JOHN TULLOH. Time for the ayatollah’s of Iran to reflect.

Jan 2, 2018

‘Every year thousands of students graduate, but there are no jobs for them. Fathers are also exhausted because they don’t earn enough to provide for their family’. Iranian protester.

 As unpalatable as it may be to the ayatollahs of Iran, increasing numbers of their countrymen are becoming unhappy after nearly four decades of theocratic rule. The BBC says the average Iranian has become 15% poorer in the past 10 years. Youth unemployment stands at 40%. Three million Iranians are jobless. The prices of some basic food items, such as poultry and eggs, have gone up by 50%.

No wonder Iran is ripe for unrest as is happening now. ‘This has started from the bottom of the society’, a resident of Masshad, where the protests began, told the Guardian. ‘This is not middle-class protesting. This is lower-class demonstrating, people of the suburbs. Many are fed up with the situation’.

Despite the protests spreading throughout the country, the ayatollahs  have little reason to feel nervous about their immediate future. But knowing the groundswell of discontent against the Shah’s corrupt regime 40 years ago which brought them to power, it will be a time for reflection for them. The basic complaint of the current unrest is widespread corruption which is another way of saying the economy stinks.

Much hope rested on the reformist President Hassan Rouhani, who was re-elected in a landslide four months ago. With the deal restricting Iran’s ambitions signed and UN sanctions eased, he was keen to re-engage with the West and seek international investment to restore life to the once thriving economy. But that hasn’t happened, partly due to renewed hostility from the White House which still sees Iran as a bagman for terrorists and a menace to the region.

No matter what Iran does, no change can be expected from Washington. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and principal advisor on Middle East matters, has become infatuated with Iran’s great rival, Saudi Arabia. He thinks the Saudis might be just the catalyst for an Israel/Palestinian settlement, a far-fetched idea. What’s more, there is no better foreign customer than to make America great again because of their insatiable desire for US weaponry.

President Trump has muddied the waters by expressing his support for the demonstrators in the hope this might lead to regime change. But he should know by now that regime change can mean an unwelcome surprise as was the case in Iraq and Libya. Keep quiet and stay out of it, cautioned Philip Gordon, a former senior State Dept official. Writing in the New York Times, he said:  ‘Whatever Iranians think of their own government, they are unlikely to want as a voice for their grievances an American president who has relentlessly opposed economic relief for their country and banned them from travelling to the US’.

The ayatollahs can take some comfort from the reported fears of middle class Iranians at the very idea of having to endure another revolution. Better the devil you know…. As it is, there is no obvious alternative leadership. Opposition figures have long been silenced or went into exile. Even in exile, no one person commands a large following. Nevertheless there is festering unease.

Reports from Tehran suggest discontent below the surface of why the ayatollahs are paying so much attention abroad rather than pressing matters at home. They are alluding to the catastrophic duel with Saudi Arabia over  dominance in Yemen, the propping up of the Assad regime in Syria, aid for the Shia government in Iraq and the long-time support for the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Rouhani politically has his hands tied. He may be the president, but he is beholden to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is anything but a reformist. He’s been in the position for 28 years with entrenched views. He succeeded the Islamic revolution’s founder, the late Ruhollah Khomeini, inheriting many of his his reactionary beliefs. He may have been unsettled to learn that some demonstrators have been shouting ‘Death to Khamenei’ rather than the traditional ‘Death to America’ and tearing down posters of him.

If the protests did get out of hand, it might lead not to so much as martial law by the armed forces, but rule by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), the ayatollahs’ praetorian defenders. The man to watch out for is Gen. Qasim Soleimani, the charismatic commander of Iran’s military operations abroad. He has emerged from the shadows with a larger-than-life reputation, according to the BBC. His influence is spreading and is said to operate independently of Rouhani. As much as Washington may be reluctant to acknowledge this, he and his forces have done as much on the ground as anyone in crushing Islamic State.

Whoever rules faces a major challenge which no amount of threats or blaming foreign interests can solve. ‘Everyone is fed up with the situation, from the young to the old’, said Ali, who lives near the city of Rasht where there were demonstrations. He was quoted by the Guardian and asked not to be identified. ‘Every year thousands of students graduate, but there are no jobs for them. Fathers are also exhausted because they don’t earn enough to provide for their family’.

Little wonder so many with little future have seen cause to take to the streets and violate the taboo about criticising the supreme leadership.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news

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