What options does the Iranian regime have to ensure its survival?

To quell the rebellion from within, Tehran will look to sow chaos beyond its borders. This carries risks

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a meeting in Tehran this month. EPA
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There are conflicting views on how the Iranian regime will rein in the country's domestic crisis, maintain its foothold in the region, and shore up its strategic alliance with Russia in its war with Ukraine and the West.

But one thing in common is anticipation that military developments in the coming six months could shape the regime's fate. That is, either Israel will carry out military attacks to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, as has been speculated by some strategic thinkers, or Iran will carry out pre-emptive attacks against Israel and in the Strait of Hormuz, to shield the regime from both domestic and foreign threats.

There is a huge gulf between these two scenarios.

Those close to the regime discount in absolute terms the possibility of its downfall. They believe it will weather the storm thanks to its leverage, which includes sabotage and warfare. They anticipate that the regime will soon instigate actions to create a crisis in the region, in order to escape domestic pressures. However, the proponents of the opposing view underscore the chaos gripping the regime to argue that it will get closer to a collapse, especially in the aftermath of possible Israeli military attacks that will cripple its nuclear programme, thereby altering the domestic equation.

A careful assessment of the situation in Iran indicates that the regime indeed needs to protect itself and ensure its survival by all means and at any cost.

An Iranian drone is launched from a warship during a drill. AP Photo
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The regime's priority would be to maintain the gains made by the IRGC in the region

It is right now preoccupied with clearing out those it doesn’t trust within its ranks and taking measures to protect its various organs. Its crackdown on the ongoing protests will also continue. The regime is angry but probably unperturbed by the implications of creating a regional crisis to deflect attention away from Iran's restive interior and its weak position vis-a-vis a hostile population. However, the key question here is: will it risk carrying out operations abroad in the next three months, or will it focus strictly on containing domestic developments and extinguishing the uprising?

A veteran Gulf expert I spoke to believes that the regime will not fall except if the cause is linked to nuclear armament. Iran, he said, will have to choose between the nuclear weapon it is building and the nuclear weapon that could destroy it.

Indeed, there is a general impression that Israel could carry out attacks inside Iran to stop it from acquiring the bomb. Some suggest they could happen in the next six months. The US might not get involved directly, but the West more broadly could provide political immunity – and possibly even air support – to Israel.

The development of nuclear weapons, advocated for by some in the Iranian regime for the purpose of deterrence, could thus become the trigger that topples it.

Some in the regime, however, believe that the Iranian people will be swept by nationalist fervour if their country comes under attack, and will rally around the regime, rather than against it. But the opposite could be true, too, with popular anger against the regime intensifying even further. Either way, Iran's fate could be determined by its nuclear weapons programme over the next eight months, with the programme's timeline practically dictating the timing.

As the regime prepares for a possible confrontation, it will seek to secure its regional bases, which are the most important means available to it to deflect attention away from its vulnerabilities.

In this context, its priority would be to maintain the gains made by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and play all its cards to ensure its survival. This means shoring up its positions in the region, of vital importance if it intends to carry out pre-emptive military operations against Israel. It is not clear, however, whether the regime's talk about such pre-emptive attacks is a bluff or not.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian talks to Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, in Amman last month. EPA

The regime has decided to link its strategic fate to that of Russia. It is working to reinforce the alliance, including military-economic co-operation, amid growing international sanctions against both countries. According to a Bloomberg report, Russia is losing an estimated $172 million a day following western embargoes on its oil exports. Its gas exports have dropped by 80 per cent. By early February, sanctions on other petroleum products such as diesel will come into effect, increasing Russia’s losses to $220 million a day.

One expert on Russian-Iranian relations believes that a crisis engineered by Iran in the region, for example in the Strait of Hormuz, could be expedient for Russia. Tehran's operations in the strategic waterway might trigger a regional crisis that could help Russia, because it will lead to an immediate jump in oil prices. The expert’s view is that none of the western nations, already preoccupied with internal challenges, will intervene if Tehran carries out attacks in the Strait.

But according to a former senior Gulf official, this is wishful thinking because "the Iranians will not sacrifice themselves for the sake of Russia”. In his view, Tehran will not venture into sabotage in the Strait because of its own domestic preoccupations and the high cost of such a move.

Moscow’s problem is that it is nowhere near achieving its objectives in Ukraine almost a year after it launched its so-called special military operation. Its wins on the battlefield are few and far between, with some of them attributed to Russian-backed mercenary groups rather than its own army. There are no peaceful solutions on the horizon, and so far no initiatives for a ceasefire. Offensives on both sides are, in fact, likely to increase with a view to alter the facts on the ground.

The Moscow-Tehran alliance will not back down in Ukraine, in the Middle East, or within Iran's borders. Much attention in the coming months will, therefore, be on the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is these men who, for now, hold the element of surprise.

Published: January 15, 2023, 2:00 PM
Updated: January 17, 2023, 7:40 AM