Yaşar Yakış
Jan 05 2018

Iran instability threatens Middle East

There have always been small-scale sporadic disturbances in the past in Iran, but this time it looks different.

It started on Dec. 28 with the protests against the government’s economic policies in a relatively conservative city, Mashhad. However active participation of the conservatives in the protests raises the question of whether there were other reasons beyond it.

At the outset, the demonstrators’ complaints focussed mainly on the high cost of living, the late payment of pensions, and financial mismanagement. They later shifted to non-economic issues. Then, complaints about fundamental rights and freedoms are added and, from there, expanded to criticisms of the government’s involvements in the neighbouring countries. The demonstrators chanted slogans “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran”. This shows that the people are aware of wasting the country’s resources in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen at the expense of their own welfare.

Analysts were not able to offer a convincing explanation of the exact motives of the movements. Some believe the protests were initiated ostensibly by conservative circles that wanted to use economic difficulties to discredit the President Hassan Rouhani’s administration. As the demonstrations unfolded, it led to slogans such as “Down with the Islamic Republic”. There was also footage on the social media showing the removal of the supreme leader’s picture, a person considered immune to criticism.

Other analysts believe that most of the protesters come from circles that do not vote because they do not believe that any government will be able to carry out reforms.

Yet other analysts are of the opinion that the protesters come from almost all sections of society. There is definitely more than one reason for the unrest.

As demonstrated in the Arab Spring countries, street protests have their own dynamics. They may suddenly change direction and easily adopt a new purpose different from the initial one.

At the early stages of the unrest, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani used conciliatory language and acknowledged the demonstrators’ complaints. “The protests are not a threat, but an opportunity,” he said. Six days later, he changed his tune and said: “The people will give their own answer to the hooligans and violators.” This is a risky invitation for hardliners to take to the streets. It may lead to civil strife that will dangerously divide society, with unpredictable consequences.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia extended verbal support to the demonstrations. In whichever form it comes, any support from Israel and the United States is likely to cause a negative reaction in Iranian society and unite the people against them.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “enemies of Iran have used the various means they possess, including money, weapons and intelligence services to trouble the Islamic Republic”. It is true that foreign intelligence agencies use such occasions to try to channel events. But, whether they did it or not for Iran, the fact remains that Iran has needed structural reform for generations. The tension may relax if this is dome.   

The protests coincided with a claim by the Israeli daily Haaretz, which said, quoting the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida, that the United States had agreed to the assassination by Israel of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the elite Quds Forces. This news will definitely push Suleimani to take measures to protect himself and many Iranians to support him.

Iran is a major player in the region. It has a tradition of statehood going back 2,500 years. It has the means of overcoming the present turbulence, but it remains to be seen how efficiently this capacity will be utilised. Foreign interference will further complicate the situation as it did in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. For a multitude of reasons, instability in Iran will have wider implications for the region. Therefore, all stakeholders have an interest in contributing to the stability in Iran. Instability in this country may have consequences that are difficult to predict for the region, but more specifically in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.