Protests in Iran raise tricky questions for American and Saudi policymakers, amid Iranian fears that US policy, with the Saudis in tow, is focused on regime change.
If Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s foreign policy track record is anything to go by, the situation in Iran could tempt him to embark on yet another risky adventure. This is following the widespread anti-government protests in that country. Iran is the real focus of his multiple regional quagmires, which include the devastating war in Yemen and the failed effort to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign.
In many ways, Prince Mohammed faces the same considerations in deciding how to respond to events in Iran, as does US President Donald Trump. In January, the president not only has to choose whether to certify Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but also whether to waive US sanctions on Iran. A decision to re-impose economic sanctions could mean a US withdrawal from the agreement.
At the core of Trump’s decision, as well as Prince Mohammed’s deliberations on how and if to respond to the Iranian protests, is the question of whether the US and/or Saudi Arabia see a strengthening of hardline conservative factions in Iran as serving their national interests. This is includes containing the Islamic Republic and possibly engineering a situation that would be conducive to regime change.
“The most likely scenario is that the evidence of popular dissatisfaction and the inevitable repression will harden the Trump administration’s position on sustaining the deal and provide additional incentives for ratcheting up new economic pressure on the government,” said Brookings fellow and former State Department policy planning Iran expert Suzanne Maloney. “They also may see some possibility of flipping the Europeans if the crackdown is fierce and well-documented.” The European Union has urged President Trump not to nix the nuclear agreement.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in contrast to hardliners, has sought to reach out to the protesters. He has recognized their right to criticize the government, while denouncing violence and promising to address their economic grievances. Rouhani may be able to tackle some issues like the fraudulent financial institutions that have deprived many of their savings, but he will struggle to fix the country’s structural economic issues, including the power of hardline institutions such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. He may also be able to institutionalize and anchor in law the right to protest with the backing of hardliners. Moreover, addressing economic issues would be even more daunting if Trump withdraws from the nuclear deal.
Ultimately, the odds are that hardliners, irrespective of what scenario unfolds, will emerge strengthened by the current crisis. This will either be the result of protests losing momentum as the regime curbs access to social media, a brutal squashing of the protests as a last resort, or because increased external pressure will initially unite rival factions and reinforce widespread disillusionment with the nuclear deal, which has failed to provide tangible economic benefits to a majority of Iranians.
Looming in the background is the risk that Prince Mohammed — with or without US backing or cooperation — will seek to exploit the Iranian government’s problems by attempting to further destabilize the Islamic Republic. This could be by stirring unrest among already restive ethnic minority groups such as the Kurds and the Baluchis. Kermanshah, a city in the predominantly Kurdish western Iran, was one of the first cities to which the protests spread after initially erupting in the conservative stronghold of Mashhad.
Saudi Arabia has funneled large amounts of money in the last 18 months to militant groups and madrassas or religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, which borders the Iranian region of Sistan and Baluchistan — both populated by restive Baluchis. In 2017, a Riyadh-based think tank believed to be supported by Prince Mohammed, published a blueprint for stirring unrest among the Iranian Baluch.
In recent days, Trump and the US State Department have expressed support for the protesters. They have urged the international community to chirp in, and also said they back those in Iran who are seeking a peaceful transition of government.
Various US analysts have argued that Trump’s anti-Iranian track record, including his attempted bans on granting visas to Iranians, curtails the impact of his support for the protesters. It may even strengthen the hardliners by allowing them to point fingers at alleged foreign instigation. “While we’re on Trump, the impact of his tweets has been marginal at best. They’ve triggered a slew of angry comments, packed with ridicule. Across classes, factions and generations in Iran, there is a shared contempt for #POTUS whose policies look erratic and hypocritical,” tweeted Bloomberg’s Iran correspondent, Golnar Motevalli.
Rather than speaking out, the analysts proposed concrete steps the United States could take to support the demonstrators. Maloney and journalist Maziar Bahari suggested the US could use its influence with technology, satellite internet providers and social media networks to try keep communications channels open for protesters.
In an article for Lobe Log, former State Department official Reza Marashi argued that advice he and others proffered in 2009, when the Iranian government faced far larger protests against alleged election fraud, remained valid in the current situation. “We advised our superiors to express concern about the violence against protestors, and highlight the importance of respecting free speech, democratic process, and peaceful dissent. We also emphasized a need for the US government to publicly express its respect for Iranian sovereignty, its desire to avoid making America the issue during a domestic Iranian protest, and its belief that it is up to Iranians to determine who Iran’s leaders will be,” Marashi recalled.
Much of that advice has been ignored by the White House. In doing so, the Trump administration has not only allowed Rouhani and the hardliners to point to a scapegoat. It has seemingly gone out of its way to raise Iranian fears that US policy, with the Saudis in tow, is focused on regime change. Marashi added: “Washington would be wise to acknowledge the limits of its power inside Iran. Policymakers and pundits cannot change this simple truth: The problems are Iranian, the protestors are Iranian, and the solution will be Iranian.”
*[Updated: January 3, 2017.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.