Protests in Iran: The Regional Repercussions
19th Apr 2023 by Simon Mabon
This piece was originally published in afkar/ideasi 68 in French and Spanish here.
In September 2022 the Islamic Republic of Iran’s morality police arrested a young women, Mahsa Aminie, who later died in custody. Amini’s death triggered a spate of protests which continue to this day, playing out across the country and posing a threat to the very survival of the state. In the months that followed, over 400 people have been killed by the regime’s security services, with tens of thousands detained and many others sentenced to death. Despite the brutal crackdown, the protests are the longest-running public rejection of the clerical regime since its establishment in 1979.
Although overwhelmingly domestic in nature, events in Iran may have regional implications, reflecting the importance of Iran in the political, religious and security machinations of the Middle East. In recent years, the Islamic Republic has sought to exert influence across the region through the use of ideological, economic, military, cultural and religious resources, meaning that protest in Iran may have repercussions for transnational relationships.
At the same time, with crises escalating at home, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has sought to use Iran’s regional actions – most notably the Palestinian cause - to consolidate its legitimacy, albeit with limited success. Despite the brutality of the regime’s response to the protests, Iran’s allies have spoken out against the protest movements, condemning them as a consequence of external manipulation.
In contrast, prominent Shi’a clerics have called on the state to end the violence, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, and some members of Iran’s own Assembly of Experts. At a time when the Islamic Republic’s domestic appeal is on the wane, it remains to be seen how this will affect Iran’s appeal amongst regional allies.
Aside from the protests in Iran, other states across the Middle East have been beset by unrest, notably Iraq and Lebanon, calling into question the organisation of regional security. In what follows I reflect on the impact of the protests for Iran’s role in the Middle East.
Iran’s Role in the Region
In recent years, Iranian activity across the region has played out in the context of rivalry with other regional powers, most notably Saudi Arabia. Yet Iranian influence in the region is often over-estimated, in part through the Orientalist and deeply problematic ‘proxy wars’ narrative. While Tehran undeniably wields influence due to its economic and political capital, the level of this influence differs, reflecting the distribution of power within those states and the ability of other regional actors to achieve their own goals.
Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in 2003, the two states have vied for influence across the Middle East, resulting in a rivalry that fuses geopolitical aspirations with claims to religious leadership. This complex rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran capitalises on the intricacies and contingencies of life across the region, producing contestation that takes different forms as a result of the ordering of those spaces.
From Lebanon to Yemen, the rivalry has played out in a number of different arenas, with both Tehran and Riyadh capitalising on the contingencies and complexities of local politics in pursuit of their own goals. At the same time, however, local actors have attempted to cultivate their own relationships with regional powers – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, meaning that local actors have far more agency than many typically believe them to possess.
In part, this stems from the deeply problematic and Orientalist ‘proxy wars’ narrative which holds that over the past two decades Iran and Saudi Arabia have controlled co-sectarian kin across the region, and have engaged in some form of conflict between pro-Saudi groups and pro-Iranian groups in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Such a view is problematic in several ways: first, it over-emphasises the influence that Iran and Saudi Arabia wield over the region; second, it misreads the nature of cross-border identities; third, it reduces complex political, social and economic dynamics to static and primordialist views of sectarian relations.
When reflecting on the regional consequences of the protests in Iran it is essential to understand the nature of Iranian engagement across the Middle East and to better grasp the nature of the rivalry with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Without this solid grounding, one quickly ends up with problematic conclusions that are misleading and reinforce xenophobic beliefs about sectarian identities and Islam more broadly.
Despite these caveats, Iran is proactively involved in a number of different arenas across the Middle East. In an effort to exert influence on regional affairs, Tehran has formed relations with groups that are broadly engaged in acts of resistance, such as Hizballah and Hamas, along with other Shi’a militias such as the Hashd ash Shabi in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen, and political actors typically from Shi’a communities. These relationships have been cultivated in the decades after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, capitalising on political instability across the region. Yet this engagement takes place as other actors vie for influence, notably Saudi Arabia, with religious and ethnic identity markers drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion.
Reflecting on the nature of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran – a rivalry that oscillates between periods of hostility and burgeoning rapprochement - reveals much about the nature of regional politics. In the decades after the formation of the current Saudi state and prior to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Riyadh and Tehran engaged in a largely amicable relationship that was marked by bouts of contestation over territory. Although religion played a dramatically different role in Iran, the social importance of Shi’ism meant that the repression of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a population by Ibn Saud – the founder of the modern Saudi state -prompted condemnation by the Shah.
After the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the two became embroiled in a rivalry that fused regional aspirations with claims to religious legitimacy, playing out across the Middle East through the cultivation of relations with likeminded groups, with hostility towards the US and Israel central in forging these links. From 2003 to the present day, relations became increasingly hostile, resulting in Tehran and Riyadh finding themselves on opposite sides of conflict in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
In recent years, however, the two states have engaged in a series of discussions aimed at improving relations. Diplomatic initiatives have taken place in a number of different formats, from track II processes aimed at transforming the relations to track 1.5 initiatives that were more formally aimed at resolving security concerns. The recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia shows that relations can be improved, although there is little discussion – as yet – as to how the agreement will help bring an end to the war in Yemen.
The incentive for both Tehran and Riyadh to engage in dialogue concerns economics. While Iran is facing a range of serious economic pressures, the cost of war in Yemen – and the repetitional damage of such a conflict – is having a debilitating impact on the Saudi economy at a time when Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is seeking to enact his ambitious Vision2030 campaign. As a result, the two states sensed opportunities to improve their economic situation by resolving long-standing regional tensions.
Central to the Islamic Republic’s ability to exert influence – to varying degrees – was the fusion of ideological and material support to actors across the region. Ideologically, the articulation of a vision of order driven by narratives of resistance and a Shi’a identity resonated amongst marginalised Shi’a communities across the Middle East (and beyond), resulting in the emergence of groups like Hizballah in Lebanon and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. This ideological support is also supplemented by the provision of financial resources and, in some instances, arms.
Iran’s economic largesse was a key part of its ability to generate – and maintain – close links with groups across the region. Some estimates suggest that Tehran provides around $700 million to the Party of God each year, although it is difficult to ascertain exact numbers.
Financial pressures continue to have a serious impact on Iran’s ability to operate across the Middle East, seemingly pointing to the success of a US strategy put in place by Donald Trump. Paralysing the Iranian economy has long been a strategy of hardliners in the US and elsewhere. The ‘maximum pressure’ campaign enacted by the Trump administration after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA was designed with such a goal in mind. Similarly, the imposition of sanctions on Iran by Western governments has had a deleterious impact on Iranian society. After the regime crackdown on protesters, Western states have imposed sanctions on a number of key officials and institutions, reflecting the international community’s focus on developments. The designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps by the European Parliament as a terror organization exacerbates social pressures but also reinforces the regime’s narrative of outside interference.
While Tehran continues to derive support from actors across the region, pressure on the Islamic Republic extends to regional relationships. Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hizballah, has openly stressed that the Party of God has no financial worries as long as the Islamic Republic has money. Unsurprisingly, Nasrallah condemned the protests as a foreign plot, a seditious act undertaken by the US and its allies. Yet what happens when the Islamic Republic does not have access to its financial resources?
Two years ago, Hizballah figures distributed a card called Sajjad amongst its members to allow them to buy food at a 60% discount, provided those shops were selling Iranian products. Recently, however, this card has faced problems due to the Islamic Republic being unable to send key food items to Lebanon due to the combination of protests and economic challenges, resulting in the hollowing out of the state and people relying on groups such as Hizballah for support. Yet with the Islamic Republic facing a range of challenges at home, the ability to support regional allies becomes increasingly uncertain.
In response, the IRGC has embarked on creative approaches to provide financial support to allies across the region. One such approach, identified by Lloyds of London’s maritime section was a process of smuggling gold from Iran into Turkey which was then sold with the profits distributed to allies. Another approach allegedly sees figures on the Iraqi state payroll taking funds and giving them to Hizballah. Ultimately, however, the Islamic Republic’s ability to exert influence across the region appears at risk, with secondary consequences for its allies across the Middle East.
While predicting the future is beyond the remit of scholars working on the region, it is possible to envisage three possible scenarios.
The first is that this series of protests is but a temporary spate of protests, the articulation of latent frustration from people across the state which will ultimately be diluted. Advocates of such a position point to the so-called ‘Green Movement’ and the protests of 2009 which hinted at an alternative political future but were crushed by the state. The state’s response to the current crisis evokes memories of the protests of 2009, with the machineries of sovereign power deployed to exert biopolitical control over the population.
In such a scenario, it is easy to see the regime doubling down on a hard line position in domestic and regional politics. Yet ongoing economic challenges mean that an injection of capital is required. This may be achieved through the revival of some form of the JCPOA, albeit with serious hurdles
The second scenario is that the regime stays in power but embarks on a series of dramatic reforms to appease the protesters and to remove scope for future unrest. This would involve a loosening up of the stricter social regulations and perhaps a re-imagining of the social contract. Of course, foreign policy making would still remain in the purview of the IRGC, whose approach to the Saudis and other regional rivals reflects a hardline position. Again, however, economic pressures may prompt a return to the JCPOA alongside continued dialogue with Saudi Arabia, which gathered pace during the Presidency of Ebrahim Raisi, albeit with regional actors concerned about such diplomatic moves.
The final scenario is one of revolutionary change: the toppling of the Islamic Republic, and the end of Velayat-e faqih. Khomeini’s vision of political organisation – where politics is organised with clerical oversight, whilst waiting for the Imam-e Zamam - was felt across the region through the provision of support to the ‘downtrodden’ of the Muslim world and engaging in resistance against oppressors, namely Israel and the United States.
If the end of Khomeini’s political vision was to occur, the post-revolutionary political and economic landscape would be one of chaos and uncertainty, as a range of groups seek to impose their own political visions on the erstwhile Islamic Republic. Within this uncertainty are a number of foreign policy questions: would a new state continue to take a non-aligned stance on global politics? And from this, would it continue to provide support to groups such as Hizballah and the Houthis?
The general consensus amongst scholars working on Iran is that the regime will survive. Through a combination of a deeply repressive necropolitical approach to regulating life – through killing protesters and creating a climate of fear – and, at present, the absence of protest numbers generally believed to be necessary to enact a revolution will most likely ensure the immediate survival of the Islamic Republic. Yet serious issues will remain, many of which will affect Iran’s actions across the Middle East. The most important of these concerns economic issues and the devastating economic conditions facing Iranians. The Trump regime’s campaign of maximum pressure had a destructive impact on the state and ensuing sanctions regimes imposed on key organs of the state have exacerbated the issue.
Central to whatever comes next are two issues which will resonate regionally. Iranians have long expressed frustrations at the socio-economic situation, prompting anger directed at the state. One source of this anger stems from the provision of support to allies across the Middle East, at a time when people across Iran are struggling financially. Although a return to the JCPOA would provide a much needed stimulus to Iran’s economy with some estimates suggesting that $1 trillion would be added by 2030, talks appear to have stalled once more , leaving the process verging on the moribund. Similarly, while dialogue aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia will also inject much needed capital, a resolution of this issue is complex and is also closely bound up with regional dynamics.
A second issue pertains to succession: who will follow Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader ? This choice will determine the future character of the Islamic Republic, with a more hardline candidate perhaps doubling down on the resistance characteristics of the state and its support for regional actors.
At a time of domestic and regional instability, protest and state efforts to regulate life in Iran will resonate across the Middle East, pointing once more to the complexity and intersectionality of domestic and regional affairs. While it is not possible to predict the outcome of the protests, broader economic and political crises may ultimately limit Tehran’s ability to operate across the region in its current form. Even if the regime survives at present, the underlying frustrations will remain the same.
Image: Entangled, by Mariam Mabrouk.