Iran destabilisation could change regional paradigms
Cities across Iran have been in serious turmoil for more than a week. The apparent reason is the increased cost of living. In over 100 cities, people took to the streets to protest a 50 percent increase in petrol prices, though the country still has some of the cheapest fuel in the world. There may be other reasons as well, but this specific complaint appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Similar turmoil took place two years ago on Dec. 28, when protests started in Mashhad, northeast Tehran, and spread all over the country, leaving more than 20 people dead, including police officers.
At that time, the reason was a forty percent increase to the price of eggs and several other main staples. In both cases, the underlying reasons of the disturbances are economic difficulties, but this time the number of demonstrators is estimated to have doubled since the previous protests: 42,000 in 2018, compared to 87,000 in 2019. As a result, both the protesters and the police have used more violent methods.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week backed the price increase saying the decision had been taken after consultation between the legislative, judiciary and executive branches.
The United States is imposing tight sanctions because of Iran’s nuclear programme. The European members of the P5+1 - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany – were not able to come up with a workable mechanism to circumvent these unilateral American measures.
Despite the strong resilience of the Iranian people, the impact of the sanctions is felt in almost every segment of daily life in Iran. The Khomeini Revolution of 1979 has failed to meet the expectations of the young generation. This must be the reason why the protestors were also shouting slogans against Iran’s political leaders.
Israel is openly hostile to Iran in almost every imaginable field. Therefore, one may presume that Israel is doing everything possible – without burning its own fingers – to see these demonstrations get out of control.
Having said that, it would be optimistic to expect a pro-American or pro-Western regime to emerge if the present Iranian regime collapses. Iran is a country with 2,500 years of statehood experience. It existed more than 2,000 years before the United States was established and before any of the present European countries existed. Philosophers and poets, Sadi and Hafez Shirazi and Omar Khayyam, published their works two hundred years before the Renaissance in Europe. Iran is an oil-rich country; it possesses nuclear technology, it has highly educated scholars and it has very strong diplomacy. Everything that such a country does has to be taken seriously.
Among the protestors, there will of course be individuals that favour a Western type of society, but a majority of the nation will maintain its own traditions and anti-Western feelings. Therefore, anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Western sentiments are likely to prevail even if the present regime collapses.
If Iran is destabilised, many paradigms may change for several countries in the region, and this may even affect more distant countries. Iran also has the means to retaliate and it may take time to restore order.
Slogans in favour of Turkey have also been heard during the demonstrations, but only occasionally. Turkey has to handle such cases with care for the sake of maintaining healthy relations with Iran. Turkish-speaking Iranian Azeris constitute a sizeable minority in Iran, but because of their adherence to the Shia sect, their allegiance to Iran remains strong. While Turkey has serious problems with its own Alawites (a sub-sect of Shiism), it should keep distant from separatist tendencies in neighbouring countries.
Turkey has been able to maintain stable relations with Iran since the Ottoman era. Its border with Iran is one of the oldest borders in the world, and has remained unchanged for 380 years, since the Qasr-e Shirin Treaty of 1639. Minor conflicts have arisen from time to time, but the two countries were able to overcome them by reaching a modus vivendi and have maintained stable relations.
Both countries have an interest in keeping these relations. Otherwise, another more serious conflict could change all the paradigms in the region.