Expect a threatened Iran regime to double down – even replacing its 'moderate' leadership

Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, may be under pressure at home. AFP
Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, may be under pressure at home. AFP

The protests in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran are proving an existential battle between Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the people of these countries.

The leadership of the IRGC, Iran’s paramilitary wing, believes that the mass protests in their country can only be contained using excessive force and is certain that the world will be powerless to intervene no matter how harsh the degree of their repression. It is preparing to officially seize power in Tehran after it engineers the resignation of President Hassan Rouhani. The time has come for a new administration in Iran, according to sources close to the thinking of the so-called deep state. Such an administration would double down on the ideology of the Islamic Republic, rather than reform or adjust its logic and behaviour. For this reason, the leadership believes it has no choice but to suppress the protests in Iran and purge the ideas and influence of “moderates” among the ruling echelons.

However, in order to consolidate its clout at home and suppress any potential uprising by force, the Iranian leadership needs other tactics as a means of distraction. This could include stepping up its uranium enrichment process, staging daring military attacks in the region against international interests, and escalating the violence in other arenas of protest in the region – including Lebanon and Iraq. The IRGC’s wager is on creating global panic over the further escalation of the situation in these countries – given that the world’s major powers are loath to regional instability – and forcing them to make concessions to the regime. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is set to impose fresh sanctions next week, which will exacerbate the IRGC’s difficulties and threaten its domestic and regional designs. Sources predict, however, that its commanders will respond with further repression as the regime hastens its uranium enrichment drive.

The time has come for a new administration in Iran, according to sources close to the thinking of the so-called deep state. Such an administration would double down on the ideology of the Islamic Republic, rather than reform or adjust its logic and behaviour

The IRGC does not see these uprisings as a revolt against the ideology and practices of the regime in Iran, both at home and in the region, but rather as threats to regional hegemony. It therefore intends to handle them as such. More importantly, the leadership believes seizing power officially after getting rid of Mr Rouhani would deter leaders in the Middle East and the world, because the IRGC would govern without gloves, at home and in the region, and will challenge the international community without flattery.

The Iranian leadership, meanwhile, is trying to understand US President Donald Trump’s situation amid attempts to impeach him, in order to decide on its next course of action. Iran would like to see Mr Trump impeached or forced to resign, or his re-election bid thwarted, allowing the deep state in Tehran to develop a US policy based on the identity of the next president. But the lack of clarity here has caused tension in the ranks of the IRGC, and could push it towards reckless territory.

In my column last month, I noted that during the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi, a figure close to the Iranian leadership made important predictions during a closed session. This figure said at the time that the IRGC would inevitably take power overtly, unless it was given limited buyout in the form of an European-led mechanism that would allow Iran to sell at least one million barrels of oil per day. He said that this would be the only way to contain an internal eruption expected in late November, and that this would threaten the regime. He warned against the repercussions of putting the IRGC in a corner, as this could trigger a coup that would put the IRGC in control, increasing the risk of military conflict to the point of inevitability.

This figure had brought important messages from Iran’s leaders, who seem determined to uphold the regime’s logic of expansion beyond its borders because the alternative – which is retreating back into Iran – would bring existential threats to the regime. Therefore, the figure said that all sides had little choice but to accommodate this logic, or risk inviting the IRGC to take over, thereby threatening regional and international stability. In short, the message was: give the IRGC what it wants, including accepting Iranian expansion in the Arab region, or the pushback would be too costly.

All this was communicated before uprisings erupted in Lebanon and Iraq, and then subsequently in Iran as predicted by the regime there, without having the tools to contain it because of unprecedented US sanctions.

The situation in Iran at present is very delicate. The leadership, which takes its cues from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has concluded that the police and security forces will be unable to rein in the demonstrations. According to sources in Tehran, there are discussions now regarding the deployment of the army and IRGC to suppress the revolt. The added that containing the Iranian uprising within the next two weeks has become impossible, and that the situation will lead to the resignation or dismissal of President Rouhani and his team.

Protesters clash on the streets of Isfahan, in central Iran, following an increase in petrol prices. EPA
Protesters clash on the streets of Isfahan, in central Iran, following an increase in petrol prices. EPA

Indeed, the uprising is expected to expand across Iran in the next few weeks while a shutdown of internet services is expected to continue. Sunday will be a crucial day for the evolution of the Iranian uprising, which is predicted to escalate beyond control. This will however be used by the IRGC to make an official takeover of power through merciless bloody repression. The IRGC will also need to stage extraterritorial operations to distract from its massacres inside Iran.

Economically, the IRGC will not be able to prevent disaster. However, its priority right now is to find a way to coexist with economic hardship during the winter and make it to the spring. Harsh measures could be imposed at home in Iran, including curfews, all according to the sources.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is set to impose new financial sanctions on Iran next week. No doubt, this will exacerbate the IRGC’s difficulties and the threat to its domestic and regional designs. But sources predict that IRGC commanders would respond with further repression, escalation, and provocation as a means of survival.

These measures will not be restricted to the Iranian interior or the uranium enrichment drive, but will also affect Iraq, where matters have spiralled out of control, and Lebanon, where Hezbollah and its allies continue to refuse to make concessions vis-a-vis the demands of the protesters led by the need to form a technocratic government instead of a political government dominated by Tehran-backed Hezbollah.

This group and its allies continue refusing to make concessions to the Lebanese protesters’ demands, which include allowing for the formation of a government of technocrats. Saad Hariri, who resigned as prime minister and head of the unity government after the protests broke out last month, had served as a safety valve for Hezbollah. It is no wonder then that the Shia militant group and the Amal movement, a Shia party, and the Free Patriotic Movement are all insisting on the reinstatement of Mr Hariri.

This perplexing position does not benefit Mr Hariri and is not a vote of confidence in him. It is a trap, with the bait being respect for his Sunni background and national leadership. Mr Hariri has two options: either become an accomplice in a de-facto, one-party government that would devastate Lebanon, or end his policy of dealmaking and side with the people against such plots that harm the country and its people.

In any case, the IRGC may be preparing to carry out its plans of escalation in Lebanon. This is partly due to Hezbollah being its prize horse through which it exerts its influence in the country, but also because suppressing uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq is key to ending the demonstrations in its own country.

This is not to say that the IRGC will succeed but this is an existential battle for its survival. However, this applies to the brave and determined peoples of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon as well. The Iranian regime has certainly not understood the magnitude of the events in Lebanon. Hezbollah will not be able to suppress the revolt even if it deploys its militias to Beirut because the uprising is now entrenched from north to south and east to west. The ground is shaking beneath the feet of the ruling class, which is facing an unprecedented threat.

Meanwhile according to sources, France and the United States have agreed to not rush to the rescue of the Lebanese economy. They say that the only way forward for the country is for it to be run by a technocratic government – exactly what the protesters demand – and that only then can a rescue package be offered. There may yet be a new dawn in Lebanon, these sources add, because neither Hezbollah nor Iran can suppress an entire country – or rescue it from economic collapse.

It is an existential battle of people versus governments that link up to a shackled and beleaguered regime in Tehran.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute

Updated: November 24, 2019 08:54 AM


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