The latest antigovernment protests in Iran indicate that the regime’s costly and destabilizing role in regional conflicts is taking a political toll at home. While economic grievances are the key driver of the current protests, ordinary Iranians are questioning the wisdom of their government’s military adventurism abroad and support for foreign state and non-state actors at the expense of domestic priorities. Although the protests are fading and are unlikely to change Iran’s regional posture in the short and immediate terms, growing resentment inside Iran about the country’s foreign policy will have long-term implications for the Islamic Republic’s efforts to expand its soft power and hard power strategies in neighboring countries and the broader region.
Rejecting Iran’s regional role
The protests began two weeks ago in the city of Mashhad against the Rouhani government’s economic mismanagement that has raised the cost of living for ordinary Iranians. Hardliners initially encouraged the protesters to weaken the Rouhani government. But the protests quickly spread across the country against the entirety of the regime. The protesters risked their lives and crossed regime red lines, calling for the resignation of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and an end to the policy of sending young Iranians to fight in Syria and providing generous financial aid to foreign proxies while the Iranian people are economically struggling at home. Chants of “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran” and “Leave Syria, think about us!” were heard across the country. The protesters aim to pressure the country’s leadership to recalibrate its adventurist regional actions and focus on domestic problems. While unemployment and inflation are soaring in Iran, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) is spending billions of dollars annually to prop up the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and support a broad network of militant and terrorist groups from Afghanistan to Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen and beyond.
Support for foreign proxies
The Iranian regime has provided financial and military support to its regional proxies since the very inception of the Islamic Republic almost four decades ago. In recent years, however, the size and scope of Iran’s involvement in the region has markedly increased. After the US ouster of the Saddam regime in 2003, the IRGC’s elite Quds Force funded, trained and mobilized several Iraqi Shiite militia groups to fight the US-led coalition forces in the Arab country. Iran also established ties with its one-time enemy Taliban in Afghanistan to bleed American troops and force their exit from its eastern neighbor. The eruption of civil wars in the aftermath of the Arab Spring provided another opportunity for Iran to expand its influence across the region. The IRGC deployed its forces to Syria and mobilized a large network of Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias to rescue the Assad regime and project power and influence. The precipitous US withdrawal from Iraq and the subsequent emergence of the Islamic State also helped Iran to further expand and consolidate its influence over all levers of Iraqi politics and security. Moreover, Tehran has been providing aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
While Iran has managed to expand its ideological and political sphere of influence in the region, its gains in the region have not only fueled instability in the Middle East but also come at enormous costs for the Iranian people. The regime’s support for terrorism has subjected the country to US and international sanctions which have undermined economic development and the well-being of the Iranian people. The costly expenditure of war efforts abroad has also diverted attention and resources from domestic needs. It is therefore no surprise that the Iranian people’s patience is running out and they are calling for a change. Indeed, one of the key triggers of the latest protests was the new government budget that had increased allocations for the military and religious institutions while riasing fuel prices and other commodities and services for the ordinary people.
Will Iran changes it regional posture?
If the Islamic Republic’s history is any indication, the protests will not force the regime to reassess its regional strategy to address people’s demands at home. In recent days, Iranian leaders have dismissed the popular protests as a foreign-backed conspiracy against the regime instead of listening to their complaints and trying to address them.
On January 9, Khamenei accused Washington and its regional allies of fomenting unrest in Iran and threatened to retaliate against US interests. "You inflicted damage on Iran in these days and this will not go unanswered," he warned. “The American President says that… the Iranian government is terrified by America’s power. Well, if we’re scared of you, how did we drive you out of Iran in the 1970s and evicted you from the entire region in 2010s?” he added.
The supreme leader, who has the final say in all state matters, also defended Iran’s role in regional conflicts. “The powerful presence of the Islamic Republic in the region is one instrument of our national power. It depicts the nation powerful and it is a reality. They want to destroy this.” He also emphasized Tehran would not negotiate with European powers or America over its military presence in the region or its controversial missile program.
However, although the protests are winding down in the face of a regime crackdown, the underlying anger and frustration of Iranians against the regime will remain and mostly likely grow even stronger. This will make it difficult for Iranian leaders to sustain their expensive regional posture in the long term. The IRGC is already overstretched at home and abroad, and domestic unrest will make it difficult for the Guards to continue regional expansionism. The latest antigovernment protests will also empower Iran’s adversaries in the region while they will most likely weaken Iran’s prestige in the eyes of its allies and proxies. Iranian leaders have lately been boasting about turning Iran into an “island of stability” in a volatile region while “defeating” its enemies across the region. The latest protests, however, projected the Islamic Republic as a vulnerable and fragile regime to both its friends and foes in the region and beyond.