16.12.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Geo-Politics around “Unrest” in Iran


Western officials and political pundits as well as their allies in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, have never hesitated to express their desire to see the Iranian regime falling on its feet and giving way to a pro-West ‘democracy’ to emerge, one that would provide the linchpin for Saudi hegemony in the region and remove Israel’s chief competitor from the scene. The recent protests in Iran provided the ‘regime-change’ gang that very opportunity even if the protests had ‘indigenous roots’ and were, as many in the West and Saudi Arabia claimed, a reflection of Iran’s growing economic problems due to the Trump administration’s “toughest” ever sanctions. Although the Iranian officials claimed that the “unrest” had been engineered by the West, particularly the US and Israel, the Iranian regime has once again shown its resilience and the deep roots it has in that society, not readily available to be undercut.

The US, however, saw the protestors as “harbingers of change” and a success of their policy of sanctions. It made its moves accordingly. Clearly, in the moves that the US made, an anticipation of protests spreading across the country was evident and so was a US possible resolve to ‘strike’ just when the Iron was hot enough. Of course, this plan could not materialise, but the way things proceeded show yet again the US and Israeli obsession with ‘regime-change’ in Iran.

A Brookings institute report thus described the ‘importance’ of these protests. “Tehran today is facing an epic, interconnected set of crises: the crisis of unmet expectations, which feeds a crisis of legitimacy” for the regime, which is “waning”, and “eventually, as happened 40 years ago in Iran, even the most well-fortified regime will shatter.”

This was and still is the classic assumption that, despite proving wrong on numerous occasions, continues to guide the US and Israeli policies. This was true in the present scenario as well.

As such, just when the crisis were brewing and the unrest was at its peak, the US decided to show-off its naval power and ability to manoeuvre in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most significant flashpoints in the world. A US aircraft carrier strike group sailed through the strategic Strait of Hormuz. This carrier sailed through on November 20, 2019. Unsurprisingly, it was on the same day that Israel attacked Iranian forces in Syria, doing what it officially called two “wide scale strikes.”

Whereas the fact that Iran still continues to challenge US and Israeli designs in Syria despite hundreds of such ‘wide-scale’ strikes speaks volumes about Iranian resilience and resistance, the fact the latest strike coincided with the then ongoing unrest and the far from innocent passage of US naval carrier group through the Strait shows that the US and Israel were trying to provoke Iran into making a mistake, which would allow them to do identical strikes inside Iran, igniting a war to help, in their own calculation, the protestors overthrow the regime.

Also, at about the same time, the US president, who has never concealed his extreme dislike of the Iranian regime, had duly ‘informed’ the US Congress in a letter written just a day before the Israeli strike and the passage of US carrier through the Strait about the US decision to deploy additional US troops in Saudi Arabia.

The November 19, 2019 letter says the additional deployment aims to protect US interests “in the region against hostile action by Iran and its proxy forces.  Iran has continued to threaten the security of the region, including by attacking oil and natural gas facilities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on September 14, 2019.  To assure our partners, deter further Iranian provocative behavior, and bolster regional defensive capabilities, additional United States Armed Forces have been ordered to deploy to the Middle East.”

The letter continues, “With these additional forces, the total number of United States Armed Forces personnel in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be approximately 3,000.  These personnel will remain deployed as long as their presence is required to fulfill the missions described above.”

While the long-term mission may be deterrence against Iran, the immediate context of this deployment undoubtedly was the events that were, as the US knew, the passage of US carrier through the Strait and Israeli strikes. Iran, as could be expected, did not strike back, or retaliated through any other way, nor did it attack US naval carrier, directly foiling US-Israeli sabotage attempts and thus prevented a Syria like scenario wherein local protestors had found in external countries certain hands who would then weaponise them to overthrow the regime.

But none of this could materialise not just because of Iranian prudence but also because of a complete mis-reading of Iranian politics and society by the US-Israeli political pundits. While protestors might have been genuine, the assumption that the society at large was ‘erupting’ into a mass anti-regime movement due to the ‘toughest ever’ US sanctions did not take into account the fact Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, is not a solely oil-driven economy. Therefore, the impact of oil-sanctions, while it may be harsh, could never be expected to erode the domestic base of the Iranian economy. Even the IMF and World Bank reports have suggested that Iranian GDP, of which petroleum is no more than one fifth, will grow after ‘contracting sharply’ in 2019-2020.

Therefore, while Iranian economy may not be in the best shape today, its domestic base remains intact and it continues to receive foreign investment. And, while Tehran may not yet have healthy economic figures to show, it still has an economy that is resilient and can ward off shocks and prevent external powers from making inroads through engineered and/or otherwise caused mass protests.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.