Six months into President Joe Biden’s tenure, several sanctions against Iran have been lifted and new ones imposed as the administration seeks to coax Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear capability. While messages from Washington and signals from Tehran were mixed, one thing was clear last July in the southwestern city of Ahvaz: People were thirsty. On July 15, after weeks of irregular access to water and periods of several hours without water, a spontaneous protest emerged.
Desperate and angry citizens took to the streets and blocked the roads as Iran’s growing service shortages reached a breaking point. Dubbed the uprising of the thirsty, within days the protests spread across the province, then quickly spread across the country and into Tehran. Citizens blamed the government and widespread corruption for water and electricity shortages, and in some cases chanted “Death to the Dictator”.
Some reports indicate that the regime has been baffled by the speed at which the protests have spread, the fastest in the capital since the accidental crash of a Ukrainian airliner in January 2020. Security forces have killed people. protesters in towns near Ahvaz and the government has strangled internet service. limit the capacity of the organizers. Given the frequency of unrest in recent years, the regime now has a well-worn playbook, much of which is devoted to cracking down on protesters with deadly force.
Thus, despite the organic and generalized nature of the demonstrations, there will be no revolution this year. Yet an important development took place in Iran in 2021. Conventional wisdom has suggested for years that Western sanctions relief is a drastic and urgent need for the regime. But a closer reading of their actions in 2021 suggests that relief may be the government’s third or fourth priority.
These leaders are not motivated by compassion
Iranian leaders recognize that the economic pain and domestic discontent resulting from the sanctions do not pose an existential threat to a regime ready to rule by hard power. Its protesters and so-called revolutionaries lack much international support.
The regime survived a gunshot to the chest of a young woman named Neda on video in 2009, drawing harsh claims from around the world, and nothing else. The Green Revolution more than a decade ago made it clear: no one is coming to help the Iranian people. The mullahs will suppress widespread dissent with proven and sadly unprecedented force.
Ensuring the stability of the regime is the first and ultimate goal. After that, the mullahs’ actions suggest that access to hard cash and balancing against Israel are the regime’s next two priorities.
In fact, Iran’s recent attack on an Israel-affiliated oil tanker is not only aimed at consolidating proxy advantage in one of the region’s particular conflicts, nor the typical pursuit of two-power military superiority. regional. This attack responds to a more immediate need. Specifically, the Iranians are relying on naval deterrence to prevent bans on ships selling low-rate oil for cash to Syria and China – a way they are watering down the ability of sanctions to deprive them. operating funds.
Thus, the regime now knows that deadly repressions and the circumvention of sanctions are not obvious obstacles to its national and regional objectives. He knows foreign governments are unwilling to crack down on illicit oil shipments, and he knows he can survive even temporary destabilizing protests.
Regime stability is a key objective
Seeing these lifelines, he chose to drop even the veneer of electoral legitimacy by bringing Ebrahim Raisi into the presidency this summer. The mullahs broke with a long tradition and fixed the June presidential election in a dramatic and obvious way. The solution was so obvious that a majority of Iranians stayed at home knowing who the candidate handpicked by Supreme Leader Khamenei was, as speculation also grew that Raisi might move from president to supreme leader when Khamenei aging would die.
Previously, the presidency was a mechanism for at least limited national reflection of popular concerns. Instead, it is now occupied by a man who is himself a symbol and groomed for one sake: the stability of the regime.
In recent years, Iran has attacked US forces, a British ship, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and has planned new attacks in Washington, Paris and elsewhere. These military operations complement ongoing proxy maneuvers and paramilitary interference in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.
Hard power reigns in the region, and Iran wields it as effectively as possible. None of these activities can be explained simply by the fact that Iran is “stepping up tensions” in the search for a deal or “strengthening its hand” before a deal. The agreement is just not very relevant anymore; maybe third or fourth on their priority list, and even the Israeli sabotage campaign against their nuclear program has not prevented further enrichment of fissile material.
Deterrence is Israel
The hard power calculation underlying the region is certainly not Iran estimating how the United States will react to its nuclear program, nor the fear of Gulf states with limited military capability. This is the open Israel-Iran conflict: not quite a war, certainly not peace.
The deterrent is Israel, not the United States which does not even want to retaliate against Iranian attacks on facilities in Iraq run by American personnel. Iran’s freedom of action is all that will not cause a full-fledged war with Israel. Few, if any, other guardrails exist.
The extent of Iranian interference in the region has essentially created a new sub-state order, under Iranian control. Through these interventions, Iran has a veto right over the domestic politics experienced by millions of people, a manifestation of the Islamic revolution in the absence of the formal reversals usually associated with it.
It’s not that they run these countries, but it’s more than foreign interference, a kind of “soft sovereignty”. Iran does not determine all national choices in these countries, but it does mean that by using subversive proxy support in places like Lebanon and Iraq, they have the ability to override democratic institutions at times. keys and shape the window of acceptable results. Sponsored armed militias have a veto over results they don’t like.
What happens when the United States weakens
The region cannot progress under these conditions. An aggressive radical hegemon and a regional coin cannot coexist, and conflict, delayed humanitarian progress and frustration will remain the norm.
The United States is unwilling to impose a further radical change in regional dynamics. Iran understands this. Israel understands this. The Gulf powers have understood this. So what does a Middle East look like with an indifferent United States?
Two critical variables will determine a lot, with potential implications not only for the region but for the world. The first is whether other nation states in the region are opening up, to Syria and Yemen. If this happens, a wider spiral of instability could emerge, with the number of refugees and IDPs at any given time almost equaling the number settled, preventing virtually any progress from being made both regionally or regionally. in individual countries.
The second is whether the existing low-level conflict can continue as it is with only occasional spillovers or if a major state-to-state war breaks out, with Iran enlisting its proxies in the region in regional subversion and sabotage. . If the pace of the current unnamed but open conflict, already involving warships in the Mediterranean, armed drones in Iraq and Syria, and long-range missiles in Yemen, is accelerating, our ability to call it anything other than war regional will not be the only thing on shaky ground.
Jason Killmeyer is a counterterrorism and defense policy expert specializing in emerging technology applications. His writings have been featured in Human Events, Townhall, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, and more. Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKillmeyer.