Will the social unrest in Iran affect the regime’s regional policies?

Will the social unrest in Iran affect the regime’s regional policies?
© Getty Images

Iranians’ protests over a weak economy and poor living conditions appear to be the largest to strike the country since the riots against the fraudulent presidential election in 2009. The unrest, primarily sparked by a surge in prices of food supplies, included chants of  “Death to the dictator” and “Death to Khamenei.”

Eventually these demonstrations metastasized into a protest against the regime’s regional movements, and the chants became, “Leave Syria, think of us!” and “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran,” highlighting the people’s frustration with the waste of national resources in the government’s costly foreign adventurism while ignoring problems at home.


The question that seized Iran-watchers is whether this situation will compel the Islamic Republic to reconsider its regional policies, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.


The regime in Tehran generously has spent an untold amount of capital on its policy of “exporting revolution” — a strategy to destabilize neighboring countries through direct or proxy involvement in conflict, civil unrest and terror activities spearheaded by the Revolutionary Guard Corps and its secretive Quds Force.

The regime has not been shy about publicizing its financial support to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to save his regime from total collapse. Estimates for Iran’s annual aid to Syria range from $6 billion to $15 billion. Iran’s estimated annual financial aid to the Shiite militias in Iraq, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah, are said to be over $1 billion a year.

According to intelligence sources, Iranian leadership recently decided to scale up its investment in Hezbollah alone to $1 billion each year, and to increase the annual funding for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to $100 million. Yehiyeh Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, recently claimed that Iran had become the group’s “largest backer financially and militarily.”

In Yemen, Iran supports the Houthi rebels, providing them with weapons and financial aid, provoking Saudi Arabia to initiate a military campaign to defeat the rebels. Driven by Shiite- Sunni sectarianism, Tehran’s conflict with Riyadh has become one of the most dangerous elements shaping current regional politics. Reportedly, Iran pays $2,000 per month to each Iraqi or Lebanese who goes to fight for the Houthis in Yemen on behalf of the Revolutionary Guards. In Palestine, according to intelligence reports, the Islamic Republic is attempting to spark a new war between Israel and the Palestinian armed groups, Hamas in particular, which demands more resources from Iran.

This is happening while the Iranian nation faces an inflated poverty rate. The Iranian people resent the country’s regional interventions and want their leaders to create more jobs at home, where youth unemployment was said to be 40 percent in 2017.

Depending on how long the dwindling protest continues, the social unrest may change this whole dynamic and compel the Islamic Republic to reconsider its regional policies. In other words, the more clamor there is in the streets, the less likely the regime will be able to spread money abroad — although in the short term, the situation is unlikely to be devastating for the well-established Shiite military network in the Middle East.

Facing enduring pressure from the middle-class protesters who desire better government management at home and pragmatic diplomacy outside Iran, the leadership in Tehran may find that the costs of regional intervention and indefinitely providing financial support to Shiite militias will outweigh the benefits. Moreover, spending on domestic economic needs and improving quality of life at home would strain the regime’s budget to invest new funds in in conflicts.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps receives a major part of the formal annual defense budget. The proposed annual budget, introduced by President Rouhani on Dec. 10, 2017, outlined a 20 percent increase in the Guard budget to $8 billion for 2018, and proposed increasing fuel prices and ending monthly cash subsidies for citizens. This issue sparked public anger, and the enduring protests may lead the government to reconsider the budget proposal.

Global powers could play a decisive role in the outcome. President TrumpDonald TrumpChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report Kim says North Korea needs to be 'prepared' for 'confrontation' with US Ex-Colorado GOP chair accused of stealing more than 0K from pro-Trump PAC MORE has pledged “great support” for the protesters, tweeting that he has “such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time.” Similarly, his national security adviser H.R. McMaster has said the Iranian government must be held accountable for “paying more attention to exporting terrorism than it does of meeting the needs of its own people.”

McMaster has hinted that Washington is willing to introduce another round of sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard — the linchpin of the regime’s dictatorship — with the hope of limited the organization’s financial ability to fund its regional proxies. This time, sanctions might be effective. In 2012, when Iran’s oil revenues had decreased markedly and brought the country’s economy to its knees, Iran cut its financial support to Hezbollah by as much as 40 percent, triggering Hezbollah’s financial crisis.

Washington also could attempt to lodge a formal complaint against Iran in international forums such as the U.N. Security Council, although the organization rejected a call by U.S. Ambassador Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyThe Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? Nikki Haley warns Republicans on China: 'If they take Taiwan, it's all over' Pence slams Biden agenda in New Hampshire speech MORE for an urgent meeting on Iran’s civil protests. Washington could encourage more countries to follow French President Emmanuel Macron’s expressed concern about the “number of victims and arrests” in the protests and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s cancellation of a visit to Tehran.

With ongoing pressure at home, backed by support from world powers, Tehran could be coerced to change its regional posture.

Dr. Farhad Rezaei is a research fellow at Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara where he studies Iran’s foreign policy. He is the author of “Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback.” His writings have appeared in the National Interest, Middle East Policy and Asian Affairs, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @Farhadrezaeii.