of Iran. The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities.”
Before the long-term possibilities of the temporary pause in the US-Iran conflict could be assessed, another development began to unfold. As Iran announced an end to its retaliation, a Ukrainian passenger jet crashed near Tehran killing all 176 passengers and crew on-board. It included 82 Iranian nationals and many Canadian citizens of Iranian origin. After initial denial, Tehran was forced to accept responsibility for shooting down the plane. Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, blamed human error in air defence management and expressed regret at the “great tragedy” and “unforgivable mistake”.
Soon after the confession, protests broke out against the government. The Iranian people, who had apparently rallied behind the flag after the US killing of Soleimani were now turning their rage against the government. The chant “Death to America” a week before were replaced by “Death to the Dictator” in a reference to Khamenei. Iranians are angry at the attempt of the government to cover up initially and are demanding full accountability.
The latest round of protests must be seen as a continuation of those that have raged since the end of 2017. Economic grievances, frustration with widespread corruption, demands for liberalising the restrictions on women and political opposition to the regime came together to give considerable traction to the protests. There was also strong criticism of the government’s costly external adventures in the Middle East amidst the deteriorating economic conditions. One of the slogans that became popular was “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, My Life is for Iran”; another was “Let go of Syria, think of Iran”.
As the economic crisis deepened last year amidst the tougher international sanctions imposed by the US, a huge uprising unfolded across Iran in November triggered by a hike in gasoline prices. Reports say more than 1,000 protestors were killed by the Revolutionary Guards, headed by Soleimani.
While the anger at US killing of Soleimani might have been real, there is little love for the Revolutionary Guards, the principal face of state oppression. Iranian protests at the end of last year coincided with protests in Iraq and Lebanon against Iran’s meddling in the internal affairs of these countries.
As the regime cracks down on the protests against the airliner shooting, the external pressures against Iran are only likely to mount. Extending support to the “brave and long-suffering people of Iran” last week, Trump promised “to stand with them”. He also warned the regime against “another massacre of peaceful protestors” and demanded that international human rights groups be allowed in to monitor the situation.
In rejecting “regime change” as a strategy, Trump insists that his policy is to seek a change in the “regime’s behaviour”. His demands were an end to the nuclear and missile programmes, stop supporting terror in the region and end the interference in the internal affairs of its Arab neighbours. Khamenei had no interest in responding to any of those demands and dismissed them as “regime change in disguise”.
However, as sanctions squeeze the Iranian economy, the costs of regional overreach become apparent, and internal protests become persistent, Khamenei has few good options. Offering a new political compact to the people of Iran or a new framework to deal with the Arab neighbours and the US would seem reasonable goals. But they involve considerable risk for the regime.
All revolutionary regimes come to a point when they need to replace ideological fervour with pragmatism. It is also the moment, history tells us, of greatest vulnerability for the regime. For now, the speculation about regime change or regime collapse might be premature. But Tehran’s friends and adversaries will surely begin to debate, if privately, the implications of the deepening regime crisis in Iran.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 14, 2020 under the title ‘Iran’s tightrope’. The writer is Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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