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.

Iran has paid a heavy price for its military intervention in Syria’s civil war. More than one thousand Iranians have been reported killed in the fighting, including some forty generals from the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. In its struggle with Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony, Iran has spent billions of dollars building an extensive network of Shia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Instability in Iran is throwing a scare into Syria and Russia. Tehran and Moscow claim victory by pointing to the defeat of the Islamic State’s territorial control in Syria and the survival of their client, embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Yet the country is devastated, and Iran and Russia do not have the resources to help rebuild it.

Though nowhere near on the same scale as Iran, Russia, too, has paid a heavy price for its involvement in Syria. Despite Putin’s recent claims of victory in Syria, like the ayatollahs in Iran, the Kremlin also still has little to show for its prolonged involvement in the Syrian quagmire.

Moscow also worries that protests against the out-of-touch, authoritarian regime in Iran might encourage unrest in Russia around the March presidential election. If they occur, then the demonstrations could put at risk President Putin’s aim of a quiet election with a strong turnout and a high-winning margin.

At a summit in Sochi last November with leaders from Iran and Turkey, Putin called for a political solution to end the six-year Syrian civil war, and rightly said it would require compromise by all sides, including Assad’s government. Putin has been reluctant, however, to pressure Assad, who has been adamant in opposing concessions.

Through the resources of the wider international community, via established UN-led negotiations, negotiating progress could be possible. It will require stronger pressure on Syria, especially from Russia, and the carrot of substantial aid to help with Syrian reconstruction.

Prior to the protests in Iran, prospects for this were dim. Supporting the protests in Iran could help in the difficult and complex quest for a revived peace process for Syria.

Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at ICCT-The Hague. William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at RAND and was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia and a U.S.-Soviet nuclear testing commission.

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