What was caused by basic economic concerns was deliberately projected by the mainstream western media as the ‘making of a rebellion’ and possible revolution in Iran against Iran’s Islamic leadership itself. What was limited to certain regions only was hoped to spread to other parts of Iran and thus undo the Iranian regime. This has, obviously, not happened, slashing the western pundit’s hopes for a deadly change in Iran, a change that the West and its allies in the East have been hoping to bring for last many years, more particularly since the beginning of the US-Iraq war and then all through the ISIS years. In a way, what partly explains the outbreak of this crisis is the continuing US financial and economic sanctions on Iran and the hardship these sanctions continue to pose despite the opening provided through the lifting of UN and EU sanctions. The reason for why these sanctions have not been lifted and why the US sanctions regime has been tightened is—again—the US policy to undermine the Iranian regime and thus spread instability in the region that has become the key to China’s Silk Roads and the linchpin of Russian presence in the Middle East. Arguably, Tehran is already gearing up to increase business across Eurasia through China’s new Silk Roads, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Eurasia Economic Union.
In simple words, what the crisis is what the West has always been yearning to see happening in Iran. But what the crisis is not is that it doesn’t have a revolutionary flavor. Just to simplify the problem, we can compare the present situation to the one that prevailed in Iran in the late 1970s when the Iranian society had been brutalized by the pro-West Shah regime. While the then Iranian regime’s brutality did radicalize the Iranian society to a considerable extent, what actually paved the way for a revolution was the strong presence of a guiding (revolutionary) ideology and a revolutionary leader to look up to. The present crisis is, therefore, fundamentally different from what we saw in the 1970s.
And then the very texture of the Iranian society changed a lot ever since the inoculation and growth of the revolutionary ideology. As such, mere anti-regime slogans cannot be enough to undo a regime that has spread its roots a lot deeper than a mere armed-chair critic, sitting in the West, can imagine. Iran’s basij, the revolutionary militias, have practically permeated the Iranian society from trade unions to student unions and civil society. And, it cannot be gainsaid that Iran’s civil society is far more sophisticated than simple enough to fall a prey to the sinister Western agenda of regime change.
And, while there are legitimate concerns within Iran regarding the overall economic situation of the country, these concerns cannot be properly grasped by simply factoring in Iran’s spendings elsewhere in the region, particularly Syria.
Therefore, the argument that protests have been caused by the fact that the Iranian regime spends more on foreign policy front and slashes subsidies on the front is misleading. Certainly, this would seriously fall short of explaining as to why protests in different parts of Iran have only been “riots” and couldn’t turn into an organized movement, mobilizing people from different parts on the country? If the protests had been caused by the Iranian regime’s supposed priorities, what made them subside within two weeks?
While numerous reports in the Western media have used this opportunity to spread figures, indicating how much Iran has spent in Syria, the fact remains that Iran’s spendings are still a lot less than what its competitors, such as Saudi Arabia, have been spending on this front. Iran’s military expenditures in 2016 were $12.4 billion. By comparison, those of Saudi Arabia amounted to $61.4 billion (2016) and the UAE $23.7 billion in 2014. Similarly, the 2017-18 budget deficit was estimated by the central bank of Iran at $9.6 billion (2.1% of GDP). By comparison, the Saudi deficit in 2017 was $57 billion (8.9% of GDP). Yet, no protests have occurred there against the regime despite the fact that the House of Saud has splashed many subsidies and increased prices for a number of items, including the oil.
The riots in Iran were a political crisis, caused by economic hardships. And the good thing is that the problems were recognized by the Rouhani administration as genuine and needing a solution. In fact, the Rouhani administration turned out to be politically active enough to pick this opportunity to carry forward its own reformist agenda to open the society up. “One of the people’s demands is a more open atmosphere”, said Rouhani in his televised speech. And he was also reported to have said, “We should listen to this voice and turn it into an opportunity. We should see what the problem is and also what the solution is … The people should express their grievances in a way that will lead to better living conditions for citizens and investments in the country.”
While the riots did seem to appear as sweet music to the ears of those sitting in Riyadh, UAE and Israel, Rouhani’s masterful handling of the situation did equally show the crucial difference between the Arab monarchies and Iran itself. An analysis of Rouhani’s speeches shows, in an unambiguous manner, his willingness to adapt and transform rather than his stubbornness and willingness to brutally suppress the dissenting voices. Imagine such riots in Saudi Arabia and the way the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman would have handled!
This, again, was frustrating for the West which had calculated that Iranian regime has “little tolerance for dissent”, and that a brutal response to the protestors would again create conditions for imposing fresh embargoes, including from the EU, thus giving the opportunity to strangulate the economy further. Thanks to the Rouhani administration’s political acumen and the West’s misreading of Iranian society and system, the hopes for large scale crisis, leading to an overthrow of the regime have been frustrated, and the emphasis on unity and development is back on stage in Iran.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.