A few months ago, Iran launched drones and cruise missiles at Saudi Arabia in an unprecedented show of strategic and tactical thinking. It was a glorious moment for Tehran, and one of contemplation for the rest of the world on how best to respond. That question is still being asked today. This type of strike demonstrated a jump in strategy and technology. Many military analysts were taken aback by the attack because of its sophistication and pinpoint targeting.
But fast forward to the present, and there is no larger turnaround in fortunes than what is now besetting Iran. Hundreds of protesters have been killed in the worst uprising since the 1979 revolution. The protests that broke out across the country, in the wake of the announcement to increase fuel prices, exposed how the White House’s strategy of maximum pressure on Iran is taking the latter to the brink.
With parliamentary elections slated for February 2020, issues perhaps once thought off limits may be allowed to release steam, further challenging the government as the sanctions squeeze continues.
What is fascinating about these protests is that unlike the past, they are targeting the symbols of the foundation of the Islamic Republic itself. Posters of Iran’s aging leaders are being burned by broad cross sections of society that see the system as rotten to the core. Forty years after the revolution and months after its strike against Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s ability to rule is seriously being challenged by internal discontent.
Although the protests of 2017 focused on the economy, today’s are displaying discontent with Tehran’s foreign policy adventures, and the toll they are taking on the country in terms of blood and treasure. Chants of “the return of the shah”, “clerics get lost” and “not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life only for Iran” are a measure of how much vitriol there is against the ruling establishment.
The protests, and attacks on physical structures representing religious authority, are illustrative of today’s anger. Authorities reported that nine seminaries and Friday prayer offices have been burned by protesters across the country. In Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, they have blocked traffic on streets and highways.
The conservative Qom News published a video of a protest in Mashhad after Friday prayers in which a cleric tells a sizeable crowd: “Most of your representatives don’t care about people’s problems. Most have two passports and their families are abroad. The judiciary should find these people and arrest them.” Chants of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) follow from the crowd.
Such sentiment in a religious city is a phenomenon that needs to be watched carefully for further such commentary. This type of language, against the corruption of an old order, is spread across the Levant too because of Tehran’s recklessness in using Iraq and Syria as hubs for its foreign operations. The revolutionary generation is dying off. The next generation may not be so fervent and dedicated to resistance.
When the attacks on seminaries or Friday prayer offices are occurring, guards from the Basij, one of the forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are failing at their job or defecting to join the protests, despite the high risk to themselves and their family. Iran seems to be on the precipice of major challenges and changes to its leadership, despite the ongoing crackdown and Tehran’s adjustment in budget priorities to deliver a bit of relief to the populace.