Iranian protests rattle ruling clergy, take world by surprise

'The protests have undermined the posture of the Islamic Republic in the region, as the unrivalled superpower.', Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics.

Breaking point. Iranian university students take part in an anti-government protest inside Tehran University. (AP)

2018/01/07 Issue: 138 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Thomas Seibert

Washington - The unrest in Iran has taken the world by sur­prise. Neither the West nor countries in the Mid­dle East were prepared for the wave of nationwide protests in which at least 21 people have died and that have shaken the regime in Tehran.

As international leaders struggle to come up with a response, the fate of the nuclear deal with Iran and Tehran’s role in the region hang in the balance.

Starting December 28 in the northern Iranian city of Mashhad, the anti-government unrest, trig­gered by dissatisfaction with eco­nomic conditions, spread through­out the country.

US President Donald Trump and his administration offered public support to the protesters. “TIME FOR CHANGE,” Trump tweeted. The US State Department sent a message to the demonstrators that they would “not be forgotten.”

The rhetoric masked the fact that Washington was caught off guard by the protests, the largest in Iran since the Green Revolution following the presidential election in 2009. “This was not on our radar,” one US official told the Associated Press. Washing­ton imposed new sanctions against Iranian entities but the measures were targeted against Iran’s ballistic missile programme and not related to the unrest.

Analysts said Trump might use the protests as a reason to terminate US participation in the international nuclear agreement with Iran, for­mally known as the Joint Compre­hensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The US president, who has called JCPOA the “worst deal ever,” must decide by mid-January whether to reim­pose sanctions against Tehran that were suspended under the pact.

European governments, some of which have important economic interests in Iran, and the European Union were slow to react to the Ira­nian crisis. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini waited until January 2 — five days after the start of the demonstrations — to issue a statement denouncing the violence.

Reports said European countries were trying to discourage efforts by Washington to have UN bodies issue strong statements against the Iranian government.

Among Arab countries, the offi­cial response was also muted. Iran’s main rival, Saudi Arabia, issued no official statement. The silence was at least partly motivated by concern that support for anti-government action in Iran could give credence to claims by Tehran that the unrest had been organised by Iran’s foes abroad.

The public’s reactions in the Gulf region were largely supportive of the protests. Missile attacks by Iran-supported Houthis at Saudi terri­tory only ratcheted up resentment in the Gulf of Tehran’s regional poli­cies. Turkey, which has sided with Iran in the conflict between Qatar and a Saudi-led group of Arab coun­tries, echoed Tehran’s view about the unrest. Israel openly supported the Iranian protest movement and criticised the “cruel regime” in Teh­ran.

Protesters criticised the budget­ary burden of Iran’s involvement in neighbouring countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen with the unrest leading to questions as to whether Tehran’s quest for a bigger role in the region was coming to an end.

Iran’s growing influence had trig­gered fears among Sunni countries that a “Shia Crescent” from Iran towards the Mediterranean was taking shape. The wave of protests, however, put a spotlight on Teh­ran’s weaknesses, Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics, told the Washington Post.

“Before the protests, you had this dominant narrative that Iran is unstoppable, Iran is undefeatable, Iran is as solid as a rock,” he said. “The protests have undermined the posture of the Islamic Repub­lic in the region, as the unrivalled superpower.”

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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