On Thursday, Al Jazeera reported upon the latest iteration of the annual speech given by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to mark Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. Such speeches traditionally include the declaration of a theme for the year ahead, and Khamenei used the phrase “made in Iran” to describe this year’s theme.
It is markedly similar to the previous year’s theme of “resistance,” insofar as both embody his commitment to an economic policy that focuses on decreasing the Islamic Republic’s reliance on foreign trade while encouraging internal development. However, this is at odds with President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to continue expanding economic relations with foreign powers, including the West, in the wake of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
In his speech, Khamenei acknowledged that the Islamic Republic faces difficulties, but he insisted that the prospective solutions to those problems will come from inside Iran and not from abroad. In this way, the supreme leader was arguably paying lip service to the economic anxieties and other popular grievances that were expressed by protesters during a mass uprising that began in late December and continued through much of January.
At the same time, his remarks dismissed the widespread expectations of normalized relations between Iran and its traditional Western adversaries. Furthermore, by raising the issue of foreign-sourced solutions, Khamenei may have been referencing his own claims about the protests, namely that they were instigated by foreign powers and “infiltrators” of the Iranian social landscape.
As well as blaming the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, the ruling Shiite cleric also characterized the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, as the foot soldiers for those powers. The PMOI itself has embraced the suggestion that it was a driving force behind the demonstrations, although it rejects any notion of direct foreign entanglements. The organization’s leader, who is also president of the coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, issued her own Nowruz message this week, calling for a “year full of uprisings” in the spirit of the demonstrations that spread throughout all major municipalities near the end of the preceding year.
The platforms of the PMOI and NCRI have consistently called for domestically-driven regime change or, in other words, the establishment of democratic governance that is “made in Iran.” But compared to the clerical regime, the Resistance is far friendlier with Western and Arab governments, enjoying multi-partisan support from politicians and foreign policy experts throughout the world. Many of those experts, including those not affiliated with the Resistance, have estimated that there are good chances for a revived protest movement in the days ahead, thanks in part to the regime’s crackdown on the recent demonstrations.
The Al Jazeera report helped to highlight the fact that that crackdown did not end as the protests tapered off but is in fact ongoing after the start of the New Year. The report called attention to a public celebration of Nowruz that was broken up by plainclothes police officers on the basis of “public disturbance” despite the fact that it consisted only of a group of Tehran residents offering “free hugs” to passersby. Al Jazeera described this incident as an example of the fact that any behavior that deviates from the norm is being perceived as a security threat in the wake of the January uprising.
Meanwhile, reports continue to accumulate of political activists and other types of dissenters being arrested, handed stiff sentences, or even killed in detention. The NCRI has determined that at least 14 people were tortured to death in the wake of the demonstrations, with the most recent such incident taking place in early March. Iranian officials have acknowledged that the total number of arrests resulting from those protests exceeded 4,000, and the NCRI puts that figure at 8,000.
The broader response to supposed security threats has apparently become a source of discord among the two major factions of Tehran’s internal politics, although both factions have been blamed for some aspects of the repressive response to protests in January and throughout the previous year.
Radio Farda reported on Wednesday that the government of so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani was facing increased pressure from “hardliners” over the Iranian people’s continued access to the popular social media app Telegram. The service was heavily filtered and at times blocked during the uprising, but access was returned after most of the protests were effectively suppressed. Yet, officials continue to widely perceive it as a threat to public order, and the High Council for Cyberspace has reportedly decided to block it permanently by the end of the year.
The head of that council, Hassan Firouzabadi, also recently published an editorial arguing that access to Telegram is not in the interest of the Islamic Republic. But as Reason Magazine noted on Thursday, there are counterarguments for this which may have influenced the Rouhani administration’s decision to reverse the ban, and which have little to do with cultural freedom.
It has been reported that the government faced pressure over this issue soon after Telegram was cut off, because many Iranian businesses had come to rely on it for advertising their products, communicating with clients, and conducting transactions. Radio Farda suggested that Supreme Leader Khamenei personally criticized the subsequent decision to unblock the service. But if this is true, it indicates that Khamenei’s desire to curtail dissent and maintain public order is at odds with his declared focus on fostering development of the Iranian economy.
This situation naturally creates an opening for the efforts by the Iranian Resistance to spearhead a “year full of uprisings,” using as rallying tools either the people’s persistent economic hardships, the organizational power of social media, or both. It also challenges the clerical regime to determine which is the greater threat to its hold on power: Western “infiltration” through information technology or Western economic “infiltration”.
This in turn adds to the questions about the status of the Iran nuclear deal as the country enters its New Year. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is already under threat from the White House following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would no longer renew sanctions waivers under the agreement unless Europe and the US formulated a plan for tightening restrictions on Iran. For its part, the Islamic Republic has threatened retaliation against any Western efforts to undermine the deal, and these threats are made more credible by Khamenei’s insistence on attempting to develop a relatively sanction-proof “resistance economy.”
Tehran refuses to entertain the notion of renegotiating any aspects of the JCPOA, as have its supporters among signatories of that deal, namely Russia and China. But as ABC News pointed out on Thursday, critics of Iran such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies have argued that the US and EU, on their own, have sufficient economic leverage to compel Iranian cooperation if they work together toward a defined common goal.
However, the same ABC News report indicated that the progress toward establishing such a common goal was uncertain. State Department official Brian Hook recently headed talks in Berlin with representatives of Germany, France, and the UK, but would only describe those talks as “constructive” while acknowledging that it is not clear what steps would be taken after an agreement is realized.
Previously, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker declared that it appeared as if Europe was not on track to working together in a way that would satisfy President Trump’s demands regarding the nuclear agreement and other aspects of Iranian misbehavior. Corker also predicted that if this situation did not change, Trump would likely pull the US out of the deal at the time of the next waiver deadline in May. Accordingly, CNN reports that the US is now pursuing a dual-track strategy on this topic, planning for withdrawal but still pursuing an agreement with the Europeans.
At the same time, the US Congress is also exhibiting a great deal of concern about the perceived growth in Iranian influence over the broader Middle East. As Al Monitor noted on Wednesday, this was reflected in the Senate vote that defeated a proposal to withdraw American support for a Saudi-led bombing campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
hile acknowledging the human rights crisis associated with that campaign, many of the congressional opponents of that bill placed greater emphasis on Iran’s destabilizing effects in the region and the growing threat posed to longstanding US allies like Saudi Arabia.
This goes to show that under Trump’s leadership, there is persistent or even escalating willingness to assertively confront Iran over its nuclear ambitions and a range of other issues. This casts substantial doubt upon the future of JCPOA, which in turn threatens Iran’s return to the global economy, especially in light of some leading Iranian officials’ resistance to any cooperation with the West, economic or otherwise.
At the same time, the collapse of the nuclear agreement will make it all the more difficult for Tehran to impose the desired restrictions on the Iranian people or to address the economic and social demands that were expressed during the January uprising. Under those conditions, an organized call for a “year full of uprisings” could pose an unusually severe threat to the ruling theocracy.