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On 16 September 2022, Mahsa Amini died in police custody which sparked protests across Iran. One year on, Anoush Ehteshami, Professor of International Relations in our School of Government and International Affairs, takes a look at what has changed.
“We can take many losses, in the knowledge that the mullahs only have to lose once”
An Iranian activist.
A year has passed since the tragic and untimely death of young Mahsa Amini, the woman who lost her life for no other reason than wearing the compulsory hejab loosely. Her death re-lit the tinder which has been smouldering under the surface of Iranian society for decades now. The fires grow bright periodically as regime actions – from raising fuel prices to mass poisoning of schoolgirls for ‘unIslamic’ behaviour – test social patience. With each action and reaction, the boundaries between the two sides – and have no doubt that there is now a definite ‘them and us’ red line separating the vast majority of the residents of Iran from their authoritarian overlords – harden, thus raising the premium on the consequences and outcome of the next mass and violent encounter.
I argued in a briefing published by Global Policy journal last autumn that the regime faced a perfect storm of crises that would test the very limits of its capacities. A close examination of the current state of affairs in Iran – in terms of its economic and social conditions, regional relations, and geopolitical positioning – would suggest that the crises have deepened, despite some positive developments.
The first point to note is that the noose of authoritarian control has tightened even further around society. The regime’s repressive security apparatus has attacked demonstrators, fired on them, targeted activists and raided the homes of suspects, imprisoned over 22,000 people, executed dozens, and has turned the country into a police state. Schools and universities have become more controlled by the security services, and academic critics of the regime have been muzzled, dismissed, or imprisoned, and journalists have been imprisoned for reporting anything to do with the riots.
The space for dialogue has effectively disappeared and those associated with ‘moderation’ in the past have either been sidelined or cowed into submission by the dominant religious Right now controlling every instrument and lever of power in the country. Women remain defiant, but pressure on them has only grown and new draconian laws to punish those who neglect their hejab has made living conditions even more precarious for women.
The regime itself remains as divided as it was when last year’s uprisings began. Beyond repression, there appears to be no positive or accommodating response to the crisis of legitimacy engulfing the securitised clerical order. The elite, too busy with in-fighting and hoarding of ‘rent’ from state-controlled monopolies, businesses usurped by regime families, smuggling, and ‘commission’, seems unable to chart a constructive path out of the perfect storm it faces. The country remains in a state of paralysis, despite the appearance of progress.
Regionally, tensions with neighbouring Saudi Arabia have diminished thanks to a China-brokered diplomatic breakthrough in March 2023 and high-level visits signal that calm may be returning to this regionally important relationship. Fires in Yemen are slowly being allowed to go out as Tehran and Riyadh step back from their destructive and expensive proxy war in that country, and Tehran is building on this to improve its relations with all its Gulf Arab neighbours.
Yet, the Abraham Accords remain intact and Emirati and Bahraini interactions with Israel remain intensive. And talk of normalising relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia expose the fragilities of Iran’s regional influence and its vulnerabilities to emerging security and economic partnerships shaping around it.
In the north too, tensions with Azerbaijan remain and Tehran seems powerless in containing the growing presence of its regional adversary, Israel, in that country. Despite its support for Armenia in the Caucasus, Tehran has little influence over Yerevan’s actions or the conduct of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In the Levant, its reputation in Lebanon is in tatters as it sits on its hands while the country sinks under the weight of political infighting there and Tehran’s direct role in support of Hezbollah as the latter usurps power and adds to Lebanon’s precarious socio-economic conditions by promoting sectarian politics.
In Syria, too, Tehran has had to rush more military and financial support to its ally in Damascus as populations rise again in response to the country’s thoroughly corrupt order and economic paralysis. Iran is as exposed now in Syria as it was in 2015 when Russia lent its military support to Tehran’s efforts to keep Bashar al-Asad in power. But Russian military and financial support today has much diminished as it tries to dig its way out of the hole it has dug itself in Ukraine, adding pressure on Iran to rush aid to Syria unilaterally. Asad may have been rehabilitated amongst Arab states, but his regime remains beholden to Iran.
While a money-for-hostages trade with the United States this year may bring in some badly needed hard currency for the regime, the country’s resources are so thinly spread and corruption so deep-seated that the sums involved will unlikely aid the ailing economy or much make impression on the overall conditions of the country.
Geopolitically, the regime has firmly moved ‘eastwards’ and ‘southwards’, becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation this year, aspiring to join the BRICS group of world economies, and pursuing closer relations with China and North Korea, in particular. Ties with China are not surprising, and it is part of a pattern of cross-Asian engagements which has seen Iraq, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, all pursue close and profitable relations with China (and India and others in East Asia).
What is a geopolitical quagmire for Tehran is its warming relations with Russia following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Its wide-ranging military support for Russia and deepening economic ties with Russia has placed Iran at the centre of the major geopolitical confrontations between the West and Russia which will define international relations of at least the next decade, exposing Iran to renewed Western and Ukrainian pressure following the end of the war, and leaving the country totally exposed to Russia and its belligerence against the West. But Iran will also have to carry the burden of alignment with a country whose medium-term decline as a major power is assured.
Russia will be a heavy millstone around Tehran’s neck and as Russia sinks, so Iran will find it hard to loosen the noose and free itself of Russia’s destructive embrace. No other country has exposed itself to Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine as Iran has done, and this will make it easier for Russia’s many adversaries to target and isolate and punish the Islamic Republic for its support of Russia’s aggression, and there will be little that Moscow could do to help as it itself tries to come terms with the heavy economic and political price it will have to pay for its aggression.
In the meanwhile, desertification and deforestation of the country continues unabated, its economy continues to trail behind virtually all its Persian Gulf neighbours, its national economy weakens, its reliance on a fossil fuels-based political economy continues, its brain drain grows, its population remains dissatisfied, and the country sinks under the weight of Western and international sanctions.
A year has passed, but Iran continues to fight battles against imaginary enemies while making an even bigger enemy of the West by tying itself so tightly to a country that is daily committing war crimes in Ukraine.
Over the year gone, Tehran has lost its legitimacy, its moral compass, and its credibility as a peaceful power. With survival as its ultimate goal, all that it seems to want to do is hang on for as long as possible. But it is arguably only a matter of time when fire again engulfs the regime, and it is only a matter of time before it fails to put out the fire.
It only has to lose once!
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