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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