by Xander Snyder
May 2, 2018
It’s hard to shake the sense that a reckoning is approaching for Iran’s regime. The assaults from abroad are very public. Over the weekend, a suspected Israeli missile strike targeted an Iranian military base in Syria, the second such strike in April. On April 30, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented what he claims is definitive evidence that Iran has violated the terms of the nuclear deal, which would provide additional motivation to U.S. President Donald Trump to cancel the deal when it comes up for reauthorization next month. But Tehran is facing resistance at home as well, most recently with strikes in Iranian Kurdistan. Whether it comes from Israel, the U.S. or both, Iran is on the verge of a major test, and every move it makes abroad could jeopardize its security at home.
The catalyst for the Iranian Kurdistan protests was the closure of Iran’s borders with Iraq. Iran first shut its border with Iraq after Iraqi Kurdistan voted for independence in a referendum last September. When Iraqi forces were deployed to suppress the mostly Kurdish province of Kirkuk, the Iranian government, anticipating a flood of Kurdish separatists trying to enter Iran, closed the border and sent about a dozen tanks, supported by artillery, to help enforce the closure. Iran reopened its border crossings with Iraq in late December but specifically excluded routes taken by “kolbars,” Kurdish porters who carry heavy loads of goods between Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish regions. Tehran said the decision was connected to the smuggling of illegal arms and drugs.
Illegal arms smuggling into Iranian Kurdistan is a legitimate risk for Iran. Iran’s Kurdish population includes separatist elements and, like Turkey, Iran is concerned about any pan-Kurdish movement that could bring its Kurds together with the more battle-hardened Kurds in Iraq and Syria.
But Iran’s socio-economic problems – high unemployment, inflation in the price of certain staple products and currency depreciation – point to two other motives for the anti-smuggling measures. First, Iran wants to bring all cross-border, black market trade under the government’s purview so that it can tax it. Second, having failed to realize the full benefits from foreign investment that the government was hoping the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would provide, the government is now attempting to encourage domestic consumption in the hopes that it will provide a much-needed catalyst for economic growth. Indeed, in March, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that in 2018, Iranians should focus on buying domestic goods.
The problem, though, is that much of Iranian Kurdistan’s economy depends on imports carried by kolbars from Iraq. According to Kurdish media, up to 80,000 kolbars are now out of work, and businesses lack goods to sell. The protests in response are not large – hundreds of shop owners are estimated to have gone on strike, and about 20 arrests have been made – and the government appears to have gotten most of the affected cities back to work, with the exception of Baneh. They surely aren’t large enough to challenge the government, which put down much larger unrest in January. But Iranian Kurdistan is just one of many simmering pockets of resentment toward Tehran. For instance, farmers in Isfahan and other provinces have staged several protests throughout the year in response to what they say is poor water management in the face of severe, nationwide drought. Then there is the banknote protest, an effort to circumvent traditional forms of censorship. This isn’t going to bring down the government either, but the spread of anti-government sentiment could encourage more people to participate in the next large-scale protests, whenever they occur.
And this is precisely the sort of uncontrollable messaging that the Iranian regime – which came to power in 1979 through a mass uprising that incorporated diverse social strata – wants to prevent. The government can’t stop the spread of defaced banknotes, but it did implement a ban of the messaging app Telegram on April 30. Iran hopes that by eliminating this unmonitored channel of communication – which is used by 40 million Iranians, about half the country’s population – it will be able to get ahead of the next wave of opposition before it reaches the streets. In place of Telegram, the government is encouraging Iranians to use a homegrown messaging app called Soroush, which comes equipped with “Death to America” emojis.
Israel and the U.S.
The reason these domestic issues matter now, even though they’re still under control, is that they are intimately connected to Iran’s regional expansion. The more money the Iranian government spends on its foreign adventures in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, the less money it has to invest at home. And the more Iran antagonizes the West and its allies, the harder it will be for it to attract investment, shed missile sanctions and realize the benefits of the JCPOA – if it survives.
And though Iran’s parliament did walk back some cuts to cash subsidies after the January protests, the growing threat of direct confrontation between Iran and Israel risks forcing Iran to spend even more heavily on its military. Israel hasn’t taken responsibility for the latest missile strike on an Iranian base in Syria, but it is the most likely candidate. If such strikes continue, Iran may reach a point where it will be compelled to retaliate or risk a deterioration in its position in Syria, a position for which it has fought so hard and spent so much. At the same time, a costly war with Israel would severely strain Iran’s finances and risk yet another round of mass protests.
Lurking beneath all these developments is the U.S. threat to back out of the JCPOA. Should the U.S. decide not to extend the sanction waiver on May 12, European countries and Iran could still try to uphold the deal. But the uncertainty would nevertheless spook foreign investors, who would fear follow-on U.S. sanctions targeting entities doing business with Iran (similar to those recently levied on Russia). Cash-strapped Iran desperately needs investment capital, which was a large part of the reason it agreed to the JCPOA in the first place. Investment has primarily flowed to the oil industry, mostly benefiting a small elite, but the end of the JCPOA could turn the tap off even for these funds, further straining an Iran that is facing an ever-growing regional military presence and the costs that accompany such expansion.
Every rial Iran spends defending its newfound regional position is one less spent on its domestic concerns, and the less the regime spends at home, the greater the risk of an uprising against the regime. The solutions Iran does have, such as collecting higher taxes by forcing border closures, also generate new political threats or exacerbate existing ones. Iran is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.