On Tuesday, the commander of Iran’s Basij civilian paramilitary boosted the regime’s rhetoric in matters of foreign policy when he declared that the country was facing supposedly coordinated “full-scale war” from its leading adversaries, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. His remarks before a gathering in Tehran come at a time when Iranian officials are working to present a recent terrorist attack on an Iranian military parade as being connected to those foreign powers, although they have not presented any evidence to support the claim.
Fars News Agency quoted Brigadier General Gholam-Hossein Gheib-Parvar as saying “we are facing a full-scale war against the world arrogance and the US president has clearly shown his enmity.” He reportedly added that in this respect, Saudi Arabia and Israel operate as “arms in the region” while providing the US with intelligence for a “battle against the Islamic Revolution.” Similar claims have been applied to domestic opponents of the Iranian regime, especially in the wake of a mass uprising that began at the end of last year.
In the midst of that uprising, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei credited the leading Resistance group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, with facilitating the nationwide protests, but also asserted that PMOI members were operating as “foot soldiers” for the “triangle” of Iran’s foreign enemies. Here also, Khamenei and other officials failed to cite any evidence to substantiate their narrative of foreign sources for their domestic troubles.
Still, Khamenei continues to weigh in with similar commentary on the developing situation, and he was quoted by the Fars report on Tuesday. His latest remarks seem to highlight sensitivity to the ways in which the Islamic Republic may be perceived by its own people and by the international community, and Fars described him as recommending that supporters of the regime “stay vigilant in the face of the new hostile campaign against Iran, warning against any action that could fuel the ongoing propaganda war.”
“This media war is aimed at creating anxiety, anguish, hopelessness and a feeling of having hit a dead end as well as making the people cynical about one another and about the governing bodies, and exaggerating and amplifying the economic problems in the minds of the society,” the supreme leader said, apparently blaming foreign “propaganda” for the domestic protests and labor strikes that have been continuing ever since the nationwide uprising and have been fueled in part by worsening economic conditions.
The International Monetary Fund released a global report on Monday which estimated a 1.5 percent decline in the value of the Iranian economy for this year. According to Radio Free Europe, the World Economic Outlook also anticipated the rate of decline to accelerate through the following year, culminating in a 3.6 percent loss. This stands in stark contrast to the four percent growth that the IMF had previously estimated for those two years, before it was clear that US sanctions would be taking effect after the American withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, and that much fo the world would be complying with those sanctions.
The new IMF figures may be regarded as the latest piece of evidence that the Trump administration’s high-pressure strategy is working. And while some detractors expect this strategy to have a harmful effect on the Iranian people rather than on the Iranian regime, the ongoing unrest inside the Islamic Republic suggests that those people themselves view the situation differently. Iran News Wire reported on Tuesday that a strike by transportation workers all throughout the country had surpassed its 16th day and that many bazaar merchants had joined in the labor protests.
Rather than objecting to the US-led sanctions, those protests have clearly taken aim at the Iranian government’s own mismanagement of the economy, as evidenced by that government’s emphasis on repressing the protesters or even denying that they are active. The aforementioned report provided some detail regarding this repression as well as pointing out that it is characteristic of Tehran’s response to economic protests, including the previous trucker strikes in June.
The Iranian Resistance generally views both of those strikes, and various other Iranian protests, as extensions of the December-to-January uprising, which included chants of “death to the dictator” and explicit calls for a change of government. Maryam Rajavi, the leader of both the PMOI and its parent coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran, issued a statement on Tuesday praising the bazaar merchants for joining the truckers in their strike and reiterated that the action is “part of the people’s uprising.” She added that regardless of foreign sanctions, Iran’s national wealth “is wasted on suppression and export of terrorism and external wars and is stolen by the ruling mullahs.”
The issue of domestic repression in response to protests was on prominent display on Monday when the Iranian judiciary formally recommended the death penalty for at least 17 participants in the truck drivers’ strike. Threats of this sort of sentencing had been repeated several times over the previous two weeks, with judiciary officials citing multiple charges that could justify capital punishment. These include “enmity against God” and a charge of “banditry” related to the blocking of roads that are used as trucking routes.
Death Penalty News quoted the head of Qazvin Court as saying, “The judiciary will without any tolerance deal with those who disrupt the security of drivers and also those who intend to take advantage (of the strike) and create insecurity.” But the same report quotes another official, representing the Fars Province transportation department, as insisting that the demonstrations are not happening as reported, but only involve “rumors” based on “dissidents taking advantage of the drivers' needs.”
These two types of statements, although contradictory, are both indicative of the need that Khamenei highlighted in his remarks on Tuesday: the need to control the narrative for both domestic and international audiences, in order to avoid fueling sentiments that oppose the clerical regime. But at a time when judiciary officials have acknowledged both arrests and prospective death sentences for protesters in numerous Iranian provinces, this will surely be difficult to achieve.
The difficulty is amplified by the fact that the United States will certainly oppose all of Tehran’s efforts to portray itself in a more positive light. There is an open question, however – and one that may have a substantial impact on Iran’s potential for controlling its own narrative – about whether or not the European Union will join in this opposition. Its strategies so far have not engendered much optimism among critics of the Iranian regime, and that fact was underscored by an editorial published on Tuesday by the Washington Examiner.
The article focuses on Iran’s foreign policy, although its description of Europe’s unfounded optimism about Iranian moderation could certainly be extended to Iran’s domestic situation as well. Criticizing the EU’s description of the Iran nuclear deal as a boon to world peace, the author noted, “It has been over three years since the deal’s signing, and Iran’s expansionist aggression and sponsorship of terrorism across the Middle East has only been emboldened.”
The article continued: “In Syria, Iranian militias have carried out some of the worst of President Bashar Assad’s murderous acts. In Lebanon, Iran continues to fund Hezbollah, a terrorist organization with a dangerous hold over the region, whose chief goal is the destruction of the state of Israel. And in Iraq, following a long history of Iranian influence undermining post-war stability, this month, the U.S. faced mortars fired by Iranian proxies near its embassy in Baghdad.”
It is these activities that are particularly relevant to Khamenei’s appeal for “vigilance” and the Basij commander’s attempt to portray Iran as the victim of coordinated and one-sided foreign threats. While the Islamic Republic is unlikely to seriously alter any of these behaviors, certain public narratives may provide European policymakers to go on clinging to “unfounded optimism” while avoiding participation in the Trump administration’s high-pressure strategy.
In this sense, Khamenei’s appeal may help to explain some Iranian lawmakers’ motivations in voting on Sunday to join the international convention for “Combating the Financing of Terrorism.” Ordinarily, the Islamic Republic is bold in its rejection of such international agreements as foreign cultural imposition and contributors to a plot for the “soft overthrow” of the theocratic regime. But in this case, a great deal may be riding on Iran’s foreign reputation, as Europe weighs compliance with the US sanctions and the International Court of Justice considers Iran’s request to recoup assets that were seized by the US in order to pay damages to victims of Iran-backed terrorism.
Arguments in that case are expected to continue through Friday, and they come close on the heels of the ICJ ruling in favor of Iran after it challenged current sanctions as violations of the 1955 Treaty of Amity between Iran and the US. But an Iranian victory in the current case may be more difficult to achieve, given that Tehran’s historical support for international terrorism is not seriously in doubt. Neither, for that matter, is its ongoing support of militant organizations such as Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and various paramilitary groups in Syria and Iraq.
IN Homeland Security published an article on Tuesday arguing that the failure to challenge those paramilitaries could seriously alter the balance of power in the entire Middle East, allowing Tehran to more effectively pursue its intended dominance of Shiite Muslim communities and Shiite thought in general. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs pointed to recent revelations by Ahmad Montazeri, the son of one of the Islamic Republic’s founding ayatollahs, regarding formerly undisclosed details of Iranian terror plots against Saudi Arabia.
Provided that those details and Iran’s regional activities continue to receive significant public attention, it will surely be difficult for Iranian officials to credibly portray themselves as the victims of unearned aggression, especially at a time when they are also directing their own aggressive activities inward, at the sources of persistent domestic unrest.