Protests in Iran shine a light on the international stance in the Middle East

Protests and instability remind us of the crucial role Iran plays in Middle Eastern politics

2009 Iranian presidential election protests

Iran, more than most, is a country that knows the repercussions of uprisings. It was less than a half century ago that the current theocratic system was set up. Since then, Iran has become accustomed to periodic protests, but there is something unique about the current unrest.
The unrest has led to 22 fatalities and has spread across 80 cities. So far 1000 individuals have been arrested, many of whom are students.
There are three trends which really underpin what is happening in Iran. Firstly, the uprisings come at a time when Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia is frothing all over the Middle East. Secondly, the United States is facing global isolation and is unable to muster the same unity in calling out Iran for its actions.
Thirdly, the economy is flailing in a trend that is exacerbated by pre-existing sanctions. This mix of external and internal factors make the situation volatile and the entire Middle East is set to be affected by its outcome.
Iran’s turbulent start to 2018 would have come as music to the ears of Saudi’s ruling family. The last year has seen heightened activity in the countries’ proxy wars. Most recently, the Lebanese Prime Minister was forcibly summoned to Saudi Arabia and made to resign on Saudi television. His crime was that he had allowed Hezbollah, an Iran backed Shia organisation to gain support within Lebanon and had endorsed pro-Iranian candidates for the Presidency above members of his own Sunni political party.
Such a grandstand comes after a year where Iranian supported militias have been fighting in Syria as well as in Yemen, where a former President was killed by Iranian backed Houthi rebels for defecting to Saudi supported forces. These protests become all the more important as the balance of the entire region comes into question.
The United States is used to galvanising a reasonable amount of cooperation when it comes to condemning the Iranian government. That was before Trump. Now, the international community is much more willing to distance itself from the United States, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Emmanuel Macron has openly criticised the, previously clandestine alliance between Saudi Arabia, Israel and America for political opportunism when it comes to unrest within Iran.
UN Security Council members dismissed the emergency meeting called by the United States in regard to the Iranian uprisings, the French Ambassador even said that “they do not constitute a threat to international peace and security.”
It’s clear that the protests are unlikely going to cause the international pressure required to initiate regime change, largely because many western politicians have learnt (the hard way) that regime change is not a ‘quick fix’ to deeprooted issues, as Emily Thornberry articulated this week.
Countries are using the Trump presidency to display bolder rhetoric too. Not only does this play better at home, but many governments are distancing themselves from their close ties with the United States. This was noticeable in the last months when there was an, almost unanimous rejection of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the General Assembly.
Moreover, Trump used his first tweet of 2018 to blast Pakistan, a questionable but, nevertheless, long standing ally of the United States. Pakistan’s political and military class has responded with similarly heavy rhetoric in return.
During the UN Security Council’s emergency session, several countries also chose to outline the United States’ long and colourful history of popular protests from protests against from those opposing the Vietnam War to the Black Lives Matter movement.
There is little enthusiasm for intervention in Iran, China’s UN Ambassador went as far as to say the US’ actions didn’t help anyone.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that Iran is a country that is being suffocated by economic constraints. Some are exogenous, like the intense sanctions, but others are home grown.
There is no doubt that protesters’ demands for less corruption and increased civil liberties are legitimate. It is frustrating for the younger generation, which has an abundance of human capital to be met with an inhospitable job market, less educational opportunities than the previous generation and limited ways to leave the country. In 2009, the previous wave of protests, were largely focussed on cities.
However, this time around many rural communities are joining the protests and are affected by the 13% unemployment across the country. The current protests are unlikely to unseat this government, but the regime must show reform to quell any more fatal threats in the future. Iran is, for its supporters, one of the last powers to pose a legitimate opposition to US domination in the region. To its detractors, it remains an archaic and autocratic regime.
What is certain is that Iran remains crucial to the balance of power within the region and its instability could cause a significant power shift that would affect several countries.