Iran's Efforts to Create Instability Abroad Have Led to Protests at Home

People protest in Los Angeles, California, U.S., in support of anti-government protesters in Iran, January 3, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Iran has spent billions of dollars in its quest to be a regional hegemon, but its main achievement has been to spark instability across a wide swath of the Middle East.

Participants in the countrywide protests in Iran are urging a retreat from costly foreign fights and more aid at home. Even if regime change does not take place, Tehran’s clerical rulers may have to pull in their horns. But if they slash Iran’s military footprint in Syria, then Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power may again become tenuous. The West could exploit these tensions by pressuring Moscow and Damascus to stop sabotaging UN negotiations on a Syrian political settlement.

The protests that erupted throughout Iran just a few days before the end of 2017 have resulted in over twenty dead and two thousand Iranians arrested. While Grand Ayatollah Khamenei blames “enemies of Iran,” dissatisfaction appears to be widespread among his people. Likewise, Iran’s ally Russia has warned the West not to meddle.

Ordinary Iranians ought to be living better, but are not. Oil output has climbed back to levels before 2011, when the West, Russia and China imposed sanctions to spur Iran to limit nuclear proliferation risks. Those sanctions were lifted after a 2015 accord, but living standards have lagged. Protests broke out in response to an end to some consumer subsidies as well as anger over corruption and social policies.

Ordinary Iranians, to say nothing of minority Kurds or Arabs, are struggling with higher prices for food and fuel. Even Iranian war veterans are speaking out; one eloquent veteran says he belongs to “the forgotten.” Meanwhile, Iran’s sclerotic leadership lavishes spending on the powerful Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps and other elites while largely ignoring the demands of most people. Similar factors led to the Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.

The European Union has called on Iran’s leaders to refrain from the use of violence against the protesters. President Trump and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have gone further, praising the protesters and calling for a special session of the UN Security Council. Having kept mostly quiet during 2009 anti-government protests in Iran, this time U.S. leaders appear likely to be more supportive.

Iran has spent billions of dollars in its quest to be a regional hegemon. Its main achievement has been to spark instability across a wide swath of the Middle East. Iran has a thousand or more troops in Syria and sponsors foreign militia there. It backs a destructive war in Yemen, and aids Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists and insurgents. The protests suggest that expensive military adventures are unpopular with many Iranians. In the city of Mashhad, long a regime stronghold, protesters shout “leave Syria alone, think about us.” The United States might seek to use these missteps as leverage to pressure Iran.