One of the most extraord-inary things about the current protests in Iran—the largest since the Green Movement in 2009—is that the very people that they are directed against may well have been the people who started them. Iran's ultra-conservative theocrats appear to have thought that by stoking anger over the economy in their political heartlands, they would undermine the moderate President Hassan Rouhani. But, if that is the case, they failed to anticipate the depth of the dissatisfaction of the Iranian people with the status quo—especially their own role in it.
To be clear, despite the massive scale of the protests, they are very unlikely to bring down the regime. Iran's security forces are too strong and have too much at stake in the current system, which gives them control of vast swaths of the Iranian economy.
Moreover, the protesters are essentially leaderless and lack clear objectives. No matter how much encouragement Western powers give them, the protests seem all but certain to end with Islamist hardliners retaining their power bases and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps retaining control of most of the state's assets and security activities.
But that doesn't mean that nothing will change. Nor does it mean that the West has no leverage to exercise.
It is possible, for example, that Rouhani will end up stepping down, whether by force or choice. But this would hardly count as success for the protesters. After all, Rouhani is the supposedly moderate administrator of a state whose constitution is not, in the eyes of the clerical elite, derived from this earthly realm. If protecting their government's religious purity—and their own ill-gotten gains—required brutally repressing their own people and returning Iran to the dark ages, the extremists who would be left in charge would eagerly do it.
Whether Rouhani steps down or not, it is now apparent that the status quo cannot continue indefinitely—indeed, perhaps not for very much longer. Iranians were told that the nuclear deal concluded in 2015 would lift them out of economic hardship. But, thanks partly to persistent corruption—Iran ranks in the lowest quartile globally in this area—annual inflation exceeds 10 percent, and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent. According to Gallup, only citizens of Iraq and South Sudan are more pessimistic about their future.
So far, Rouhani has been unwilling or unable to use the power of the presidency to reform Iran. But, amid the protests, he is more motivated than ever to improve domestic economic conditions. Should he fail, Iran may face a larger wave of protests, with stronger leadership and clearer objectives.
Any effort to reform Iran's economy must recognise the costly absurdity of the country's expansionist foreign policies. Funding a proxy war in Yemen, propping up a political party and terrorist group in Lebanon, and seeking to dominate Syria and Iraq cost billions of dollars annually. It should not have come as a surprise when protesters shouted, “Let go of Syria; think about us.”
Iranian citizens are not alone in taking issue with their country's foreign policy. Most Western and Middle Eastern governments are also highly concerned about Iran's behaviour, which reflects a rejection of international norms such as respect for national sovereignty. Iran's public threats to destroy America and the Gulf states certainly don't help matters.
Iran's problematic foreign policy is the result not of mismanagement, but of toxic ideology. Indeed, two fixed notions underpin it. First, Iran's leaders are convinced that global geopolitics is a zero-sum game—a belief shared with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (That commonality perhaps explains the close alliance that has formed between Russia and Iran.) Second—and more dangerous—Iran's leaders believe that they have a God-given right to unite Shia Muslims under a single caliphate. The result is a hostile regime that views its neighbours' success as a threat—and is willing to wage war over it.
Iran's leadership will be extremely reluctant to withdraw from the forward positions the country has gained across the Middle East over the past decade, beachheads which regime hardliners regard as crucial national-security and foreign-policy assets. Amid the current protests, however, the West has an opportunity to push Iran to suspend its regional ambitions and focus on its desperate domestic situation. If an agreement is reached, existing sanctions can be reduced; if Iran's leaders refuse to budge, new sanctions could be introduced.
To be sure, if religious extremists take control of all levels of Iran's government, appeals based on Iranians' economic prospects will fall on deaf ears. But if Rouhani retains the presidency—or another moderate takes his place—there is a chance that such pressure would provide sufficient cover to scale back Iran's foreign adventurism and reform the domestic economy. This would minimize the risk of severe violence in Iran, while galvanising opposition to religious extremists.
Iran is at a turning point. The world must now send its regime a clear message: stop destabilising the region and help your own people to prosper.
Geoffrey Hoon is a former United Kingdom secretary of state for defence.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)