Middle East In Focus
2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It is an occasion which finds Tehran with little to celebrate. The reimposition of U.S. sanctions is weighing down the Iranian economy, a trend which began last year but is expected to worsen over the next few months. The economic downturn, rising unemployment and a sizeable drop in the public budget for 2019 are likely to increase pressure on the government. And though Iran appears to be on the winning side of the Syrian civil war, reports suggest that Arab leaders are warming up to the idea of some form of reconciliation with Bashar al-Assad, possibly to include readmission into the Arab League and security guarantees. This would leave Iran quite alone on its 40th birthday.
Writing for the Saudi daily Arab News, Mohammed Al-Sulami believes that the Iranian regime will continue to be rocked by instability in the coming months as economic performance and social cohesion continue to put pressure on the government: “In 2019, the regime will likely face tougher pressure, especially since it has approved a 50 percent cut in its 2019-2020 budget. The budget reveals a number of service sectors facing severe cuts, while allocations are likely to increase for parallel institutions compared to last year.... Besides, unemployment among university graduates has also sharply increased. This will undoubtedly fuel further anger on the streets, placing more pressure on the regime.... Also, the Iranian regime is likely to face pressure from Saudi Arabia and its allies as they establish a comprehensive network for regional security that covers the primary and most vital Arab spheres. This external pressure, along with internal pressure, could push the regime to offer concessions at the regional level for it to overcome its ongoing domestic dilemmas.”
Iranian observer Mojtaba Barghandan suggests, in a recent op-ed for the Daily Sabah, that one of Iran’s persistent and most important challenges has been the decline of trust within society: “The element of ‘socio-economic development’ is a vital challenge to Iran, which needs to be seriously addressed by the government. It should be pointed out that Iran has always suffered from the unfortunate results of its governments' systematic "unseen and unheard" phenomenon, along with people's irrationality.... In the case of Iran, socio-economic and cultural shortcomings have gradually affected many areas such as social welfare, human rights, equality, the feeling of respect and social belonging, mutual respect, self-actualization and, ultimately, the decline in social capital.”
Veteran regional commentator Amir Taheri, meanwhile, asserts in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat that the root of Iran’s trouble is the Khomeneist revolution itself: “As the leadership in Tehran prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of the Khomeinist revolution, a growing number of Iranians are wondering whether the time has come for their country to close that chapter and resume its historic path as a nation-state.... The argument finding a growing echo in Iran is that time has come to dismantle the parallel organs and allow the state apparatus to regain its full authority as a vehicle for pursuing national, as opposed to ideological, interests and ambitions.... The good news is that, perhaps out of necessity, a new political culture is taking shape inside Iran, one that instinctively links politics to concrete issues of real life rather than abstract notions linked to revolutionary utopias.”
However, it is clear that Iran’s challenges lie as much outside of its borders as within. According to recent reports, leaders from various Arab countries are beginning to recalibrate their relationship with Syria with an eye towards weakening Iran’s influence in the country. As Press TV worries: “Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt are working on a plan with Israel to marginalize Iranian and Turkish influence in the region through restoring ties with Syria and making key changes to their overall policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.... Riyadh is worried that continuation of the Syrian conflict would ultimately help Tehran's clout grow even bigger. The shared antipathy towards Iran has led Saudi and its regional allies - the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and others - to develop clandestine ties with Israel over the past years.”
Comments by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu reported by The National’s staff seem to offer some corroboration to such reports by stressing Israel’s military importance to some of the Arab states: “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that Arab countries viewed Israel as an ‘indispensable ally’ fighting Iran and ISIS because of the country's strategic role in battling them.... The comments came as Israel has stepped up air strikes on Iranian positions in neighboring Syria, and as Israel digested an abrupt decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw US troops from the conflict.”
Iranian authorities remain defiant. Tehran Times reports that in a recent speech Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, referring to U.S. officials as “first-class idiots,” pointed out that “the 1979 Islamic Revolution is the main reason behind Washington’s deep and lasting hostility toward Iran…. He compared the calculation ability of the U.S. statesmen to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who had hoped to conquer Tehran within a week at the beginning of his invasion of Iran in September 1980.... He urged steadfastness in the face of the U.S. and Europe’s ‘militarism, bluster, and idle talk,’ saying, ‘Neither their threats, nor their words and promises, and not even their signatures are creditworthy’.”