Iran’s international power structure is under severe threat from mass disaffection.
Ever since the Islamic revolution of 1979 swept the Shah from Iran’s Peacock Throne, its leaders have been painstakingly building Iranian influence in the Middle East. The regime has been single-minded in pursuit of political and religious hegemony in the region. Its strategy – which has included the acquisition of nuclear capability – has involved strengthening the power of Shi’ite entities and coordinating them into what has been called a “Shia Crescent”. This arc of Iranian influence now stretches from Lebanon across to Syria, then to Iraq, through Iran itself and via the Gulf state of Bahrain down to Yemen. In Lebanon, Iran exercises control by way of Hezbollah, in Yemen it sustains the Houthis, and up to 70 percent of the citizens of the Island kingdom of Bahrain are Shia, though it is ruled by a Sunni royal family.
In the last few weeks severe and widespread popular protests have erupted across Iran’s sphere of influence. This wave began in Iraq, was followed in Lebanon and, on Friday November 15, burst out inside Iran itself, triggered when the government announced a 300 percent increase in the price of fuel linked to a tightening of the rationing system. Motorists are combining to block roads and switch off their engines and, in some cases, abandon their vehicles.
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A succession of popular protests have been plaguing Iran for a good few years. Massive corruption at the highest levels, allied to economic mismanagement and continuing political and social suppression, have certainly not been helped by severe and extended US sanctions. The situation might be convincing some Iranians that their main hope lies in regime change.
So the Islamic Republic is struggling to maintain its legitimacy at home, as well as its influence abroad.
In both Iraq and Lebanon demonstrations against corruption and a lack of economic reform have erupted recently and show no sign of diminishing. In both countries, the unprecedented protests are demonstrating that for ordinary citizens Iran and its proxies have merely served to worsen their conditions.
In the face of that harsh reality, all Iran’s successes count for nothing. Yes, Hezbollah scored a success in last year’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon, and secured valuable seats in the cabinet. But now they are associated in the public mind with the failures of the government, and protests are as great in Hezbollah regions of Lebanon as elsewhere.
In Syria, Iran has allied itself with Russia and even with arch-enemy Turkey, in preserving President Bashar al-Assad in power. Iran’s long-term objectives in the Middle East depend on maintaining a power footprint in Syria. But it has done nothing towards resettling the millions of Syrians who are internally displaced, nor the millions of Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Writing in the journal Foreign Policy, Hanin Ghaddar, Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, believes that in building its power base in the region, the Iranian regime failed to notice that “power requires a vision for the day after,” as she puts it. “As events unfold in the region, Iran is failing to rule. Iraq and Lebanon are good examples.”
Iran created proxies in both countries, gave them power through funding and arms, and helped them infiltrate state institutions. Today, she maintains, state institutions in Iraq and Lebanon, instead of protecting and serving the people, have to protect and serve Iranian interests.
The protests in Lebanon have arisen because the Lebanese public are realizing that the enemy is within – it is their own government and political leaders, especially since Hezbollah has acquired a tight grip on so many levers of power. In fact Lebanon is widely referred to as “a state within a state”. For decades Hezbollah has prided itself on protecting the poor and dispossessed. Now Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has sided with the authorities against the people in the streets. So now for the first time since Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s, Lebanese Shi’ites are turning against it. In Nabatieh, the group’s heartland in the south of Lebanon, Shi’ite protesters even burned the offices of Hezbollah’s leaders.
Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, resigned some weeks ago. One projected successor has withdrawn his candidacy. Whenever a new government is formed its first challenge will be the economic crisis, rooted in years of state waste, corruption and mismanagement. Its second will be to contain the nationwide protest movement that wants to see the old elite gone from power. Meanwhile protesters are burning tyres, throwing stones at soldiers, and blocking roads across the country, as the demonstrations show no sign of slackening.
In Iraq hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets since October 1, demanding more jobs, an end to corruption, and better public services. On November 15 Iraq’s top Shia cleric gave them his support. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shia Muslim cleric, said that corruption among the ruling elite has reached “unbearable limits”. Many people, he said, lack basic needs while top leaders “share the country’s wealth among themselves and disregard each other’s corruption.”
Although Iraq contains the world’s fifth-largest proven reserves of oil, nearly three-fifths of its 40 million people live on less than six dollars a day, and millions lack access to adequate healthcare, education, clean water and electricity.
The protesters – Sistani presumably among them – believe that Iran, as well as the US, are more concerned with wielding regional influence than the needs of ordinary Iraqis. One of the demonstrators’ slogans is “Iran out, out.”
The Iranian regime may be good at extending its power base, but it has shown itself woefully inadequate at the business of governing people.