When Iran’s military forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet it sparked widespread protests around the country. Iran’s leaders face being overwhelmed by a crisis they created—how will they respond? Read more here:
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Iran’s leaders are facing unprecedented pressure from abroad and at home. When an American drone assassinated General Qassem Suleimani it sent shockwaves around the world. Not only was he Iran’s most senior military commander he was also a legend within his own country. Iran’s regime vowed bloody vengeance. But its immediate retaliation seemed designed to avoid escalation.
It fired missiles into two Iraqi bases, which host American soldiers. On Iranian TV it claimed to have caused great damage in reality the missiles killed no one. But then Iran made a horrific blunder. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps mistook a Ukrainian passenger jet for a missile and shot it down. Everyone on board died, including 82 Iranians.
The disaster, and the way it was handled has sparked widespread anti-government protests in Iran. It has also exposed cracks in the country’s theocratic regime. Immediately after the crash Iran’s government said that it was caused by a mechanical failure. They didn’t admit that it was, in fact, an Iranian missile that had shot it down until the weight of evidence from overseas made it impossible for them to deny this fact. Three days later the Revolutionary Guard issued a statement admitting the mistake and the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani confirmed it on Twitter.
Protesters rallied against the government in 2017 and 2019 in provincial cities. The latest unrest began in Tehran, Iran’s capital, and has rippled outwards. The kind of people that we’ve seen demonstrating against the government recently it’s different from the groups that we’ve seen before. It’s a wider selection of people and it includes a lot more established sort of middle-class people. They’re fed up with their government’s incompetence with its brutality and with its endless banging of drums for war when many people feel that it should be concentrating on the appalling state of the Iranian economy. Prominent members of Iran’s parliament have retired and there are calls for President Rouhani to resign.
However, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader remains unrepentant. The goings on inside the Iranian regime are completely non-transparent and it’s very hard to tell which faction is up who’s fighting against whom and who’s likely to end up in control when the ageing Ayatollah Khamenei ultimately dies. But one thing is certain, the regime is very unsettled by this and by the reaction to it. The plane disaster, together with the economic gloom has tarnished the credibility of the Islamic regime.
So what are Iran’s next steps?
Its leaders are clearly worried but they show no sign of giving in to the protesters. Many Iranians are reaching the end of their patience with their rulers. That doesn’t mean the regime is going to fall straight away. Regimes that are prepared to shoot people, which this one is, can last for a very long time. The regime will do whatever it takes to keep its grip on power. It will also continue to stir up trouble in the wider Middle East. It will keep enriching uranium, which could be used to make a nuclear bomb. And it will probably seek revenge for the death of Suleimani.
The most likely consequences include future covert, deniable assassinations by Iranian proxies in the Middle East. That could be a soft target, an American businessman, a Jewish diplomat. More attacks on Americans might prompt President Trump to withdraw more American forces from the region. If American troops were to pull out of Iraq the country would fall apart into squabbling Shia, Sunni, Arab and Kurdish factions and that Islamic State might come back in Iraq. So that would be very risky.
Suleimani’s death has rattled the Iranian regime. Ordinary Iranians are sick of their rulers wasting huge sums on foreign military adventures when the economic situation at home is so dire. Suleimani’s legacy was to help make Iran a global pariah crushed by sanctions. His death probably won’t change that.
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