Geopolitics

Iran: How Weak Is The Regime?

After the U.S. assassination of General Soleimani and Tehran's accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet, rising economic and political pressures have put Islamic rule in its most fragile state in memory.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his Friday sermon
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his Friday sermon
Vladimir Mesamed

-Analysis-

Iran has been shaken by major protests that undermine the very foundations of the Islamic regime. The assassination of the so-called "people's' general Qasem Soleimani, the second highest ranking leader in the military-political hierarchy of Iran has created vacuum in the regime's power structures, and at the level of decision-making, for both domestic and foreign affairs.

Soleimani was in some ways no less relevant than the supreme religious leader of the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Compared to the aging cleric, Soleimani's decisions reached wherever the Shia Crescent had interests — in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Palestine.

A year and a half before the next presidential election in May 2021, the late general had been boldly considered as a possible successor to the current head of the Iranian executive branch — and was indeed far superior in popularity to President Hassan Rouhani, considered by many to be too liberal and incapable of decisive action. On the international stage, Soleimani was also immeasurably more influential than the Western-educated and high-profile Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

All of this now leaves Iran in its most unenviable situation in 40 years of Islamic rule: introduction of new U.S. sanctions after the Islamic Republic withdrew from the nuclear agreement, the grave state of the economy as oil export operations drop toward zero, weakened national currency, unprecedented unemployment and runaway inflation.

The death of General Soleimani was, of course, followed by the accidental shooting down of a civilian Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people aboard. Iranian authorities initial denied any responsibility, and the government's actions ultimately sparked the recent rounds of student-led protests.

Iran is probably even ready to agree to different terms for a nuclear agreement.

Yet, neither the scope of the current wave of protests nor the tone of slogans demanding a regime change, have reached the point to create an immediate existential risk for the Islamic Republic. The swift repression is a sign that the regime understands the severity of the political and economic situation. It therefore follows that to help guarantee its domestic and foreign policy goals, the government will see that it needs to possess nuclear weapons — and according to experts, that will take no more than two years to happen.

Iran's decision to exit the 2015 accord sends a signal to the other signatories of this agreement that the regime would be ready to return to the Vienna agreements if they are helped to overcome US sanctions. In so doing, Iran aims to provoke a confrontation between the United States and Europe.

Iran is probably even ready to agree to different terms for a nuclear agreement, aimed at ending the constant domestic confrontation between fundamentalists and liberals. Yet, this will require unity around the Islamic regime, which is very unlikely to happen in light of recent events. For example, when the media wondered in November who initiated the introduction of higher fuel prices that sparked popular protests, the military-political elite almost unanimously blamed Rouhani's government. Only later it turned out that Khamenei personally approved the action, as he did with the violent crackdown on protesters. The protests at the end of 2019, in fact, were far more significant than those in 2017-2018, having touched all but two provinces in Iran.

Recent events also provoked hotheads in Israel to take advantage of the weakening of Iranian influence in the region to take decisive steps to eradicate the military presence of the Islamic regime in Syrian territory by bombing military targets on the Syrian-Israeli border. The Israeli news website Ynet declared that the liquidation of Soleimani is great news for country's security, and will undermine the Iranian military presence in Syria, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Step by step, if Iran loses its foreign satellites in the region, it will be left to face the inexorable deepening of problems at home.


Vladimir Mesamed is a researcher at the Institute of Asia and Africa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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Green

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.


It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park

Xinhua/ZUMA

Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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