Amid widespread anti-regime demonstrations, the recent assassinations of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and the stalemate in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West, the Iranian leadership finds itself under pressure both internally and externally.
Words such as “foreign enemies,” “external conspiracies,” “fifth column,” “media war,” and “psychological war” have become the most used over the last few weeks in the Iranian media and official statements.
In short, there is a state of despondency among Iranian leaders.
The Ukrainian-Russian war has changed the calculus in international politics, including Middle East politics, and instead of asking when will the nuclear agreement be reached, the question now has become will a nuclear deal be reached at all?
Washington’s priorities are not to reach a new nuclear deal with Iran, but to improve relations with the Gulf to ensure that millions of additional barrels of oil are pumped daily into the markets to lower prices.
This is worrying news for Tehran. Although Iran can depend on its proxies in the region from Syria to Iraq and from Yemen to Lebanon to cause headaches for the US and its allies, this will not address the real concerns of the Iranian leadership.
These are mainly domestic and are related to the frequent protests, dissatisfaction with officials at the national and local levels, and the brain drain from Iran, with scientists and doctors leaving the country for Europe and the US at rates that worry Iranian officials.
In a rare public appearance this week to mark the 33rd anniversary of the death of the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei did not try to gloss over the situation, addressing “the achievements and failures” of Iran’s leadership.
Khamenei argued that Iran had made great breakthroughs in areas such as scientific achievements, diplomatic and economic affairs, and public services. “Denying these achievements is an injustice. Of course, we have had our share of failures too. In other words, we have had both achievements and weaknesses and failures,” he said, according to a readout published on his official website.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Iranian economy has been suffering from a slowdown in growth and an increase in inflation, exacerbated by economic sanctions and the effects of the Ukrainian-Russian war.
These have led to sharp rises in the prices of staple foods such as cooking oils, wheat, and corn. To control the public budget, the Iranian authorities have raised the prices of some commodities, especially fuel, and reduced the size of government subsidies.
In addition to the frequent interruptions in basic services such as electricity and water, these have led to a popular upheavals and repeated demonstrations.
However, Khamenei blamed the recent protests in Iran on what he called “foreign enemies” seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic. “Today, the enemies’ most important hope for striking a blow at the country is based on popular protests,” Khamenei said, referring to the week-long protests over the collapse of a building in southwestern Iran last month that killed 37 people.
“They hope to turn the people against the Islamic establishment and the Islamic Republic through psychological work, activities on the Internet and cyberspace... and by spending money and recruiting mercenaries. But the enemy’s calculations are as wrong as many earlier ones,” he said in his televised speech.
Iranian officials have blamed the collapse of the 10-storey residential and commercial building in Abadan on local corruption and lax safety standards and say 13 people, including mayors and other officials, have so far been arrested for violations.
However, the protesters say the disaster stemmed from government negligence and entrenched graft and have been chanting slogans against officials, including Khamenei.
Iranian officials have reportedly disrupted Internet services in an apparent attempt to stop the use of social media to organise rallies and disseminate videos. The authorities have warned people to pay attention to the official media and eschew “rumours” on social media.
Khamenei also accused the US and its allies of “twisting the truth” about Iran and waging a “psychological war” against his country by accusing it of piracy for seizing two Greek ships after the US confiscated Iranian oil from a tanker.
“Some time ago, the Greek government stole some of our country’s oil due to an order from the Americans. But when the self-sacrificing, valiant soldiers of the Islamic Republic confiscated the enemy’s ship carrying oil, they accused Iran of theft through their extensive propaganda machines. But it was them who had stolen our oil. Who is the pirate here? You stole our oil. We took it back from you. Taking back something that had been stolen is not an act of theft,” Khamenei said.
The US, which has imposed tough sanctions on Iran, confiscated the Iranian oil cargo on the Iranian-flagged Pegas that Greece impounded off its coast last April. Tehran retaliated by seizing two Greek ships on 27 May.
Echoing Khamenei, Esmail Khatib, Iran’s intelligence minister, said that the “enemies” of Iran had mobilised their capabilities to wreak havoc on the country.
In a speech delivered at a meeting with senior intelligence and military officials in Zahedan, Khatib offered a similar assessment of efforts against Iran. He said the country’s enemies were focused on three things.
First, they were betting on protests and gatherings. Second, there were “terrorist moves” undertaken by Israel. And third, they were seeking to “smear” Iran on social-media platforms, Khatib said.
“Unfortunately, the enemy media has a drum whose beat is not only strident and grating, but also leaves a lasting [impact] on the soul and heart of our youth. The front of Islam and the revolution will, with God’s help, clinch victory despite all the efforts of the enemies,” Khatib said.
However, the defiant tone reveals growing concern among Iranian officials. “What Tehran is really dreading in the event of stalled nuclear talks is not the continuation of tensions with the West or its regional neighbours, but rather the internal anger that could get out of control as the economic conditions continue to deteriorate,” a former Iranian official who worked with the governments of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Iranian officials want a nuclear deal sooner than later. Forget about the rhetoric, as they need oil revenues to ease the internal pressure. The problem is that getting a deal will come at a price, and there are internal quarrels regarding how far the Iranian establishment is ready to go to get the deal,” he added.
The answer to this question will have wide-ranging impacts on ordinary Iranians.
On the positive side, reaching a nuclear deal will relieve the pressure on them by improving the economic situation.
But, on the negative side, the continuation of sanctions and strained relations with the West will not only lead to more economic suffering in Iran, but will also lead to a decline in political freedoms and human rights.
“If the deal were to collapse, the deteriorating economic conditions will prompt the authorities to use even harsher methods to prevent demonstrations and political dissent, and this will mean greater suffering for the people and greater isolation for the regime internally and internationally,” the former official said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.