Updated: Nov 26, 2019
Since November 15, Iran has witnessed massive protests, which erupted following an announcement by Iran's National Oil Company (NIOPDC) of at least a 50% increase in gas prices. The protests are seen by many observers as a serious challenge to the Iranian regime, and as proof that the sanctions applied by the Trump Administration are having an impact on Iran’s economy. To assess the potential implications of the protests on Iran’s regional behavior, Wikistrat asked its experts for their analysis of the issue.
Dr. Mitchell Belfer, President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (Rome, Italy) and Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Terrorism, and Security at the Metropolitan University, Prague:
Many attribute the recent spike in anti-regime demonstrations across Iran to the 15 November 2019 announcement that the government would launch a petrol-rationing scheme and slash fuel subsidies (which sent prices soaring by 50%). However, this was merely a trigger to reignite the long-simmering tensions in Iran that hark back to 2009’s Green Movement and its wanton repression. There may be a decidedly spontaneous aspect to people getting out on streets from Tabriz to Mashhad to Tehran, but the frustration is a decade old, if not more. Economic mismanagement, stagnation, inflation, currency depreciation, and unemployment together with the over-funding of the tools of repression at home (re Basij militia) and proxies abroad (re Hezbollah, Houthis) is fueling the protests. However, they are being sustained by the heavy-handed response of security forces: hundreds have been killed, thousands detained and injured. The Internet was deliberately interrupted for 100 hours to prevent the gruesome images of gunmen shooting arbitrarily into crowds from reaching the international public.
With rebellions against Iran unfolding in southern Iraq, throughout Lebanon, and now in Iran itself, the very public secret of what sanctions relief money was, and was not, being spent on is clear. The Islamic Republic used its international rehabilitation — as brief as it was — to reach for regional hegemony not through the strengthening of civil society and economic policies but through the proliferation of its orthodox ideology backed up by proxy enforcers. Whatever the result of this latest internal flare-up and exogenous push-back may be, it is unlikely to dislodge the revolutionary regime from its mantel of power. But then again — in this milestone year marking the end of Communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe  — it would be wise to remember that politics are impossible to predict.
Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Brookings Institution in Doha:
It is too early to concretely assess the regional ramifications of the Iran protests, as the dust there has not settled yet. However, what one can say is that prior to their outbreak, Tehran already faced an unprecedented challenge to its regional standing and influence in the wake of the Lebanon and Iraq protests, where its allies and proxies have been a prime target of the nationwide demonstrations. The heavy hand used in Iraq, for which Iran-affiliated groups have been seen as the main perpetrator, was also because of a spill-over risk into Iran’s oil-rich province Khuzestan – a hotbed of the Iran protests this past week. In the latter context, Tehran shut down a key Iranian–Iraqi border-crossing to avoid such a scenario. In conclusion, the simultaneous regional and national protests are posing a most formidable challenge for the Islamic Republic, whose energy has currently shifted from the region to its restive domestic arena.
Dr. Theodore Karasik, Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics, a Geostrategic Consultancy Based in Washington, DC:
The situation in Iran demonstrates the effectiveness of the "maximum pressure" strategy from the White House. The United States is clearly striving to give protesters power or greater influence by helping them establish communication with each other. The current situation in Iran occurs some two months after the brilliantly executed asymmetrical drone and missile attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, speaking of the current situation, we need to recall the old proverb “what goes around comes around.” This is the beginning of a serious problem for the Iranian government, and we already see how Tehran is puzzling over what to do beyond shooting protesters. But most important is to pay attention to the burning of Basij posts and revolutionary symbols including posters and Khomenei's Ring. In addition, the holy cities of Qom and Mashad are equally important to watch for reactions as the questioning of the government and its foundations continues.
Dr. Raz Zimmt, Iran Expert, Institute for National Security Studies (INSS):
Iran's fuel riots have strengthened the Iranian regime's sense of threat. Its willingness to use disproportionate force even at the cost of many casualties and block access to the Internet for several days despite public criticism suggests that it is not prepared to risk the expansion of the popular protests, especially given the sensitive conditions Iran faces in the domestic, regional, and international arenas.
Even if the regime succeeds in suppressing the protests and restoring order across Iran, the riots have revealed its vulnerability in the face of the worsening economic crisis. The protest is expected to strengthen the regime's awareness of the need to step up its efforts to suppress any potential threat to its stability and to avoid any measure that could be interpreted as a weakness. Therefore, the Iranian leadership does not appear to accept US demands to change its policy and behavior. On the contrary, it may actually toughen its position and refuse any compromise that could be presented at home and abroad as a demonstration of weakness. The suppression of the riots and the implementation of the fuel [price] raising decision could also bolster the Iranian leadership's assessment that it could continue its efforts to pull time at least until the next US presidential election in November 2020.
Dr. Courtney Freer, Research Fellow, LSE Kuwait Programme, London School of Economics and Political Science:
Iran's protests reveal the economic fragility that we have suspected the Islamic Republic has been experiencing. In terms of regional balance, the protests in Iran and the regime's response to them further expose the regime's domestic weakness, despite its bellicose rhetoric and despite its boasts about enriching uranium. The GCC states could seize on this opportunity to further isolate Iran on the world stage. With protests in Iraq and Lebanon potentially threatening the Iranian foothold in those states as well, the GCC could use this as an opportunity to alienate the regime, and even potentially to appeal to the Iranian people themselves at the expense of the political leadership.
Dr. Rebecca B. Molloy, Terrorism Intelligence Analyst, Contingent Security Ltd and Senior Analyst, Wikistrat:
In what is shaping up to be the deadliest upheaval since the 1979 revolution, Iranians have been taking to the streets since last Friday to protest the government’s economic mismanagement in general and its decision to essentially triple gasoline prices in particular. Affected with pervasive frustration and alienation, demonstrators blocked major highways, burned posters and effigies of Iranian leaders, and attacked financial institutions, government buildings, and emblems of the revolutionary regime. The regime responded instantaneously with unrestrained use of violence, deploying snipers and security forces to the streets, as well as inflicting a near-complete Internet and cellular blackout. The government leaves little doubt it will do anything it needs to quash resistance, including mass-murdering its way out of this. In terms of regional implications, this includes taking any step that will enable Iran to escape the effective chokehold of US sanctions.
Tehran’s reaction to the latest eruption clearly indicates that the leadership’s feathers have been ruffled. The upheavals’ pace of progression signals a real fear of loss of control: local demands quickly turning into outright rejection of the regime at the national level; social media is allowing for levels of coordination and dissemination that was previously mediated by manageable government press; the middle class – traditionally the government’s main constituency and reliable pillar of support – is now engaged. These factors expose the profound vulnerability of the Islamic Republic. With a legitimacy crisis at home, Iranian leadership will step up the pace to shore up its grip on power from the outside. This will mean increased exploitation of Russian and Chinese ambitions, particularly as the latter may offer a way to break Iran’s economic isolation. Iran’s aggression against the KSA and Israel and its meddling in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, directly or through proxy terrorist groups, is steadily escalating.
Dr. Saud Al-Sharafat, Former Brig. Gen in the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate and Founder and Chairman of the Shorufat Center for the Study of Globalization and Terrorism, Amman:
I believe that the protests will gradually change the “behavior” of the Iranian regime in the medium run. This will surface and manifest in how the Iranian regime deals in a number of areas, the most important of which are: supporting the Houthis in Yemen, supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, the war in Syria, supporting Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Iran will certainly change its behavior toward swaying these parties, which are draining much of its economic capacity at a time when it is suffering from economic sanctions. Meanwhile, these protests, in their current form, are unlikely to change the structure of the Iranian regime because it is capable of using excessive force against protesters, media blackouts, Internet shutdowns, and the use of anti-American propaganda to bypass protests.
Barak Barfi, Research Fellow at the New America Foundation:
Iran has experienced three bouts of socioeconomic and political protests in the last decade. The last two failed to shake the regime, let alone topple it. This time is likely to be no different. As long as that is the case, the regime’s regional policies will be minimally affected by the protests. That said, the protests’ roots stem from the abysmal economic conditions caused by crippling American sanctions. If they do not subside, it is possible the regime may seek a modus vivendi with the European Union to blunt the sanctions’ effects. In such a scenario, the regime may persuade its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon to work with Western-backed forces to reform the political system.
Victoria Silva Sánchez, Independent Journalist, and Researcher:
Iran's protests seem to have caught the regime and the region by surprise. However, the stage for them has been set up during [many] years. Protests have exposed Iranian leadership weaknesses in front of their own people and it looks like the US sanctions had a deal of effect in leading to this situation. My opinion is that regional leaders want Iran weak but not leaderless. I do not think that, at this moment, there is a credible alternative to rule Iran.
As for implications, I think that this will contribute positively to the spirit of protesters in Lebanon and Iraq, who feel really pressed by pro-Iranian forces in both countries. However, this can entrench Iran even deeper in its position of continuing breaching the JCPOA and make it more difficult to appease it. It can also lead to some incidents in the Persian Gulf or to its proxies trying to divert some attention from internal problems. The economic problems might lead Iran to cut some funds/support to its external engagement in different scenarios, but not in a decisive way, although it might allow, for instance, to see more attacks by Israel on Iranian-allied forces, especially in Syria. Gulf states right now feel themselves in a position of superiority to try to negotiate with the Islamic Republic, but I do not expect much receptiveness right now. I think that it is up to other actors, such as Russia and China or the EU, to show some constructive engagement with Iran to counterbalance the damage US sanctions are causing to it. Otherwise, it might be slipping toward the same situation that took place during the years under Ahmadinejad's rule.