The assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani has come at a time when the Iranian political and religious elite have been reeling under the unprecedented protests by the people who are demanding economic and democratic reforms. It has deflected the anger towards the US, but the relief for the cleric-led regime is set to be short-lived
The Islamic Republic of Iran is in a fix. In an unexpected turn of events in the country reeling under raging protests against the economic slump, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General and commander of Quds Force Qassem Soleimani was assassinated by a missile fired by an American drone near Baghdad airport on Friday.
Iran is facing public backlash against a long-standing clerical rule. The writing on the wall is clear: The protest by ordinary people is a stern warning to the political and religious elite as their yearning for change. The Iranian political elite, although inscrutable, may handle the protesters as they have remained generally ruthless towards dissidents, protesters and anti-Government campaigners. But the indefatigable spirit of the commoners despite brutal crackdown is remarkable. Although this kind of resistance to the Government is not new in Iran, it is worth highlighting how such movements took their course in the recent past.
The current protests started in November. People began setting on fire buildings, cars and banks as the price of basic commodities and gasoline went through the roof. The crisis stems from the heavy sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union (EU) after US President Donald Trump backed out of the Iranian Nuke Deal, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, on May 8, 2019. The historic deal was signed by then US President Barack Obama on July 15, 2015. Today Iranian demonstrators are clamouring for immediate stepping down of the Mullahs as they are not able to manage the country’s economy. Meanwhile, Trump has upped the ante by saying that these mullahs have turned a prosperous pro-Western economy under the Shah of Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution into the current state of deterioration.
Last time people came out on roads at the end of 2017 and at the beginning of 2018 to raise their voice against the austerity budget proposed by the Government of Hassan Rouhani. More than 3,700 people were arrested and nearly 30 were killed by the security forces and intelligence agents. Initially the working class organised the campaign in the city of Mashhad. They primarily raised the issues of poverty and inequality that became rampant across the country. But soon the anti-Government strikes were spread to about 80 cities, forcing millions to descend on the streets. What was noteworthy was that the disenchanted people gradually expanded their protests and included problems such as human rights violations, corruption, women’s empowerment and foreign policy of the Government in their agenda of demands. However, the commoners and the protesters were subjected to the sheer brutality of the security apparatus.
Again in 2009, Iran witnessed a mass uprising against the presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The protest, centred around the theme: “Where is my vote?”, drew millions to the Iranian streets. The protesters were able to generate a nation-wide conviction that the presidential election was rigged. Ironically, this movement came just two years before the beginning of the historic Arab Spring that swept some of the West Asian and North African nations as young people voiced their concerns against their political regimes and demanded the arrival of democratic governments. The Iranian Spring of sort as we could call it, simply registered its mark in the annals of modern political history of the country as the “Green Movement”. This distinctly underlined the anger of the youth and the common people against the deep-rooted signs of corruption and dominance of the clerics in public life.
Now, the killing of elite Quds Force commander Soleimani has aggravated the bitterness in US-Iran relations. The Quds Force is the external wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. For the last 20 years, Soleimani had been spearheading Iran’s external operations that included building of security networks and proxies around the West Asian region. In fact, under his guidance, Iran has been able to expand a massive intelligence and security umbrella for its Shia allies around the troubled region. Further, the pro-Iranian militias which were established under him played key roles in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Interestingly, these militias have also fought against the ISIS and its allied groups across the war-torn nations of the region. Many say that these militant Shia armies were at times decisive in driving out the Sunni-led ISIS from both Iraq and Syria.
For the Trump Administration, Soleimani was solely responsible for escalating the “shadow war” between the US, its allies and Iran in the West Asian region. Soleimani’s advanced war games created a new unease in the security network already established by the US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. And his promotion of Shia militias with active support from Tehran has virtually created a new power centre for Iran. Also throughout these years, Soleimani was able to help Iran projecting as the unquestionable Shia hegemon of the region. It must be noted here that in April last year, the US designated the IRGC as a terrorist group and blacklisted the Quds Force. Following the US decision, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia too had declared the IRGC as a terrorist group.
The most interesting aspect of the IRGC is that it solely functions under the command of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as its main objective is to protect the Islamic system in the country. Broadly speaking, the IRGC’s ideology is based on, “Khomeinism, anti-imperialism, Shia Islamism and anti-Zionism”. Thus its very establishment and the way it promotes the Islamic Republic has been creating an atmosphere of distrust and widening the gulf between the major Shia and Sunni nations in West Asia.
Keeping this background of the IRGC in mind, the US and Israel have traditionally developed suspicion over the activities of the IRGC and its allied wings such as the Quds Force. The current tension between the US and Iran has a strong linkage with the recent attack by the pro-Iranian militiamen on the American embassy in Baghdad. And this happened after a US airstrike on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, established by the Muhandis. And all these events have finally led to the killing of Soleimani and his associates in Baghdad.
What all these incidents have to do with the protests in Iran? Of course, now the movement against the Iranian regime, particularly targeting the clerics, will surely be downplayed as it will be taken over by the anti-American protests just started in the wake of the killing of the Soleimani. It will be a great relief for the Rouhani Government for the time being. But what has been gathered from the street protests is that people will be on the road once again. What they want is very clear: They want an immediate retreat of the Islamic rule and religious armies from the public space.
Anti-Americanism is not new in Iran. The death of Soleimani can be a strong pretext to whip up the campaign against America in the country by the fundamentalists and the pro-Government groups. In the long run, the tensions between the US and Iran will continue in the West Asia. Against the backdrop of this incident and the current lashing out at Governments both in Iran and in Iraq, one can easily witness the growing frustration of the public.
The Green Movement to the protests through 2017-18 to the current saga of civil unrests in Iran, all signals the deep divide between the fundamentalists and the people who are demanding a democratic atmosphere in the country. And this time, Khameinei was so impatient that he called on the Government to do whatever it takes to stop the protesters. Last time, during the unrest in 2017-18, he called the protesters who came out across the country and demanded his removal, simply, “the enemies of Iran”. Surprisingly, two weeks later when the strike came down, the spokesman for the judicial system, which functions under Khamenei’s jurisdiction, denied the involvement of Government forces in death of innocent civilians.
It is sad that on many occasions Rouhani has defended Iranians’ right to protest. But it is equally pathetic to see that in no way he is capable of challenging the authority of the Supreme Leader. This indicates that as long as the current arrangement of power dynamics continues, any democratically elected Government will simply be working under the diktats of the clerics only. And in such a situation, the common voters will have nothing but frustration as their voices will not be heard. Like before, Rouhani’s supporters have become infuriated. His silence has long annoyed the common Iranians as well. Today the demonstrators decry their self-declared reformist President of doing nothing and silently watching the killing of the civilians. For many of them, Rouhani is no different from Khamenei. Thus the protesters in the beginning of 2018 shouted: “Reformists, hardliners, your time is up”. This directly indicates that people are equally frustrated with the both the democratic and clerical regimes that are in power now.
For long the IRGC has been regarded as the institutional equivalent of the Nazi SS, the heavily armed militia responsible for enforcing Hitler’s oppressive crackdown on common people in Germany. The IRGC ensures the clerical rule in Iran at any cost. And it also secures the stranglehold of the clerics in business and industry across the country. Iran’s latest crackdown on protesters demonstrates how the Iranians have no say in the rule of the mullah-led administration in the country. The current unrest is considered as the worst since 2017 when the youth of the country literally challenged the clerics. Fearing the repetition of the 2017, the IGRC has already jammed the internet access and preventing protesters from spreading their messages through Facebook and Google. This once again indicates how the Government and the religious leaders are equally threatened by the voices of the common citizens. All what one can see is the coming of a second Arab Spring. And the rulers in the West Asian region are too paranoid about such revivals.
Finally, what Iran is experiencing is the anger inbuilt in the political system. And, the political and the religious elite know very well that they had to face it either today or tomorrow. Simply countering America for a specific act is definitely the choice of the Government. But only whipping up anti-Americanism will not solve the internal problems of the country. People are going to challenge the system and no one today tolerates the dominance of the rule of the mullahs. They are too fascinated by the freedoms enjoyed by the people, particularly in the West and in many other countries across the globe. Much beyond that, they are truly bothered by the absence of basic needs and freedoms in the country. This happens because Iran is under strict surveillance of the IRGC. So none can expect anything beyond what the IRGC permits. This creates long-drawn frustrations among the people.
In an age of globalisation, it could be really difficult for any regime to suppress the feelings of its people. Today, family-run hereditary regimes and semi-authoritarian governments in West Asia are all coming under threat. Iran is one such example. Syria, Iraq and many others have already borne the brunt of public anger. What adds worry in this region is that situation might escalate at any time because of the involvement of the outside powers such as the US. Besides, the rivalry among the nations on sectarian lines adds fuel to the fire in any anti-Government uprisings. This further complicates the movements launched by common people in the region. For Iran, any such civilian protest against the Government may be crushed by the military for sure. What needs to be underlined is that American support to such protests and their leaders will not be able to turn the tide at the moment. But definitely, this kind of external pressure may generate more and more people to come on the streets.
Knowing well about the repercussion of such uprisings, the Iranian Government and the clerics must prepare a roadmap for future. The situation might go beyond their control. It’s time to make concrete strategies to deal with the anger of the public.
(The writer is an expert on international affairs)