The Iranian parliament voted on Sunday to remove Finance Minister Masoud Karbasian from his post, following months of economic decline that have helped to fuel ongoing protests against the clerical regime, its endemic corruption, and its misplaced priorities. In reporting on the ouster, the Associated Press described it as representing the government’s recognition of the public anger, though it also pointed out that the change in leadership of the Finance Ministry is unlikely to make any real difference in absence of a broader change in the regime’s behavior, just as the prior removal of the Minister of Labor failed to have any meaningful impact.
The AP report also pointed out that even these ineffectual measures passed the legislature only by very narrow margins, a fact that arguably underscores the self-protective nature of the existing government system. Those who voted in favor of Karbasian retaining his post presumably did so on the basis of their willingness to publicly affirm agreement with his position that the rising levels of inflation and unemployment are not the responsibility of government officials but are purely the result of economic pressure being exerted from outside the Islamic Republic.
This sentiment has, however, been rejected by participants in the domestic protest movement, who have been repeating familiar slogans in scattered demonstrations ever since the outbreak of a nationwide uprising in December of last year. Among these slogans are outright rejections of government talking points regarding the economic crisis and other matters of great importance to Iran’s social and political future. “The enemy is here,” the protesters have been heard to chant. “They are lying when they say it is America.”
Nevertheless, Karbasian reacted to his own embattlement on Sunday by insisting that the US and Iran “are at all-out economic war” as the White House endeavors to “put people under pressure and stir dissatisfaction.” The government’s overall agreement with this line of argument was highlighted on Monday by another AP report, which pointed out that Iran had sent a representative to the International Criminal Court in The Hague in order to present its case for a judgment blocking the re-imposition of US sanctions in line with President Trump’s withdrawal in May from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The first round of sanctions that had been suspended under that deal went back into effect earlier this month. The second round, targeting Iran’s oil exports and banking sector, will resume in November. As well as trying to turn international sentiment against the US by accusing it of violating an existing treaty between the two countries, Iran evidently hopes to win a temporary injunction halting the re-imposition of sanctions, pending a resolution to the case, which could take years.
The legal challenge to the Trump administration’s challenge is supposedly just one aspect of a comprehensive strategy that Iran claims to have developed in order to combat sanctions and keep the economy afloat. But there is no indication that this strategy involves serious changes to the ways in which the economy is managed domestically. Quite the contrary, regime officials have generally reinforced their existing spending priorities, including those, like spending on the Syrian Civil War, that have been explicitly and repeatedly criticized by domestic protesters.
Among the slogans that have recurred in numerous venues since the nationwide uprising is the appeal for the Iranian government to “forget about Syria; think of us.” But on Monday, another Associated Press report noted that Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami had announced the conclusion of an agreement between Tehran and Damascus to cooperate on the rebuilding of the Syrian military, which is already reported to be dependent on the Iran-backed Shiite militias that helped to quell opposition to the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
The same report notes that while the details of the agreement were not specified, it was publicly framed in terms of regional opposition to the influence of foreign powers, namely the United States and other stated enemies of the Islamic Republic. This rhetoric has, of course, been repeated in the context of Iran’s buildup of its own military and paramilitary – another spending priority that remains unchanged in the face of economic crisis and widespread domestic protests.
Fox News reported on Monday that General Alireza Tangsiri, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ naval forces, had claimed that Iran has full control over the Strait of Hormuz and of the Persian Gulf more generally. If true, this would speak to Iran’s ability to cut off the waterway through which a third of the world’s oil exports move – something that regime officials have repeatedly threatened to do, especially in the wake of Trump’s threatened and then actual withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
UPI elaborated upon the latest such threats, noting that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had explicitly endorsed the IRGC plan to use “swarm tactics” in order to confront a larger and better equipped navy in the strait. Khamenei advertised this as a viable option for meeting economic threats from the West, declaring that if Iran cannot export its oil in November, then its regional competitors should not be able to, either.
Of course, Tehran’s military threats are widely dismissed in light of the fact that sanctions pressure and weapons embargoes have effectively prevented the country’s military from modernizing for decades. This is not to say that open conflict between Iran and the US would carry no risk for the latter, but it does raise serious questions about whether Tehran would even follow through on its threats, as opposed to simply using them as part of a bid to project an image of strength while distracting attention away from the domestic unrest that has been threatening the regime’s hold on power.
For its part, the US has at no point indicated that it would initiate conflict in response to anything less than an Iranian attack. In fact, White House officials have consistently denied that their policy entails facilitating regime change, although they do not appear to have ruled out the possibility of such change occurring at the hands of the Iranian people. National Security Advisor John Bolton repeated the point last week during a visit to Israel, saying that the goal of US strategy is only to change the behavior of the Iranian government.
According to Reuters, Bolton added that he believed sanctions to have already had a substantial impact both on Iran’s economy and on public opinion. He said that American tactics might not be limited to sanctions as the administration strives to continue that trend and exert “maximum pressure.” He did not elaborate, but may have been referring in part to ongoing efforts to confront Iranian propaganda, pressure European allies to join in the high-pressure strategy, and otherwise combat Iran in the court of public opinion.
The ongoing protests may put Iran at a disadvantage in this, but much depends on the ability of the supreme leader and others to convince the Iranian people that their problems are more attributable to foreign activities than to the activities of the Iranian government. But considering that protesters have been rejecting this line of argument even after the return of US sanctions, it will presumably be even more difficult to convince them of American culpability for the wholly domestic drivers of the protest movement, such as the water crisis that is worsening in several regions of Iran.
This has not stopped Khamenei and others from trying. Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that the supreme leader attributed water-related uprisings to “foreign enemies,” ignoring expert warnings that decades of mismanagement of water resources could leave the entire country dry in less than 50 years.