Experts discuss the domestic, regional, and international implication of the Iran protests.
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Washington, DC — January 11, 2018 — Arab Center Washington DC, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on US policy and developments in the Arab region, hosted a panel at the National Press Club titled “Beyond Iran’s Protests: Domestic, Regional, and International Implications.”
In his introduction, ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan contemplated that the recent protests have raised more questions than answers. What internal circumstances triggered the protests? Did the causes pertain to Iran’s struggling economy and the erosion of civil liberties? Did regional and international political involvement play a role? What are the most likely reactions from the United States and the international community? Panelists Alex Vatanka (Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute), Charles W. Dunne (Non-resident Analyst, Arab Center Washington DC), and Kenneth Katzman (Senior Analyst, Congressional Research Service, who appeared in a personal capacity) offered analysis and attempted to provide answers.
Vatanka focused on internal tensions within the Iranian regime and speculated that the political rivals of President Hassan Rouhani may have instigated the protests. He also acknowledged that the protests may have been spontaneous as well, based on Iranians’ anger about economic conditions. In trying to accommodate the religious establishment, Rouhani has neglected the society’s needs; Vatanka noted, “If you want to appease the supreme leader, you will not get big reforms done.” Regarding US policy in Iran, Vatanka asserted, “I don’t think the Trump administration a year into office has a coherent Iran strategy.”
Dunne addressed the impact of the protests on Arab Gulf countries, which he said are largely pleased with the dissent. The unrest presents them the opportunity to gain strategic advantage over an unstable Iran. However, Gulf governments have officially remained quiet on the protests to avoid the sense that they support the demand for civil liberties, which may stoke domestic protest. Dunne concluded, “While the unrest in Iran has stirred up a bit of excitement in the Gulf—both some hope and some worry—for the moment it seems to be just another phase in a long-run struggle between these political poles in the Gulf.”
Kenneth Katzman addressed the overarching implications for US policy and the effects the protests have had on Iran’s international image, saying that they have shattered the notion that Iran can maintain multiple fronts as a regional superpower. Further, he said that Iran’s troubles have undercut Trump’s contention regarding the Islamic Republic and US national security, saying, “If Iran is imploding on its own, then it hardly poses a major threat to the United States.” Indeed, he concluded, a weakened and chastened Iran could pave the way for long-stalled negotiations to take place on different issues, such as Syria and Yemen.