Images of Iranian women burning their hijab in the last four weeks demonstrates the unraveling of the ideological foundations of the Islamic Republic. This discontent, however, extends beyond Iran’s borders, and has strained the relationship with its regional clients. We argue that the ongoing demonstrations in Iran may exacerbate Iran’s already-shifting regional position, as the ongoing protests both question the legitimacy of the regime within and outside the country, and further weaken Iran’s capacity to support its clients in the Middle East.
The recent turmoil was sparked by the killing of the 22-year-old woman Mahsa (Jina) Amini on September 16 by the “morality police”. Amini’s brutal death provoked a wave of nationwide demonstrations whose demands have grown to encompass systemic change and the end of the clerical regime. The ongoing turmoil can be seen as a continuation of the wave of discontent that erupted in November 2019 following the government’s decision to cut gasoline subsidies. Just like the protests in 2019, the current demonstrations have been met with violent crackdowns, internet blockages, and discreditation campaigns. While Iranian officials frame the current demonstrations as a foreign conspiracy, it is obvious that poor policy choices and the continued mishandling of the economy, both of which have worsened after the COVID-19 pandemic, along with harsh international sanctions, have put Iranians through deteriorating living conditions.
We argue that the internal crisis faced by the regime in Tehran puts into question its position in the region. This challenge is related to two processes: first, Iran’s influence is already tested in Middle Eastern countries where Iran wields strong influence. Second, the protests could further weaken the presence of Iran in the Middle East.
Weaker Hezbollah Heading Towards More Peaceful Choices
The Iranian position in Lebanon has been tested in two ways. Iran’s major client, Hezbollah, has faced challenges within the country, which comes at a time when the party itself is deviating from Tehran’s regional interests. In October 2019, protests erupted against the Hezbollah-led government ruling since 2018. Even though the protests were against the whole sectarian ruling class, it was clear that Hezbollah was the major antagonist of the social movement.
The results of the 2022 parliamentary elections gave rise to reformist MPs, who arguably represent the 2019 protests, and denied Hezbollah a majority in parliament. This has left a power vacuum, where the current government acts as caretaker.
Second, Hezbollah itself is straying from Iran’s regional lines. On October 11th, Lebanon and Israel finally reached an agreement on the demarcation of maritime borders, which guarantees gas interests for both countries. While both Israel and Hezbollah exchanged threats during the negotiations, the agreement marks the area as a gas production territory, which makes peace on the Israeli-Lebanese borders a favorable option for both sides. This, however, limits Tehran’s ability to threaten Israel through proxy, as Hezbollah now has an economic incentive for a more peaceful co-existence with its southern neighbor. As a result, the party’s internal interests are now conflicting with Iran’s regional interests.
Iran’s Military Challenge in Syria?
Iran has supported Syria in its war against the opposition groups, arguably, since 2014. However, in 2015 Russia became the main supporter of the government in Damascus, which created a competitive but relatively stable arrangement between Syria’s two allies on the ground.
The peculiar character of this delicate balance of alliances comes into focus when Israel appears on the scene. While Russia and Israel cooperate on a number of issues, Iranian-Israeli relations are fraught. Tel-Aviv uses its relationship with Moscow to guarantee “safer” airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Although the Syrian government usually condemns the Israeli attacks, it does so without criticizing the Iranian presence in Syria.
However, after two Israeli attacks on Aleppo Airport in September 2022, officials in Damascus expressed they do not wish for Syria to become a battleground for an Israeli-Iranian conflict, as Israel’s attacks on Syria are “unbearable.” In the same week, Russian officials asked Iranian officers to evacuate two military strategic sites in mid-Syria, showing the degree to which Iran’s presence in Syria is being questioned.
Even if this anti-Iranian trend does not escalate further, Tehran’s forces in Syria have been open targets for Israeli airstrikes for years now, a trend which is likely to continue.
Shia-Shia Escalation Challenges Iran’s Role in Iraq
Iraq has been witnessing an intra-Shia escalation, which does not favor Iran. For most of his political career, Muqtada Al-Sadr, the head of the Shia Sadrist Movement, had positive ties to Iran. However, after the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, Al-Sadr became critical of Tehran’s role in his country. While it is arguable whether Al-Sadr supported the protests in 2019, it is evident that the Sadrists were leading protests in Summer 2022 against the creation of a pro-Iranian government.
Forming a new Iraqi government after the 2021 election is the key point of contention between the Shia Sadrists and the Iran-backed Coordination Framework, composed of six Shia factions. By rejecting the Framework’s candidates, Al-Sadr has effectively placed himself at the head of the anti-Iran coalition in Iraq. In late July, he mobilized his supporters to occupy the Green Zone and stop the formation of the government. This situation led to a military confrontation, with more than 30 Iraqis killed on both sides.
Al-Sadr’s demands, despite not being necessarily more inclusive or democratic, are certainly revolutionary and anti-Iranian. His success in mobilizing his followers is an example of the challenges to Iran’s agenda in the region, not only from the new generations present in the 2019 protests, but also from a Shia cleric such as Al-Sadr.
Yemen, the Last Stronghold for Iran in the Region?
The relationship between the Houthis and Iran was minimal prior to the Houthis’ capture of Sanaa in 2014. The alliance only became stronger as a consequence of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in 2015, which has since plunged Yemen into a devastating civil war. Although Iran formally denied allegations of arming, supporting, or training the Houthis, a recent U.N. report made evident that many of the rebels‘ weapons come from Iran. The Houthi militia, however, is neither ideologically nor economically entirely dependent on Iran.
First, relations between the Houthis and Iran continue to be mostly transactional, based on geo-strategic gains and the maintenance of weapons’ distribution networks that reach into the Horn of Africa. The Houthi rebels have ensured their self-sufficiency by developing their own financial revenues (smuggling, collecting taxes, etc.), and thus are only partially dependent on Iranian assistance.
Second, the Houthis practice a different form of Shiism. Their Zaydi activism mainly follows the so-called “Fiver Shiism”. The ideological and religious beliefs of the Ansar Allah movement derive its inspiration from its charismatic leader and founder Hussein al-Houthi and not from Iranian ideological principles.
As of now, the relations between the Houthis and Tehran can be described as the last solid foothold of Iran in the region. However, given the changing political and military capabilities of Iran, challenges are likely and might entice Tehran to move beyond short-term goals in the Yemen conflict. For instance, the U.N.-mediated peace talks that resulted in a cease-fire lasting between April and October was welcomed by Iran. This move could indicate Teheran’s desire to gain the Houthis as long-term strategic legitimate partners in a reconstituted country. The recent failure of the Houthis to agree on another nationwide ceasefire could be potentially regarded as a diversionary tactic by Iran to ward off its opponent amidst its own domestic contestation.
How the Protests Could Put Iran’s Role in the Region into Question
The Iran expert Afshon Ostovar argues that Tehran’s relations with its regional clients are strongest when three conditions exist: shared theocratic interpretation, accepting Iran as the sole patron and material supporter to the client, and allied domestic goals. These conditions prove to be faltering in three of the four countries discussed above.
First, the protests in Iran cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Iranian regime among Shia in the Middle East, who viewed the Islamic Republic as the model of good governance and a defender of the region’s oppressed minorities. The images of murdered women in the streets of Tehran call into question the regime’s claims of defending Shia. Additionally, Iran is in the midst of a succession crisis. In the search for Khamenei’s replacement, his son Mojtaba, is among the strongest candidates. As the Iranian regime claims to choose the “most pious and knowledgeable” for the position of Ayatollah, giving the highest positing in the country to Mojtaba will increase the regime’s legitimacy crisis among those who support this system, both inside and outside Iran. Indeed, protesters in the street of Tehran are already directing chants at Mojtaba “you will not see the leadership.”
Second, the protests limit the Iranian regime’s capability to provide military support to regional clients. Last week, in an event organized by the Middle East Institute in Washington, experts argued that while the protests are spreading, the regime is likely to withdraw fighters from the region to guarantee inner stability. This will give more space for other actors to challenge Iran’s position in the countries discussed above, while limiting Tehran’s reach in the region.
Conclusion: Diverging Interests in the Region
The political developments in the above-mentioned cases of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq show that the interests between Iran and its regional clients are diverging. While this is not yet clear in Yemen, the Houthis could well end up following a similar path. At this critical point where the Iranian regime is financially suffering, and its legitimacy is in question, the outcome of the protests is not only relevant for the Iranians but also has regional implications which should be closely watched.