6 January 2018

The Crisis in Iran: A Broader Perspective

BY Anthony H. Cordesman

It is easy to take a strong position on the level of current unrest in Iran, and some of the motives behind it. The fact is, however, that it is far from clear how it will develop, or how much support it really has. Iran scarcely permits the kind of polling that would expose its internal divisions, and many Iranians would be more than cautious if such polling was ever attempted. As a result, many see what they want to see in latest round of unrest, particularly those who want the regime to fall. It is far from clear, however, that a regime that controls the security forces, the justice system, the media, and much of the economy is all vulnerable. The current uprisings in Iran have so far been relatively limited, although they have been broadly distributed throughout the country, have grown in scope, and have taken place in spite of the major improvement in internal security that has taken place in recent years.

They have not yet come close to the level of protests that overthrew the Shah in 1978 and forced him to leave the country in January 1979, or even to the much smaller protests against an Iranian election, which led to “Green Revolution” in 2009-2010. Iran has steadily improved its internal security and ability to repress its people since 2009, and no one should underestimate the ability and willingness of the Supreme Leader and Islamic Revolutionary Guard to use force against their people.

There are good reason why parts of the Iranian population see Iran’s government as failed and repressive regime, but it is important for those outside Iran to understand that there are no reliable indicators as to how many people oppose the regime, why they oppose it, or how serious their opposition is. It is equally hard to know how many Iranians support the regime, what aspects of it they support, and how many simply “go along to get along.”

The regime has succeeded in steadily limiting its overt political opposition and narrowing the range of candidates that can run for office in what has steadily become more of a façade of democracy—where the difference between candidates is one between more pragmatic supporters of Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei who focus on Iran’s internal development and stability, and supporters that are his hardline advocates and aligned with Iran’s efforts to expand its regional influence.

The Iranian people are also deeply divided in many ways and have been for much of Iran’s modern history. Iran has long been divided between a more modern and largely urban educated minority and a more religious and conservative mix of rural and urban poor. As the Green Revolution showed, many Iranians want a more liberal, modern, and developing Iran. Many others, however, who have supported Khomeini’s revolution “reforms,” believe in more conservative state, and see the West and Saudi Arabia as a threat.

Iran’s Divided Perceptions of the West and Arab World.

It is also important for outsiders to remember that Iranians have reason to distrust the United States, Russia, Europe, and their Arab neighbors. Iran has long had good reason for more than a century to see the West as a source of foreign influcence and control. These attitudes are shaped by far more than simple anger at U.S. support of the Shah.

The United States may have been Khomeini’s “Great Satan,” but every Iranian school child knows that Western “imperialism” dates back to the British tobacco monopoly from 1890-1892, and the D’Arcy oil concession in 1901. It also includes the creation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company that later became the British Petroleum Company (BP) in 1933. Every Iranian knows that this gave Britain de facto control over Iran’s key source of hard currency and industry through at least the mid-1950s.

Even under the Shah, every Iranian officer was told Iran’s version of the history of the Anglo-Russian invasion of Iran in 1941, and that the allies seized much of Iran’s crops and sent them to Russia, and that bread riots made the police fire on crowds in Tehran in 1942. BP also continued to dominate Iran’s market economy until the Mossadegh crisis in 1951. When the Anglo-U.S. coup pushed Mossadegh out, both countries cooperated in the creation of the National Iranian Oil Company after the Shah’s return, which gave Western companies near control over Iran’s oil policies from 1954 to 1973.

The Iran-Iraq War lasted from 1980-1988, and is still the bloodiest modern war in Middle Eastern history, and while estimates differ from as low as 375,000 to over one million Iranian dead. It did much to polarize Iranians against most of their Arab neighbors, and the one Arab state that really supported Iran was Syria under Hafez al-Assad. Iranians have not forgotten the European and Arab support of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War from 1990-1988. The United States is seen – somewhat unfairly – as a supporter of Saddam Hussein. Iranians also remember the U.S. “cake” mission arms for hostages deal, the tanker war with the U.S. in 1987-1988, and that no one outside Iran really made an effort to halt Saddam’s use of poison gas during the war.

The years since the Iran-Iraq War have also seen growing tension between Iran and most of the Arab world, and a massive arms race that has helped push Iran towards developing nuclear weapons, seeking military influence over Arab states, deploying long-range missiles, and creating major forces for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf. The rise of violent religious extremism in the Islamic world has also led Sunni extremists to attack Shi'ites and other sects as non-believers and—coupled with the pro-Shiite extremism of the Iranian revolution—led to steadily rising tensions between Iran and its neighbors. The recent demonstrations have made it clear that a significant number of Iranians want the regime to focus on domestic development and the economy, and not potential Arab threats or exporting the Iranian revolution, but Iran's actions are not simply aggressive or the result of its ambitions, they are defensive as well.

It is also important to remember that modern-day Iran has developed under a regime that has tightly controlled the media and education since the early 1980’s, that resenting the regimes failures and repression does not mean support for the U.S. or massive political change, and that Iran has become a male-dominated society with large conscript forces that serve as a further indoctrination and control mechanism. On the one hand, Iran's spending on security almost certainly sharply exceeds its public budget figure of some $15.9 billion, and may well have an equivalent cost closer to $25 billion when all of the costs of Iran's efforts to create a defense industrial base, intervene in other states like Iraq and Syria, and support the internal activities of the IRGC and Basij are considered.

On the other hand, it gives the regime very powerful instruments to use in suppressing any dissent.

Popular demonstrations are one thing. Armed military and security forces are quite another. Iran's military forces now total some 523,000: 350,000 in the army; 125,000 in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); 18,000 in the Navy; 30,000 in the Air Force; and at least 40,000 in paramilitary forces like the Basij. These forces conscript or process well over 100,000 young men a year for at least 21 months of service.

Iran has also been able to deploy volunteer forces to Syria, and its forces are dominated by hardline IRGC commanders who are tied directly to the Supreme Leader and not the civil government. Some 500,000 police serve as another instrument of indoctrination and control, along with some 4,000-6,000 more personnel in the Ministry of Intelligence (also known as VAJA, VEVAK, or MOIS) and still more personnel in Iran’s other intelligence and security forces.

The Basij, in particular, have evolved steadily since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, and large elements are now local paramilitary security forces tied to the IRGC. Iranian official estimates sometime put their total part-time and full-time strength at more than 20 million, and other estimates indicate a core strength of 90,000, and up to 600,000 with some kind of mobilization potential. These numbers are soft to say the least, and being a regular solider or conscript, or policeman, has never meant that any given case is a strong supporter of any regime.

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