BEIRUT: The world entered the year 2018 against the backdrop of serious events which brought Iran to the forefront of the regional stage. Demonstrations and mass protests have rocked Iran over the past couple days, grabbing headlines worldwide. Yet, it remains too early to jump to conclusions if one is to learn from the "Arab Spring" that soon turned into winter.
While Iranian authorities have resorted--to a certain extent--to some of the same tactics used by their Arab counterparts to crack down on protesters as soon as demonstrations grew in magnitude, it remains to be seen whether the ongoing protests would escalate into a wide-ranging confrontation between the regime and protesters.
That said, the reaction to the 2009 presidential race, which brought along the Iranian Green Movement opposed to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is another indication of how the regime might react. Back then, as reformists took to the streets in support of opposition candidates, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was quick to suppress the popular movement, arresting key strategists, confronting demonstrators and cutting off means of mass communication.
Despite the collapse of the 2009 revolution, the Iranian state's failure to address the grievances of its people, most notably economic and social discrepancies, could fuel another mass uprising, experts say.
This comes at a time when Iran is further expanding its incursions in the region while blaming domestic instability on foreign interference and meddling by its enemies in a bid to limit the fallout of the protests and control the narrative of the movement, while dismissing the underlying economic and social reasons that fueled the demonstrations in the first place.
Though the uprising is still in its infancy, it might have wide encompassing internal, regional and international repercussions.
For now and at best, observers expect the uprising to succeed, by its own momentum or with the help of external actors, in forcing Iranian rulers to shift their attention to the domestic front and curb their meddling in regional affairs.
Until very recently, senior Iranian officials have boasted about the Islamic republic expanding its sphere of influence to include Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Gaza strip. Thus, the current demonstrations cannot merely be dismissed as a purely Iranian matter but as another indication of the shortcomings of Iran’s regime, which expanded its regional influence in the wake of the nuclear deal at the expense of addressing the country's economic challenges.
The unrest in Iran could directly affect the “axis of resistance” particularly when taking into account an estimated $1 billion in Iranian funds channeled to Hezbollah per year, in addition to the supply of sophisticated weapons as well as logistical and political support.
In 2009, the Obama administration turned a blind eye to the crackdown on protesters as well as Iran's military intervention in Syria in order to protect and finalize the nuclear deal. However, things are now different under Trump, who has lambasted his predecessor’s agreement with Iran and vowed to expand sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Numerous diplomatic sources are of the belief that though Iran managed to suppress the 2009 revolt, the underlying cracks in the Mullahs system have been exposed, with uncertainty creeping into its institutions.
While Iranian officials have blamed foreign agents and U.S interference specifically for the current turmoil, the Islamic Republic has ironically used the same tactics to penetrate neighboring countries.
A strong military response to the ongoing demonstrations could lead the country down a similar path as Syria's Bashar Assad though protests are so far rooted in economic and social discontent rather political differences.
Though Iran managed to weather the repercussions of the 2009 uprising following the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani and a nuclear deal with major powers, failing to address the underlying reasons of the current protests will only serve to temporarily fix the problem.
While it remains to be seen whether the regime will strike a deadly blow to the opposition movement, or fail to extinguish these protests, the ongoing social upheaval will keep Iran under pressure.
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