Sustained anti-government protests in Iran could give US President Donald Trump the final push he needs to withdraw from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme in a bid to further corner the regime in Tehran.
The protests could also tempt Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with his chequered foreign policy track record, to embark on yet another risky adventure involving an effort to stir unrest among ethnic minorities in Iran, such as the Kurds, Baloch and Iranian Arabs. Prince Mohammed’s earlier attempts to stymie Iranian influence in the Middle East sparked his ill-fated military intervention in Yemen and failed attempt to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign.
This month Trump not only has to decide whether to certify to Congress that Iran has complied with the 2015 international agreement that curbed its nuclear programme, but also whether to waive US sanctions. A decision to reimpose economic sanctions could mean a US withdrawal from the agreement. In October, Trump refused the quarterly certification.
At the core of Trump’s decision, as well as Prince Mohammed’s deliberations, is the question of whether the US and/or Saudi Arabia see a strengthening of hardline conservative factions in Iran because of the protests as an opportunity to at least further contain the Islamic republic, or maybe even engineer a situation 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. They also may see some possibility of flipping the Europeans if the crackdown is fierce and well-documented,” Suzanne Maloney, Brookings fellow and former US state department policy planning Iran expert told the website Al-Monitor.
Europe has urged Trump not to nix the nuclear agreement. Theoretically that should enhance European pressure on Iran not to crack down on the protesters. The problem is that many among Iran’s ruling elite are convinced Trump is determined, with or without the agreement, to undermine them. Even if Iranian leaders know domestic grievances are driving the protests, their claim that they are foreign instigations risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Moreover, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s ability to address the grievances is limited. He may be able to tackle some issues such as corruption and fraudulent financial institutions that have deprived many of their savings, but he will struggle to fix the country’s structural economic problems such as the monopolies held by the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps’ commercial conglomerates, inflation and the income gap. Addressing those issues would become even more daunting if Trump effectively withdraws from the nuclear agreement.
The country’s hardliners – Rouhani’s rivals – may emerged emboldened by the protests. Should the regime curb access to social media or quash the protests through violence, the splintered hardline factions may seize the opportunity to unite and reinforce a message of disillusionment with the nuclear accord that has failed to deliver real economic benefits to a majority of Iranians.
Looming in the background is the risk Prince Mohammed, with or without US backing, will further stir unrest among Iranian minorities.
Prince Mohammed will likely take heart from the fact Kermanshah, a city in predominantly Kurdish western Iran, was one of the first cities to which the protests spread after first erupting in the conservative stronghold of Mashhad.
Saudi Arabia has funnelled large amounts of money in the past 18 months to militant groups and religious schools in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders the Iranian region of Sistan and Baluchistan, both populated by restive Baloch populations.
A Riyadh-based think tank believed to be supported by Prince Mohammed last year published a blueprint for stirring unrest among the Iranian Baloch.
Trump and the US State Department have in recent days urged the international community to support the protesters, and said they back those in Iran who are seeking a peaceful transition of government.
Various US analysts have argued Trump’s anti-Iranian track record, including his attempt to deny visas to Iranians, curtails the impact of his support and has strengthened the hardliners by allowing them to point fingers at alleged foreign interference.
“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 News’ Iran correspondent Golnar Motevalli.
Rather than speaking out, the analysts proposed concrete steps the US could take to support the protesters.
Maloney and journalist Maziar Bahari suggested the US could use its influence with technology, satellite internet providers and social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to try to keep the protesters’ communications channels open.
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 protesters, and highlight the importance of respecting free speech, democratic process, and peaceful dissent. We also emphasised 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 Trump administration. In doing so, the 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.
“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 protesters are Iranian, and the solution will be Iranian,” Marashi noted. ■
Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore