A Popular Revolt, War, A Deal?:
How Will the U.S.-Iran Confrontation End?
Anwar Altaqi – Esam Aziz
The U.S.-Iran conflict is a case of how various paths can converge at one confusing point. The “end game” is foggy, and for good reasons. No one can predict the precise timing of a popular revolt in Iran; no one can calculate the exact balance of power in Tehran, or the mood among the ruling elite there; and, no one can restrain smaller forces, particularly in the Middle East, from igniting a larger military conflict. Simply put, all options are on the table.
However, we can still identify the main factors in play when it comes to answering the question: How will this conflict end? We can also estimate the weight that each of these factors could have on the conflict. In doing so, we encounter another challenge: The interrelation among many of these factors. None of the variable can stand alone in shaping the answer of our central question: What will happen in Iran now?
By themselves, the main factors are almost self-evident: Iran’s economy, the degree of popular discontent, the tactics likely to be followed by the regime to get off the hook, the real weight of the hotheads in the ruling circles, the resolve of the United States, and the cooperation of the global community with the sanctions regime. The possibility of reaching the breaking point in Tehran within a reasonable period is defined principally by these factors.
The economic situation in Iran and its impact on popular sentiments is key to what unfolds. This summer witnessed quite a bit of popular protests in the Iranian street due to economic hardships. Yet, the regime describes the difficult economic situation as a “conspiracy by foreign enemies of Islam.” Authorities could not keep their narrative’s cohesive for long. They had to arrest some “internal” thieves and corrupt officials from within their own ranks. A state-run platform known as “Akharin Khabar” claimed that: “Some deceitful people in our country are using an illegal pricing system of their own, to make huge profits for themselves.” The judicial system subsequently ordered thearrest of 29 individualswho have apparently “disturbed the economy of the entire country.”
Iran is now busy preparing propaganda to show the world that the U.S.sanctions “kill children.” But the collapse in the exchange rate of Iran’s currency started two months before the first round of sanctions kicked in on August 4. Even some of the regime’s authorities agree that there are reasons for the inflation other than the U.S. sanctions. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself once admitted that “external factors” have a significant influence on existing problems. Khamenei does not have to look far to see the reason. The editor of the University of Tehran magazine Zibakalamput it eloquently when he said in the August issue that “Iran’s economy has downgraded so much that even Ricardo and Keynes can’t fix it. The main problem stems from our own politics; in other words, the root of our problems is more of a political nature, than economic.”
Contrary to Tehran’s propaganda, the regime’s troubles started before the sanctions — the sanctionsonly exacerbated an existing problem. In the last days of 2017, economic grievances sparked a week of anti-government demonstrations in which at least 21 people died. Sporadic protests have continued to erupt in some provincial cities and peaked this summer, raising slogans that cited the regime’s regional adventures (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen) as the cause of trouble.
As for the balance of power inside Tehran, it is true that President Hassan Rouhani has faced domestic pressure. But even moderates are complaining, while hardliners, who always warned the United States could not be trusted, are emboldened. Since the nuclear deal, the economy has risen out of recession, but almost all the economic growth has come from oil exports, which surged as sanctions were eased. Rouhani cannot revive the economy.
This raises a central question: Why do people place exaggerated importance on the alleged differences between the so-called moderates and the main body of the regime? If Rouhani is truly a “moderate,” one should ask: What use is a moderate who is unable to exercise his alleged “moderation”?
The difference between a moderate and an extremist should not be reduced to their words or way of speaking. It should always be gauged by their actions. So long as Iran exerts a disruptive influence in the region, it is, as a whole, an extremist, entity.
Conversely, the economic situation should be examined more profoundly. There is hyperinflation, and the national unemployment rate is 12.5 percent. Among youth, it is even worse, with around 28 percent of young people out of a job. Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost around 80 percent of its value in the last year. Such bread-and-butter protests by hungry Iranians have forced the government into action. President Hassan Rouhani addressed the nation, promising to stabilize the economy and to ensure basic goods are available. But his words have done little to reassure struggling citizens. He said Iran’s rulers had done little to help the poorest, even in the short time sanctions were lifted.
Iran’s middle classes are more worried, fearing that turmoil will only worsen the suffering. They are worried that Iran could turn into the next Iraq or Syria, mired in conflict. It is clear now that the population in Iran stands on the line between revolt and the hope that things may get better. But how? Oil sanctions are coming. National resources bleed into Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. And as Rouhani said, nothing improved when Iran was sanctions-free after signing the nuclear deal.
The other possibility is the most likely scenario. This scenario goes as follows: As the regime senses that its very existence is at stake, it may “drink the poison,” as it did to end the Iraq War. In other words, the regime could open new talks with the P5+1 and reach a new nuclear deal that attaches Tehran’s behavior on the nuclear issue to its regional adventurism and support for terrorism. The reality is, the regime did that already. There are new talks, albeit with a new P5+1.
In another piece in this issue, we deal with how the U.S. Congress could consider this option. However, those talks are taking place by proxy, so to speak — Iran may accept a new deal in talks with the European troika (Germany, France and the United Kingdom), plus Russia and China. It is a different 5+1, as the United States is not directly participating. Yet, Washington will be present in every detail of the talks — as is currently happening.
If Iran does not agree, via talks, to abandon its aggressive regional and global approach, it should prepare for a public revolt. Such a revolt is usually the result of many factors, prominent among them is economic hardships. According to top analysts, the U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil industry will “cripple” its economy after they take effect in early November. In a recently-released report, analysts with Oxford Economics say they expect the sanctions to send Iran’s economy into recession, predicting it will contract by 3.7 percent next year, “the worst performance in six years.”
Now, it is a race against time between a possible public revolt springing out of a dire economic situation, or a new deal with the alternative 5+1. This race leaves us with those two options on the table, unless the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) pulls a foolish move in the Strait of Hormuz. Such a move would trigger a multi-national military strike on Iran. No one wants to see this happen, but Samson’s legacy is alive and well today.