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Iran: Turbulent but Resilient

Iran’s religious autocracy is suffering through a severe coronavirus outbreak, a shrinking economy, regional chaos and the death of General Soleimani – why is it still so resilient?

Four decades later, Iran’s hardline regime faces enormous challenges. The nation is struck by one of the world’s most severe outbreaks of COVID-19, killing thousands of its citizens – including prominent parliamentarians and government officials. Under the weight of economic sanctions, Iran’s GDP is contracting, unemployment is growing, and inflation is rising. Regional proxies, such as Hezbollah in Libya, have faced protests calling for their removal. Earlier this year, a U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s influential military commander Qasem Soleimaini.

But Iran’s religious autocracy has proved remarkably durable, continuing to wield regional power, attack Western interests, and pursue its nuclear program. To help understand where Iran could be headed, we spoke with Jarrett Blanc, senior fellow in Geoeconomics and Strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Previously, Blanc was the State Department’s lead for Iran nuclear implementation under President Obama, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). An expert on conflict termination and political transitions, Blanc has also served as the Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Across the Middle East, Iran has bolstered its strength. “If you look over the last 20, 30 years, it’s clear that Iran’s influence has grown,” says Blanc. Indeed, the Islamic Republic has bribed, threatened, and cajoled itself into the role of a successful regional powerbroker. Hezbollah exerts enormous influence on the Lebanese government thanks to Iran’s money and tutelage. Bashar al-Assad is expanding his power in Syria with Iran and Russia’s help. Numerous Shia militia groups in Iraq are under Iran’s control. Meanwhile, Iran has engaged Saudi Arabia through the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

But Blanc warns against pigeonholing Iranian politics into a Shia-Sunni schism: “Certainly now, you’ve got Iran, which has got some partnerships with Sunni actors in Afghanistan. You’ve got Shia actors in Iraq, some of whom are more or less aligned with Iran’s interests. So, I don’t think it’s a totally straightforward Sunni-Shia split.” In addition, the Arab states are not interested in ramping up tensions: “The Emiratis and, to a lesser extent the Saudis, have been looking for ways to backchannel and reach out to Iran…I don’t think that people in the region are looking for a new Sunni-Shia cold war. Certainly not a hot war.”

Iran’s successful transformation into a Middle East powerbroker hasn’t translated into public support. As Blanc explains, “They’ve played the game pretty well. But in a broader sense, you’re talking about a country that should be rich, happy, and globally connected. And it’s none of those things. And so, if you see it from a very narrow lens of what does the regime want to achieve in terms of its national security policies, sure, they get a good grade. In terms of what should a government be trying to do for its people – they’re an abject failure.”

Indeed, the Iranian government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis was slow and the subsequent lack of transparency has enraged many of its citizens. Iran has suffered one of the largest number of deaths from the coronavirus, with satellite photos showing Iranian authorities digging mass graves for victims of the pandemic. An Iranian parliament report released in mid-April revealed that the nation’s death toll from coronavirus was double the figures previously acknowledged and the country’s infection rate could be eight to ten times higher than what the government has confirmed.

In January this year, the death of military commander Qasem Soleimaini by a U.S. airstrike saturated media outlets around the world. But as Blanc points out, “Iran is a modern state with a modern military bureaucracy. By all accounts, Soleimani was an effective leader in that bureaucracy, and it’s probably a little bit less effective, a little bit less efficient, without him. But it’s not like this was a cult of personality, where you take out the personality and the structure is gone. The next guy has taken over. And we shouldn’t, I don’t think, expect a massive degradation of effectiveness, a massive change of policy, as a result.”

Moreover, Iran’s nuclear program has continued since the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and resumed economic sanctions. Europe, on the other hand, has extended the deadline for imposing new sanctions after Iran failed to comply with time limits for curbing the nuclear program – essentially siding with Russia and China in looking for ways to revive a nuclear deal. According to Blanc, “so far I would say that the Iranians still seem to believe that the best way back to the table somehow goes through the JCPOA.” 

In the meantime, Iranian pocketbooks are feeling the pain. According to Blanc, “In a very, very tactical sense, the program has achieved its goals…It has put Iran under tremendous economic pressure – negative ten percent economic growth last year, they’ve got high unemployment, inflation has gone back up.” The coronavirus pandemic now threatens to further weaken an already limping economy. Nevertheless, Blanc argues that U.S. demands “go straight to the core of Iran’s national defense strategy, or its regime survival strategy, and those are not things that Iran or anybody else trades for purely economic benefit.”

Learn more about the political and economic dilemmas facing Iran today, available for download here.

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Episode 71