By Arab News
By Talmiz Ahmad*
Popular agitation began in Iran in a low-key manner in the holy city of Mashhad on Dec. 28, when hundreds of people came out on to the streets shouting slogans such as “No to high prices” and “Death to Rouhani.” Within a few days, protests had spread to 20 towns and soon involved 50 others. The demonstrators were generally working class, most of them very poor, some even destitute. They were the latest of more than 900 strikes and public protests in Iran since March last year.
On Jan. 7, the security authorities announced that the agitation had ended, but most observers believe public anger has not been assuaged, nor have the issues raised been addressed.
The common driver of the protests was anger at high prices, poverty, unemployment and corruption, embracing all aspects of national governance. This was reflected in the increasingly strident slogans: “Death to the Dictator” (a reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei), “Death to the Revolutionary Guards,” “People are paupers while the mullahs live like gods,” “Independence, freedom, Iranian republic,” and “We don’t want the Islamic Republic.”
The demonstrations were a sharp critique of the repression, mismanagement and clerical greed that most of the Iranian poor have experienced over the past few years, with the children of the revolutionaries of the 1970s now rudely flaunting their wealth and power amid widespread national poverty.
The demonstrators also chanted slogans criticizing Iran’s foreign policy, such as “Leave Syria alone, do something for us” and “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, my life for Iran.” They signaled widespread anger at Iran’s expensive regional interventions and sought to remind the leadership that its priority should be the welfare of its citizens.
Today, Iran is involved in several regional theaters of contention and conflict. In Lebanon, Iran helped raise the militia, Hezbollah, which defended Shiite interests in the country and fought the Israelis in 2006. It is now also deployed in Syria to defend the Assad regime, and is part of the government of national unity in Beirut.
In Iraq, following the occupation of Mosul by Daesh in June 2014, Iran financed and trained a largely Shiite militia, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which led the fight against Daesh and played an important role in the liberation of several towns from the terror group’s control. After the Kurdish referendum in favor of independence in September last year, PMU militia besieged Kirkuk, and an Iranian general negotiated the vacation of that oil-rich city by Kurdish Peshmerga.
In Yemen, Iran is backing the Houthi militias in their fight against government forces by equipping them with weapons, particularly short-range missiles. Some Hezbollah fighters are also believed to have been deployed in Yemen.
The most important battleground for Iran today is Syria, where it has been an ally of the Assad family for a few decades. Hence, not surprisingly, it sprang to the defense of the Bashar Assad presidency in 2011, when it was under attack from domestic forces seeking reform and regime change. Later, Hezbollah militants were also deployed in Syria, when the pressure upon the regime was at its height. Iran has itself announced that more than 1,000 of its revolutionary guards have been killed in Syria.
The Ankara-based commentator on Iran, Farhad Rezaei, has recently provided some figures on Iran’s financial commitments to supporting its regional activities. He estimates that Iran’s annual assistance to Syria is in the range of $6-15 billion, while aid to Hezbollah could be about $1 billion annually, with another billion dollars spent in Iraq, Yemen and on Hamas in Palestine. Rezaei also says that Iran is providing $2,000 a month to individual Iraqi and Lebanese fighters it has deployed in Yemen to fight on the side of the Houthis.
While some of Rezaei’s figures could be disputed, there is little doubt that a large part of Iran’s revenue is being used to fund its overseas interests. Linked with this, in Iran itself the annual budget for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been raised to $8 billion, even as the same budget provides for increased fuel prices and cuts in cash subsidies. This is a source of popular anger in Iran.
Are Iran’s regional policies likely to change in the wake of the popular protests? A simple yes or no answer is not possible due to Iran’s unique political system, which empowers unelected cleric Khamenei, who enjoys a lifetime appointment with full authority in the security area, leaving the popularly elected president with full responsibility for steering the economy and providing for the welfare of his people with the meager resources made available to him.
Khamenei and the IRGC have adopted the position that the recent protests are the result of external conspiracies aimed at undermining national interests. This posture is unlikely to lead to any policy changes in the region.
• Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.