Arab Center Washington DC
Congressional Research Service
Middle East Institute
Arab Center Washington DC
On January 11, 2018, Arab Center Washington DC hosted a panel 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, such as: 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, appearing in a personal capacity) offered analysis and attempted to provide answers.
Alex Vatanka explored internal tensions within the Iranian regime and speculated that the political rivals of President Hassan Rouhani may have instigated the protests. He said this theory gains credibility when one considers how abruptly the protests came to an end, indicating the presence of a control center for the protests that started in Mashhad and quickly spread to other cities in Iran. He also acknowledged that the protests may have been spontaneous as well, based on Iranians’ anger about economic conditions. The doubling of the price of petrol and the increase in the cost of staple goods are all sources of popular resentment. Vatanka observed that many of the protesters are part of a new generation of dissidents born in the 1990s who care little about Iran’s regional mission and “ideological adventures” and hope to effect political and economic change. He said that in trying to accommodate the religious establishment, Rouhani has neglected society’s needs, noting that, “If you want to appease the supreme leader, you will not get big reforms done.” Vatanka also characterized the recent unrest in Iran as an opportunity for the Trump Administration to make a clear distinction between the Islamic Republic, as a political entity, and the Iranian people. However, he asserted, “I don’t think the Trump Administration a year into office has a coherent Iran strategy.”
Charles W. Dunne focused on the impact of the protests on Gulf countries, which he said are largely pleased with the dissent. The unrest presents them the opportunity to gain a strategic advantage over a purportedly unstable Iran, as domestic pressures, they hope, will push the government to turn inward and curb its regional meddling. However, Gulf governments have officially remained quiet on the protests to obviate any blame Iran may ascribe to them and to avoid the sense that they support the demand for civil liberties, which may stoke domestic protest. The Iranian protests may be seen as motivating Arab youth, who hold similar grievances to their Iranian counterparts. Dunne cautioned against thinking of the Iranian protests as a paradigm shift in the relationship between Iran and the Gulf countries. Iran ultimately has too much at stake in its regional interventions to change radically in the short term. He concluded that, “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. He explained that Iranians no longer care about Iran’s regional message and are instead more focused on long-term economic well-being. In addition, “poor Iranians are outraged that their subsidies are being cut back,” especially as they see funds going to bolster the Fatemiyoun brigades, a fighting force of Afghan Shias deployed in Syria to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. This dissatisfaction has made Iran vulnerable on the international stage. Further, Katzman noted that Iran’s troubles have undercut President Trump’s contention regarding the Islamic Republic and US national security; he said, “If Iran is imploding on its own, then it hardly poses a major threat to the United States.” Indeed, Katzman said, a weakened and chastened Iran could pave the way for long–stalled negotiations to take place on different issues, such as Syria and Yemen.