Iranians are caught between biting sanctions and a brutal crackdown

Iranians are caught between biting sanctions and a brutal crackdown
Comment: The real losers of the US sanctions are ordinary Iranian people, writes Bashdar Ismaeel.
5 min read
27 Nov, 2019
Iran is emerging from a five-day internet blackout [Twitter]
A wave of demonstrations across Iran triggered by a steep and unexpected government hike in gasoline prices on 15 November, has seen the Iranian elite scamper to diffuse a crisis that rapidly stretched to all corners of Iran.

Reports suggest over 140 have been killed since mid-November in what Amnesty International describes as the  "intentional use of lethal force by Iranian security forces", though actual numbers are hard to verify due to a near total shutdown of the internet aimed at limiting news reporting and curtailing the protesters' ability to mobilise support.

While the protests underscore the scale of public discontent in Iran and the deepening economic impact on ordinary people, demonstrators are unlikely to see significant concessions granted by Tehran.

Naturally, the United States was quick to jump on the protest bandwagon, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declaring that the US "stands with the people of Iran in their struggle against an oppressive regime that silences them while arresting and murdering protesters."

However, not only is the influence of the US limited in relation to the protests, but, ironically, it is Washington's policies that have compounded the suffering of the Iranian people.

President Donald Trump announced the US' unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, and wide ranging sanctions quickly followed. 

Trump and US officials argue the sanctions are working, but the Iranian economy has quickly tanked amid a rapid decline in oil exports, limited access to financial markets, and a plummeting value of the Iranian Rial.

Demonstrators are unlikely to see significant concessions granted by Tehran

But despite peoples' hardship, the deeply proud and conservative Iranian leadership, on both sides of the theocratic and elected divide, is unlikely to succumb to the "maximum pressure" policies of its arch-enemy.

This ultimately means that with the religious Iranian elite keen to safeguard its revolutionary goals, it may be willing to take a hit on its national interests.

As a result, the real losers of the US sanctions are ordinary Iranian people, who suffer from lack of job opportunities, public services and economic stability, and - as demonstrations have highlighted - who lack real power to secure concessions from Iranian leaders.

Feeling the heat, key Iranian figures in the executive, judiciary and legislative branches have become more aligned in their approach to dealing with protests.

This doesn't mean there isn't friction, but at a sensitive juncture for Iran, and the ever deepening bite of sanctions, powerful voices such as that of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the Supreme National Security Council or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, will be unwilling to heed the voices of reformist or moderates. To do so would, they fear, demonstrate weakness or succumbing to protester demands.

President Hassan Rouhani for example, was considered a more moderate figure when he came to power in 2013 under promises of more social freedom and reforms. On occasion, Rouhani has been openly critical of hardliners such as the IGRC.

Amid demonstrations in 2017, Rouhani took a more conciliatory tone with protesters, stating in a tv address at the time, that "People are allowed under the constitution to criticise or even protest, but… in a way that at the end they lead to a better situation in the country for the people."

In contrast, Rouhani this time has taken a much harsher line, calling them "a small group of enemy soldiers".

On Wednesday, he gave a triumphant pitch in their handling of the demonstrations, determining the government had been "victorious out of yet another test", while insisting they would "never allow the balance to tilt in favour of the enemy".

In a similar vein, the IRGC claimed success in "preventing rioters" from turning Tehran into "another Beirut or Baghdad", in reference to the recent shows of public discontent in both those capitals.

While the IRGC claims that the "incidents" were ended within 24-72 hours, the lack of media coverage casts a shadow over events in recent days. As the internet returns after a five-day blackout, evidence of a widespread crackdown is emerging, with one Iranian lawmaker even boasting on Tuesday that more than 7,000 had been arrested by authorities.

The government was it appears, quick and fierce in its intention to break the will of the protesters before they could pose a greater challenge to the government.

The crackdown and widespread arrests were also designed to dissuade future protests. With the general public facing a lose-lose situation of economic suffering and harsh reprisals, it will take a much greater, and now riskier - public mobilisation to force the government's hand.

While it admits the timing and implementation were untactical, the government defended the steep hike in fuel prices, saying the funds would help provide additional government assistance to 60 million eligible Iranians. But the estimated US$2 - US$2.5 billion that this would raise is unlikely to make a significant difference to the gaping shortfall in government revenue.

Helping other less well off Iranians may be of little comfort to those who are hardly better off themselves, and a reduction in gasoline subsidies may be just the first step in a new set of biting austerity measures.

The government was it appears, quick and fierce in its intention to break the will of the protesters

Political legitimacy may have taken a big hit, and public faith in the parallel power structures of Iran further eroded, but Iran's leaders appear to consider this a price worth paying, to quickly take the steam out of the protests.

The US, for its part, is unlikely to let up on sanctions. Instead, Trump has promised more of the same, and new measures will probably target particular individuals.

Senior figures are perhaps more accustomed to the threat of sanctions, and likely don't see it as much of a deterrent either. Iran's minister of information and telecommunications technology, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, who was penalised by the US for his perceived responsibility in ordering the internet shutdown, tweeted "I'm not the only member of club of sanctioned persons."

Far from succumbing to the US because of tough sanctions, Iran is determined to showcase its own force, both domestically and regionally.

With Iran keen to protect its revolutionary goals and preserve its regional position, and the US as keen as ever to inflict maximum economic damage on Iran, the only guarantee is further suffering for ordinary Iranians.

Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

Follow him on Twitter: 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.