The recent protests in Iran and neighbouring Iraq are based on legitimate grievances. However, as has also happened in Iraq, there have been elements in Iran carrying out arson attacks against state and public institutions. Whilst recognising the right to protest peacefully, both governments have made it clear that this will not be tolerated.
The primary concerns of the people on the streets are economic rather than foreign-backed regime change. As the wider region has witnessed, this does not benefit ordinary citizens and only leads to anarchy. Heavy-handed repression resulting in civilian deaths is certainly regrettable, but to view the unrest in isolation would be to ignore the fact that the economic climate in which the protests emerged are due to crippling US-imposed sanctions on Iran as part of a long shadowy war of attrition against the republic.
The US has been indirectly at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran since the revolution 40 years ago, and has meddled in the country's affairs for much longer; it was a CIA-orchestrated coup which ended its democracy in 1953 and re-instated the Shah who would later be deposed by the Islamic revolution. Ever since Ayatullah Khomeini returned from exile on 1 February 1979 and was greeted by millions of Iranians ushering in the revolution, successive US administrations have sought to bring an end to the regime. Former US President Ronald Reagan backed Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War with money, intelligence and weapons, despite being aware of chemical weapons being used against Iranian troops. There was also some degree of collaboration between the US and Iran, however, such as the Iran-Contra Affair and the war against the Taliban.
The US push for war against Iran became more explicit in the following years, notably under President George W Bush, who in 2002 classified Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the "Axis of Evil". Iran and its ally Syria would later be threatened and singled out in 2005, two years after the fall of Saddam after the US-led invasion of Iraq. Following President Barack Obama's policy of containment, the current administration of Donald Trump has opted for a strategy of "maximum pressure", having abandoned his predecessor's Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In the face of re-imposed sanctions on its energy and banking sectors, Iran has made it clear that it will not give up its independence.
"The world is watching," said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week, in reference to the latest outbreak of civil unrest in Iran. The protests, which started last Friday, were caused by 50 per cent increases in Iran's subsidised fuel prices. However, as South Front mentioned, the move is intended to raise about $2.5 billion a year for direct subsidies for 18 million poor families in Iran; that's around 60 million Iranians on lower incomes. As of 19 November, the Iranian government began carrying out these direct payments to the poorest among the country's 80 million citizens.
Such measures are recommended by the "seemingly independent" International Monetary Fund (IMF). Reuters quoted Fund spokeswoman Camilla Andersen as saying, "In general, the IMF continues to advise oil-producing countries in the Middle East and Central Asia region to reduce fuel subsidies… while compensating the poor with targeted cash transfers, which we understand is the approach Iran has taken."
1. There is a misunderstanding about Iran's decision to cut fuel subsidies. The move is not a knee-jerk reaction to sanctions pressure on the government budget. What Rouhani announced was what the IMF advised in its 2018 Article IV consultations. It's solid fiscal policy. pic.twitter.com/Of11vAUyQ2
— Esfandyar Batmanghelidj (@yarbatman) November 16, 2019
The IMF website elaborates further: "All consumers — both rich and poor — benefit from subsidies by paying lower prices. Governments could get more 'bang for their buck' by removing or reducing subsidies and targeting the money directly to programmes that help only the poor. Subsidies encourage excessive energy consumption, which accelerates the depletion of natural resources." The IMF has called previously for carbon tax increases across the world to stave off global warming.
The effects of the sanctions pushed ordinary Iranians to go out and protest. They are already suffering from shortages of essential medicines, which is a violation of their right to health according to one Human Rights Watch report. Yet we are led to believe that the US government is not against the "great Iranian people". Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Pompeo's claim of solidarity with ordinary Iranians as a "shameful lie".
America's "maximum pressure" has consistently failed as it has merely pushed Iran towards a more defiant stance; provided an incentive for its support to overseas proxies; and pushed it, perhaps, "closer to the bomb". Earlier this month, it was reported that Iran has started to enrich uranium to 5 per cent, exceeding the 3.67 per cent threshold set by the failing 2015 deal.
Oh wow, he damage done in just four days in just a couple of the cites is huge
600 million Toman in damages to Iran's entire banking system
63 banks have been burned in Isfahan
44 banks have been burned in Khorramabbad, Lorestan
300 banks have been burned in Tehran#iranprotest pic.twitter.com/RjSqDlWFbL
— Arashk Borzoo (@arashkborzoo) November 20, 2019
We are also expected to believe that the Iranian government is killing peaceful protestors irrationally, yet the truth is that there are violent agents provocateurs in their midst, setting alight public property such as banks, police stations and petrol stations; even a library has been a target. One Twitter user asked how the US authorities would have reacted had Black Lives Matter protestors so much as set fire to a dustbin. Reactions may differ, but no government would tolerate arson attacks on state institutions. Tellingly, US diplomat Richard Grenell said that something "is being done" but did not elaborate further.
Pictures of banks, police stations, gas stations, and municipal government buildings burnt and damaged during #IranProtests published by IRNA. The images are from Tehran and Alborz Provinces. #Iran pic.twitter.com/xRnHTiD664
— Reza H. Akbari (@rezahakbari) November 19, 2019
— Reza H. Akbari (@rezahakbari) November 19, 2019
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, has stated that the Iranian people are free to protest but warned that Iran cannot allow "insecurity" nor will "anarchy and rioting" be tolerated. The Ministry of Intelligence in Tehran has apparently identified several rioters who sought to use the protests as a cover to carry out arson attacks, with one report suggesting that they had received payments of $60 for each arson attack carried out successfully. Calm has largely been restored at the time of writing.
We hear the people of Iran. We understand the issues and yet cannot give details as to what is being done. But know we hear you loud and clearly. https://t.co/nWqO7Not4s
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) November 19, 2019
The people in Iran are not naïve enough to demand outright regime change despite being frustrated with certain government policies. They know that it would only lead to further instability and an escalation of violence. What's more they know that it would only serve the interests of hostile states.
From America's point of view, a shadowy war against Iran is the safer bet rather than a costly invasion. Nevertheless, the latest escalation will only strengthen Iran's resolve regarding its independence and the need to develop its defence capabilities. It may also consider some level of covert or proxy retaliation of its own. Nothing is settled in this murky state of affairs.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.