People rallied in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz to denounce the violent unrest in the country, Nov 19, 2019
I once had an animated conversation with the Middle East correspondent of a leading Indian newspaper regarding the resilience of the Iranian political system. The year was 2001. The conversation took place in the backdrop of mass protests and clashes between hard-liners and reformists on the 22nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran. My friend forecast that the Iranian regime was in meltdown under the combined weight of US sanctions and a dysfunctional repressive regime. He point-blank rejected my dissent that the stability of the Iranian system was not in doubt.
When it comes to Iran, everything depends on what prism you are holding. If you live in Dubai or visit Israel too often, you get one vision; if you live in Turkey, you get a vastly different view.
The recent days’ happenings fell into that familiar pattern. The protests were played up by the western media and American think tanks in apocalyptic terms, but when counter-demonstrations began appearing, supportive of the government, they have fallen silent. Life is returning to normal in Iran.
Two striking features must be noted. One, anti-government protests are possible to be staged in Iran; two, the regime enjoys a substantial social base. Unsurprisingly, when protests appear in Iran, democratic Turkey takes a balanced view while the repressive Saudi regime gleefully joins the western camp of ‘liberal democracies’ to pelt stones at the Iranian regime.
Isn’t there social and political discontent in Iran and Turkey? Indeed, there is. But representative rule provides safety valves and the political leaderships in Tehran or Ankara are receptive to popular opinion. Who would dispute that Hassan Rouhani and Recep Erdogan secured their mandates in hotly contested elections?
Can it be a coincidence that when the Iranian protests were raging in the past week, the US and Israel tested the waters, so to speak? The US aircraft carrier strike group Abraham Lincoln sailed through the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday. And Israel hit “dozens of targets” in Syria — in and around Damascus in Kiswa, Saasaa, Mezzeh military airport, Jdaidat Artouz, Qudsaya and Sahnaya — which it claimed were aimed at thwarting what Tel Aviv called Iran’s “military entrenchment” there and to block shipments of Iranian weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
Conceivably, these military operations would have needed some advance planning, especially the freedom of navigation exercised by the US aircraft carrier strike group through the narrow straits where Iran controls many of the shipping lanes. Yet, it happened just when the Iranian regime was preoccupied with the domestic unrest!
Again, President Trump notified the US Congress of his intention to step up military deployments in Saudi Arabia in the middle of the unrest in Iran. In the normal course, Tehran’s reaction would have been robust but, again, the US got away with it — for the time being, at least — as the Iranian regime and leadership has its hands full with internal developments. (Russia has warned that Washington’s plan for additional deployments of thousands of US troops to Saudi Arabia will only add to already simmering tensions in the Middle East region.)
The western narrative is that the unrest in Iran stemmed from economic factors at work triggered by the US sanctions. But, interestingly, the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz has commented that “In the case of Iran, the headline figures about economic distress are misleading in critical ways. Iran is not quite the oil economy that, say, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates are. Petroleum hasn’t accounted for more than a fifth of GDP and half of exports in the past, and it doesn’t employ a lot of people. So, while oil sanctions can inflict a lot of pain when they are first imposed, they don’t bring economic activity to a standstill.”
Haaretz points out, “Ironically, the non-oil sanctions may be giving the Iranian economy a small boost. Apart from oil, pistachios and carpets, Iran is not a globally competitive economy, but it does have a manufacturing and agricultural base… Iranian industry has the local market and is expanding output. As a result, manufacturing has been growing as has employment while the rial has stabilised… Media reports say there are plenty of ‘Made in Iran’ consumer goods on store shelves. The “resistance economy” may not be quite the miracle Tehran leaders tout, but it could be enough to stabilise the situation after the initial shock over oil sanctions have passed.
“Forecasts for the Iran going forward point in that direction. The World Bank, for instance, agrees with the IMF that Iranian GDP will contract sharply in 2019-2020 but afterwards start growing again.”
This analysis contradicts the western narrative that the Iranian people are up in revolt. Suffice to say, there is merit in the allegation by Iran’s top security officials that the protests have been actively orchestrated from abroad.
While addressing a cabinet meeting in Tehran on Wednesday, President Rouhani was explicit. The Iranian foreign ministry made a demarche with the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which represents Washington’s Interest Section, regarding US interference in the country’s internal affairs.