Expressions of support by US President Donald J. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu have provided the grist for Iranian claims that anti-government protests were instigated by foreign powers. The largely baseless assertions offer nonetheless insight into the very different strategies adopted by Iran and Saudi Arabia in their vicious struggle for regional dominance.
There is little doubt that the protests were fuelled by widespread economic grievances with Iran’s detractors resembling not always helpful fans on the side lines. In fact, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis, was the one opponent of the Islamic republic that refrained from joining the fans publicly in a bid to deprive the regime in Tehran from using it as a scapegoat. That did not stop Iranian leaders from pointing a finger at the kingdom in ways that reflected the dynamics of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry.
Both Iranian and Saudi approaches to their rivalry are in flux. Protesters in Iran challenged the government’s heavy expenditure on propping up allies like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and funding proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen, not to mention proselytization campaigns in West Africa.
The protests are unlikely to change Iranian policy that the country’s leaders view as the crux of their defense strategy in covert wars with the United States and Saudi Arabia that have been ongoing since the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the shah, a monarch and an icon of now waning US power in the region.
Nonetheless, Iranian leaders will have to take public grievances into account even if the protests peter out. Rather than toting its regional successes publicly, Iran going forward is likely to be more circumspect about its foreign involvements. While that will not change things on the ground, it may contribute over time to an environment more conducive to a lessening of tensions.
Despite the protests, Iran has little reason to change facts on the ground. With access to the world’s most advanced weapons systems severely restricted for decades because of sanctions and boycotts, some in response to provocative Iranian actions and policies, others part of regional power struggles, Iran has sought to fight its battles far from its borders. Many Iranians bought into the argument that the policy had largely shielded their country from instability and jihadism wracking the rest of the region.
Simultaneous Islamic State attacks last June on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, that killed 12 people were viewed as the exception that proved the rule. That perception has changed in a significant segment of the population as protesters demanded that funds allocated to Iran’s defense doctrine and enhancement of its regional influence be invested in improving their deteriorating living standards.
“Our military doctrine is…based on historical experience: During the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein rained Soviet-made missiles on our cities, some of them carrying chemical components provided by the West. The world not only kept silent, but also no country would sell Iran weapons to enable us to at least deter the aggressor. We learned our lesson,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote in The New York Times weeks before the protests erupted.
Speaking this week at a Brookings Institution seminar in Washington, Iranian-American journalist Maziar Bahari described Iran’s doctrine as a more brutal and militarized version of the late Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion’s policy of the periphery that in the absence of relations with Israel’s neighbours sought to forge ties with the neighbours of the Jewish state’s neighbours.
Mr. Zarif represents the view of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s pragmatic government, a view shared by conservatives as part of a far greater ambition that they have no compunction about articulating.