Week of January 5th, 2018

Iranian Riots and the U.S. Policy

In the past few days, thousands of Iranians have marched against the government in Tehran. Trump has tweeted his support for the protesters, spoken out in their favor, and made clear that he’d love to see them topple the regime itself.

But, will the American response, be limited to the president’s tweets? Or, is this the beginning of a movement to destabilize Iran?

The first question to ask is if these demonstrations are different from ones that occurred in the past?

It’s obvious that these riots are quite different from the ones in 2009.

The first difference is geographic. Whereas the 2009 protests were mainly limited to Tehran, today’s phenomenon covers the whole country, from major cities to smaller towns and even rural villages. That’s significant, because many argue that opposition to the regime is restricted to the elites of the big cities, and that rural populations are pro-regime. It’s difficult to judge how many rural residents are protesting. That’s new, and it probably surprised both the government and the leaders of the 2009 protests.

Of concern for the regime is the fact that the Kurds are supporting the protests. The region’s Kurds are experienced fighters and have weapons.

The second difference is demographic. The 2009 demonstrators were Tehran’s upper middle class. Today’s masses are proletarians: workers, unemployed, failing farmers and the like. Notice that trade unionists are being arrested in Tehran, because the leadership fears they are the real organizers of the uprising, and because workers and the unemployed are not as easy to intimidate as professors and businessmen.

Then there is ideology. Most accounts insist that this whole thing started because people weren’t being paid enough and food prices were too high in addition of failed banks that usurps thousands from their savings. Obviously, protests of this sort are commonplace in many nations, but they do not normally set off a nation-wide conflagration. It takes a common interest like aiming at overthrowing the regime, to create nationwide protests.

Interestingly, it appears that the riot participants are from the same sectors of society that brought down the Shah nearly 40 years ago. The Washington Times said, “While the abortive Green Revolution eight years ago was driven mainly by the children of wealthy political elites in Tehran in the wake of a questionable election, the spontaneous protests this time around are unfolding across the country and driven by what analysts describe as “the working poor” — a segment of the population that has little to lose in the face of a crackdown by the regime.”

“The segment of the population that’s out protesting right now is much the same segment that carried out the revolution against the U.S.-backed Shah nearly 40 years ago,” said one of the sources, who spoke Tuesday on the condition of anonymity. “We’re talking about people who weathered the bullets of the Shah. We don’t know how these people are going to react if there’s a violent crackdown.”

According to reports, fires are being set by people who want an end to the Islamic Republic. Videos show them burning posters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, religious centers, schools, and living quarters of the clergy.

There is also a concern about Iran’s foreign involvements. Rioters are begin heard to yell “Don’t talk to us about Gaza, talk about us.” Some of the protestors have lost relatives on foreign battlefields, and they don’t approve of the human and monetary costs of Iran’s interventions in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen.

One of the problems with protests that are widespread, is that the elements that Iran’s leadership draws its security forces are involved in the protests. The security forces’ most loyal component is the Basij, whose ranks are largely drawn from the same neighborhoods as many of the protestors.

So, what we are seeing is a nation with widespread protests that are involving most of the demographic elements of Iran. In that case, even Iran’s security forces, which are large and powerful, may not be able to stem the unrest. Twitter on Tuesday night carried an alleged text message said to have been sent to retired security people, urging them to come fight for the regime. If that is true, it indicates a real concern in the corridors of power that they need more fighters – that this thing is too big for them as presently constituted.


Outside Forces

The Iranian leadership must also be concerned that this domestic unrest is happening as the opposition to the Iranian regime is coalescing outside their borders.

The biggest change is American President Trump. While Obama took a low profile approach during the 2009 unrest in Iran, Trump has made it clear that he considers the Iranian regime to be a danger – a danger that must be countered.

For the US, a regime change in Iran could solve many problems. A more moderate regime could curtail its missile and nuclear programs. It would also likely pull its forces from Syria and Iraq.

Another country hoping for a regime change in Iran is Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Crown Prince Salman. While there has been a long term rivalry between the two nations for influence in the Middle East, the war in Yemen has made that less a rivalry and more an outright war.

For Saudi Arabia, a regime change would likely mean an end to the costly and indecisive war in Yemen. A more moderate Iran would also mean that Saudi Arabia would have more influence within the region.

The final important player in the anti-Iranian regime alliance is Israel. Israel and Iran have been enemies since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. A regime change would lessen the nuclear and missile threat. A more moderate Iranian leadership wouldn’t have the same influence in Lebanon and Syria.

It now appears that these three countries are prepared to be more aggressive towards Iran.   A report in a Kuwaiti newspaper says U.S. intelligence has given a green light to Israel to assassinate a top Iranian Revolutionary Guards general.

Qassem Soleimani has commanded the Revolutionary Guards unit known as the Quds Force for 20 years.  Soleimani has been in command of Iranian units in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Israel wanted to kill Soleimani three years ago, but the Obama administration tipped off the Iranians, and the effort failed. But that is unlikely under Trump.

With Iran facing widespread unrest, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US will probably ramp up their destabilization activities.

In addition to providing moral support via Twitter, Trump can tighten economic sanctions against Iran, if the protests lead to widespread suppression by Iranian security forces. The US can also counter the Iranian government’s tightening of internet access with more radio broadcasts directed towards Iran.

Trump can also cut international support for Iran by working with Russia for a Syrian peace that includes president Assad.

Russia and Iran are traditional rivals as they have both vied for influence in the Central Asia area. That rivalry has been set aside recently as both nations have supported Syria and president Assad.

The report that Israel wants to assassinate one of the heads of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard indicates that Israel is probably already involved in destabilizing Iran. It seems the 3 countries think they need to weaken Revolutionary Guards using assassination of prominent leaders like Sulaimani , the calculation is that such action will render the Guards unable to quickly or effectively respond to protestors. And, since the Revolutionary Guards are the backbone of the Iranian regime’s power, their nullification would seriously cripple the regime.

The final key player in bringing about a regime change in Iran is Saudi Arabia. Although the war in Yemen is draining Saudi Arabia.

Before the unrest, it was clear that Iran was committed to Yemen for the long term. In March Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri said that Tehran was willing to help Houthi rebels “in any way it can, and to any level necessary” against the Saudis.

These three nations (and others like the UAE) have a desire to overthrowing the current Iranian regime, if they want to commit the resources to it. Aside from the public face of opposition like economic sanctions and public statements, there are many things that Israel the US, and Saudi Arabia could do.

According to some American analysts who are in close contacts with US undercover operations, the first move is to strengthen the unrest inside Iran. This means money and arms. Obviously, America and Saudi Arabia have the money and there is a surplus of arms in the Middle East, thanks to the ongoing wars in Syria, Libya, and Iraq.

The next move is to coordinate the protests, so they become more effective. This includes targeting centers of power like police stations and government buildings.

As the unrest grows, the hope is that parts of the Iranian security forces defect to the protesters or just desert grows. This, in turn, puts more pressure on the regime.

If these actions are widespread enough, it will force the Iranian regime to pull forces out of countries like Syria and Iraq in order to contain the unrest.

At this point, the Iranian military becomes important. Since the Revolutionary Guards are expected to remain loyal to the current government (minus some defections), it will be up to the military leadership to step in to “protect the nation and its citizens.”

Although the regime of Iran seems secure now, the hope is a concerted push by the protesters, backed by several outside forces could create a continuous crisis that lead to crippling the regime and open the door for drastic changes.