Mass protests have continued for almost two weeks in Iran. Protesters, including masses of the middle and lower classes, are raising their voices against corruption, high prices, and unfulfilled campaign promises. They are also chanting, rejecting foreign wars, demanding instead that the Iranian government pay more attention to domestic needs — and provide more freedom to citizens.
This renewed demand for accountability came as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani submitted the 2018 budget, the first time an Iranian president has done so publicly. It increasingly appears that Rouhani did this intentionally; he repeatedly issues public statements justifying protesters’ grievances.
There seems to be a rupture between the clerical leadership of the Ayatollah Ali Khameini, a hard liner who supports the Islamic Republic basic ideology of the revolution, and the "republican sector," represented by Rouhani and others, tending to be more pragmatic.
Khameini supports an Islamic state based on Shaariah and religious principles at home and expansion of the revolution abroad. The pragmatists support reform as they are more in line with the regime’s legitimacy and stability. The schism between the clericals and the pragmatists began a long time ago, and it was reflected in the "green movement" that organized massive protests in the summer of 2009. The leaders of that movement were part of the establishment. The current protests again deepen this schism.
Fareed Zakaria got it right when he invoked the brilliant work of Alexis de Tocqueville to describe the current situation in Iran. Some economic reforms and Rouhani’s electoral campaign denouncing corruption and expressing other views critical of the hardliners moved the ball forward. Change or intentions of change from above have created new expectations. As a result, the citizenry has become more impatient as these expectations are not being fulfilled.
No less significant, protesters were publicly complaining about Iran’s adventurism abroad, a key component in the hardliners’ agenda. Indeed, Iran is spending billions of dollars on its foreign interventions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Yemen, and other places where military and subversive activities consume the national budget. Furthermore, billions of dollars are also allocated to the Revolutionary Guards whose function is to protect the regime and actively participate in foreign wars They have stakes in the Iranian economy and are the largest beneficiaries of the Iranian state.
This situation is reminiscent of that of the French absolutist monarchy at the end of the 18th century before the French revolution. The Harvard University social scientist Theda Skocpol, in her classic work "State and Social Revolutions," points out that France’s war of Austrian succession, the Seven Years War, and its intervention in the war of American independence, created a tremendous burden on the French monarchy.
The French crown was unable to raise sufficient revenue to finance its foreign adventures. Instead of giving them up, France resorted to taking more loans, eventually exhausting its capacity to do so. The financial crisis of the state caused by foreign wars was one of the key causes bringing about a revolution. Discontent spread not only to the poor masses, but also to an appreciable segment of the more privileged classes.
The sanctions relief resulting from the Iran nuclear deal enabled Iran’s economy to pick up in 2016 as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew 12.5 percent. This also granted Iran the possibility of extending its foreign wars, exactly as loans enabled France to do the same almost 230 years earlier. And like 18th century France, Iran refuses to give up its foreign adventures. So, what needs to be done?
We must make sure that Iran succumbs to a situation of attrition in the wars it is conducting, as the French monarchy did. Thus, Iran must pay a high economic and political price for its aggressive expansionism. This can be ensured by intensifying sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, officers and civilian military contractors, and anyone else involved in terrorism and foreign adventures. Likewise, Iran’s proxies in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and others must be exhausted by increasing military aid to their adversaries, forcing Iran into further economic and military stress.
At the same time, we need to provide political and public support to domestic protests in and encourage them to continue challenging the regime. Likewise such action could increase the rift between the hardliners and the pragmatist and perhaps — God willing — generate an internal coup against Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. As in Bourbon, in France, the collapse of the state must come from within. The Iranian state must be worn out internally and externally — simultaneously.
President Donald Trump would be wasting time by going to the U.N. Security Council or any international forum given the current circumstances. Our allies in Europe are likely to support regime change in Iran — after the regime collapses. For this goal to be accomplished the president must put together a team of passionate, committed, and rational people embracing this policy.
Luis Fleischman has worked as adviser for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy on issues related to Latin America. He is the author of "Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Threat to U.S. Security." Fleischman is an adjunct professor of sociology and political science at Barry University. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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