Explosive times and shifting alliances
Since September’s arrest of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, and her subsequent death at the hands of Iran’s morality police, the country has been in turmoil. Nicholas Nugent considers the potential international ramifications of the anti-government protests
Initially it was young women and teenage girls who led the dissent against the Iranian regime’s four-decades-long insistence that women must cover their heads with hijabs in public places. Agitation centred on schools and colleges, especially in the Kurdish areas of western Iran, from where Ms Amini hailed. Women ripped off their hijabs and in some cases set fire to them in protest against the strict feminine dress code.
The protests spread rapidly to more than 80 cities, including the Sunni majority area of Baluchistan near Iran’s frontier with Pakistan. Workers at oil and chemical plants in the southern provinces of Khuzestan and Busheshr came out on strike in support of the demonstrators.
Cries of ‘We don’t want the Islamic Republic’ and ‘Death to the dictator’ highlighted a stark reality: the protests were about more than just the way women dress. Some of those who took to the streets claimed that what was happening was nothing short of a revolution.
The regime’s enforcers – police, morality police and basij militia – responded with aggression, opening fire on the streets and filling the country’s prisons with protestors and dress code violators – allegedly totalling 12,500 during the first five weeks. The Human Rights Activists News Agency put the numbers killed by security forces during the same period at 244, the majority of them women and girls.
As always when there is trouble in Iran, the question to which observers seek the answer is: ‘Will this people’s movement finally overthrow not just the government but the Islamic regime?’ Dr Sanam Vakil, who watches Iran at the London-based think tank Chatham House, says the present unrest ‘will not achieve that end on its own but could be a catalyst towards a more powerful threat to the regime’.
‘So far’, she adds, ‘there is no clear indigenous leadership, no one central figure to bring the different protesting groups together.’
Iran became an Islamic Republic more than 40 years ago in a clergy-led revolution that overthrew the Shah-led monarchy and instituted Shia Muslim orthodoxy, which included strict codes of dress and behaviour. Now presided over by the second supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it would take a powerful force to overthrow this deeply entrenched system of Islamic governance.
The regime appears to be in something of a state of paralysis, given that the supreme leader, who is 83, is suffering from prostate cancer and a successor has yet to be chosen. Dr Vakil suggests there is ‘a vacuum of decision-making’ at the top.
Some observers believe the country’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, 61, is being groomed to take over. As a senior cleric, he is well qualified for the role, says Dr Vakil, not least because he is loyal to Khamenei, who engineered him into the presidential role last year. He also has a reputation for cracking down on dissidents. Were he to be chosen by an assembly of clerics as the Islamic Republic’s third supreme leader, he would be regarded as a continuity candidate.
Worrying for outsiders and the large number of Iranian expatriates, as the protest movement shows no signs of abating, is its likely impact on Iran’s strained international relations. It is 18 months into renegotiating, with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known informally as the ‘Iran nuclear deal’.
Originally signed in 2015, then torn up by US President Donald Trump in 2018, the deal aimed to slow Iran’s progress towards enriching uranium and thereby developing nuclear weapons. In return, the United States and other nations agreed to lift crippling sanctions that have constrained Iran’s oil exports and sent the country’s economic growth into decline.
Discussion in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) to revive the JCPOA and thus lift sanctions on Iran are in abeyance until after the US congressional elections in November. If the Republican Party gain a majority in Congress, President Biden may struggle to get any new deal with Iran approved, especially if the street protests are still ongoing by then.
Meanwhile, Iran has continued enriching uranium to well above the previously agreed 5 per cent limit. The IAEA believes it has now reached 60 per cent.
Dr Vakil says Iran is ‘perilously close’ to being able to make a nuclear weapon, which would mean a new nuclear power in a volatile region. For Iran the consequence would be a ‘snapback of sanctions’ which are already causing a cost of living crisis and likely to be further fuelling the widespread discontent.
The allegation in October that Iran is supplying drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, and has trainers on the ground in Crimea providing support, may be a further hindrance to reviving the nuclear deal. Iran has denied the claims.
The Sahed-136 drone’s 2400-km range and ability to deploy beneath radar has been successful in evading Ukraine’s air defences and is said to have an edge over Kyiv’s Turkey-supplied Bayraktar drones. If it is confirmed that Iran is supplying drones to Russia, this will not go down well with its NATO neighbour Turkey, one of the few lawful customers for Iran’s oil exports.
Iran is a prominent member of the oil exporters cartel OPEC, and though its exports are already much reduced because of sanctions, it took part in the recent agreement between OPEC and Russia to further reduce output, to the detriment of European nations which have been trying to compensate after reducing their dependence on Russian oil.
A great deal hangs on the outcome of the sensitive JCPOA negotiations, for which the current unrest is a complicating factor. Whatever happens will impact alliances in a region where many nations are deeply suspicious of Iran’s intentions.
If – against current predictions – the JCPOA were to be revived, then Saudi Arabia may be induced to follow other Arab states in settling differences with Israel in order to concentrate its ire against Iran, with whom it is engaged in a proxy war in Yemen. This was the conclusion of a March meeting, in Israel’s Negev Desert, of foreign ministers of the ‘Abraham Accord’ countries, which link Israel with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan.
If the JCPOA collapses, some of the Abraham Accord countries – notably Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, who feel threatened by their proximity to Iran – will work with Israel on their own strategy for preventing Iran from ‘going nuclear’. This would likely involve military action by Israel to put Iranian nuclear facilities out of action.
According to Dr Vakil, the Abraham Accords have ‘ushered in visible cooperation between former enemies over Iran’, cooperation which has already led to the sharing of intelligence.
Thus Iran’s current unrest, its suspected arming of Russia and the fate of the JCPOA are all contributing to shifting alliances within the Middle East, where countries face the imminent reality of Iran becoming a nuclear power.
Nicholas Nugent, who was formerly with the BBC World Service, has reported from Iran