Trump's hawks will try to destabilise Iran

Trump's hawks will try to destabilise Iran

Analysis: Washington's goal is the overthrow of the Islamic Republic - but the US is unlikely to find any replacement regime more palatable, writes Stasa Salacanin.
7 min read
26 April, 2018
Iranians take part during a state-organised rally against anti-government protests [Getty]
After Iran was rocked by a week of protests this winter, many are wondering how vulnerable the country's leadership is - and whether the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel will use the recent demonstrations to try to weaken their arch-enemy.

On December 28, protests erupted in the northern city of Mashhad, as anger and concern grew over the country's stunted economy and high prices of basic goods.

Crowds chanted: "All Iranians cry out", "Down with high prices", and "Not for Gaza, not for Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran".

Some 42,000 people took part in the demonstrations, which quickly spread across the country to become the largest seen in Iran since the disputed 2009 presidential election. Some protesters called for the overthrow of the government, and at least 21 people were killed in clashes. Iranian security forces arrested 3,700 people during the two weeks of unrest.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani played down the turmoil, saying: "This is nothing." 

"Our nation will deal with this minority who chant slogans against the law and people's wishes, and insult the sanctities and values of the revolution," he said at the time. 

Rouhani came to power in 2013 promising to mend the economy and ease social tensions, but high living costs and a 12 percent unemployment rate have left many feeling that progress is too slow - and some analysts believe that a new wave of nationwide demonstrations could kick off again at any time. 

Read more: Iran protests lack clear goals and leadership

While there has been no convincing evidence that the anti-government protests were orchestrated by any foreign country, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, still blamed unnamed foreign "enemies" for the unrest.

While it is evident that the Iranian regime has faced criticism from its main support base, deeply unsatisfied working-class people, it is rather doubtful that it has been notably shaken.

The protests triggered a widespread debate about whether the US and other governments should engage and support the public unrest in the country by aiding protesters or opposition groups against the current political elite that has dominated the country since 1979.

Discussions focus on whether the Iranian regime can reform itself and whether the current political system is capable of change from within. While some believe that the US should support "moderates" and reformists, applying carrot-and-stick strategy, people close to the current US administration and the White House believe that the US should concentrate on toppling the government from the outside - and the sooner the better.

When former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson was briefly Secretary of State, he made it clear that regime change in Iran was the end goal

Holly Dagres is an Iranian-American analyst and curator of The Iranist. Historically speaking, she said, the US has long meddled in Iranian affairs, dating back to the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup d’état overthrowing the democratic Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. In the past four decades, talk of regime change in Iran has been commonplace in Washington.

Mossadegh had nationalised Iran's oil industry; his CIA-backed replacement soon got the black gold flowing to the West once more.

When former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson was briefly Secretary of State, he made it clear that regime change in Iran was the end goal. He also mentioned that the US intended to "work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government".

But now the Trump administration has not just two Iran hawks - Defence Secretary James Mattis and CIA director Mike Pompeo (who is likely to be confirmed as Trump's new Secretary of State) - but three, with John Bolton as National Security Adviser, Dagres added.

"Given the evolving soft alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the appointment of Bolton as US National Security Adviser, it is only reasonable to expect that the Trump administration will indeed want to attempt to destabilise Iran in the wake of Iran's recent protests," Daniel Wagner, the founder and CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, told The New Arab.

Dagres noted that there's also a "hard-line CIA operative managing the Iran desk at the moment and that also might mean covert activities and funding the opposition". There is a widely held view that the US will likely withdraw from the Iran deal on May 12, and there is a push to support dissent in Iran. It is unclear what that means, beyond statements of support and going to the United Nations to decry human rights violations. 

Wagner believes that we should anticipate the use of conventional and newer means of information warfare to be deployed in that regard. Clearly, cyber-warfare and the use of social media manipulation will be part of the mix. However, it is worth noting that this is the "new normal" among all cyber-enabled nations, so it should be expected among adversaries going forward.  

What opposition?

But when talking about Iranian opposition, the question is which groups are strong and organised enough to challenge the present Iranian political elite, as most of them are irrelevant or even compromised in the eyes of Iranians, especially if they are linked with western attempts to interfere into Iranian domestic matters.

This is certainly true for the so-called National Council of Resistance of Iran also known as MKO (The People's Mujahidin Organization), which, despite receiving unhidden support from conservative elements in the US and other western governments, has been nothing but a marginal diaspora movement, especially after its leaders went into exile in Iraq in the early 1980s.

They fought alongside Saddam Husein against their own country during Iraq-Iran war, losing any respect and sympathy among Iran's population.

Some believe that the main source of instability could be separatist minority groups within the country

Some ten years ago, the Green Movement led by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, rose as a reaction to the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, questioning election results, but there was no indication of the movement aiming to transform or overthrow the Islamic Republic itself.

Some believe that the main source of instability could be separatist minority groups within the country. According to estimates, some 40-50 percent of the population is non-Persian. The Iranian regime has been engaged in a battle with insurgents in remote areas populated by non-Persian minorities.

Some minorities face discrimination in education and employment, and feel left out of the plans for future regional development. Kurds, who represent up to 10 percent of the total population, have been active in pursuing greater autonomy or full independence as in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria. The Islamic Republic had, however, broken the militant force of Kurdish separatism in the 1980s.  

There are also separatist tendencies among the Baluchis (two percent) in south-eastern Iran and Arabs in the southwest (another two percent).

Azeris, the largest ethnic minority in Iran, on the other hand, are fully integrated into Iranian society.

While dissatisfaction with the regime certainly exists, especially among unemployed youth, and support for reform is far from dead, the current regime has proved to be resilient, as President Hassan Rouhani's success in two elections has shown. Iran is a fully functional state, despite some centrifugal forces within. It has survived international sanctions and isolation, war with Iraq and minority issues - as well as political unrest this winter.

New protests possible

However, Dagres pointed out that as long as the Iranian government doesn't directly address the very legitimate grievances of the protesters about the state of the economy and corruption, the likelihood of continued and growing protests is very high.

The government has discussed these issues at length, but it has yet to take any real action. She added that many Iranian government officials recognise the potential of growing protests, including President Hassan Rouhani, who recently warned that the Shah didn't listen to the demands and criticisms of his people - and lost everything as a result.

But some government officials believe that further crackdowns on dissent by blocking the popular messaging app Telegram will put an end to the protests - since they view the protests as being fomented from abroad. According to Wagner, any action or inaction by another government is unlikely to alter this dynamic.

As the world becomes more socially and technologically advanced, Iranians see themselves falling further and further behind, which will fuel continuing discontent and future protests.  

Nevertheless, advocates of foreign interference seem to ignore the simple fact that Iran is a regional power with its own interests and regional agenda. It is wrong to assume that a different leadership in Tehran would simply change its course, making a shift in its foreign and security policy that would please Washington or some other Western or Gulf capital, while leaving the region open to Saudi and US dominance.  

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.