Crumbling from inside, Iran racthets up pressure on external front
Analysis by Mikhail Shereshevskiy
ANALYTICS 26 May 2023 - 18:03
News about protests has been frequent in Iran lately. A powerful wave of strikes rolled over the country, organized by workers without the help of trade unions, through social networks and informal meetings. People demanded higher wages and steady work in the face of rising costs.
No sooner had the strikes subsided than protests erupted against the death penalty for several prisoners in Isfahan prison. Three political prisoners, Saeed Yaqoubi, Saleh Mirhashemi, and Majid Kazemi, were due to be executed as early as May 15. They were able to hand over notes from the prison saying that all three had been tortured to incriminate themselves. People then blockaded the prison in Isfahan. The execution of the prisoners was postponed for a few days, but then it was still carried out. Protests followed in different cities under the slogan "When we arm ourselves, the regime will fall!"
But despite the ongoing protests, the Iranian regime is increasing its pressure on the external front, gradually sprawling its influence in the region. An important recent development in this has been the talks between Saudi Arabia and the pro-Iranian Houthi movement in Yemen. According to US researcher Thomas Juneau, it is in fact a negotiation of defeat for Saudi Arabia and victory for the Houthis in Yemen.
Yemen, where mass protests against the dictatorial regime (the Arab Spring) erupted in 2011, as in many other places, had descended into chaos by 2014. That year, Houthi rebels occupied a number of areas in the northwest and the capital Sanaa. The Houthis are a tribal movement led by wealthy nobles that professes Zeidism, a doctrine close to Shiite Islam (about 40 per cent of Yemen's population is Zeidite). This movement, oriented towards the Shiite theocracy in Iran, has received military and financial assistance from the latter.
Saudi Arabia is a Sunni monarchy concerned about both the rise of its geopolitical adversary, Iran, and Houthi activity near its southern borders. In 2015, at the invitation of an internationally recognised but defeated government, the Saudis launched a military intervention in Yemen. Their aim was to defeat the Houthis and restore the government's authority. However, for Saudi Arabia, the intervention ended badly. The Houthis, experienced guerrillas operating in small, autonomous units, began striking at the invading army's communications and cutting Saudi supply lines. Armed with Iranian grenade launchers, machine guns, and ATGMs, the guerrillas (their total number is estimated at 50,000 to 100,000, with almost unlimited reserves) burned Saudi armoured convoys. At the same time, the Houthis learned to use Iranian drones and missiles and began bombarding Saudi territory. Airports and oil refineries have come under fire. They have also carried out a series of operations inside Saudi Arabia, crushing several large enemy formations and capturing thousands of military personnel.
Endless war with the guerrillas has proven to be a pointless, expensive, and costly gamble. It has also made the grandiose plans of Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), quite impossible to implement. The latter supports the idea of vastly modernising the country, creating modern industry and infrastructure, and building a new city of Neom by 2030. An investment of 800 billion or even a trillion dollars and the involvement of foreign funds and technology is envisaged. However, who would invest such money in a country that lives under the constant rain of missiles...
All together forced the prince to negotiate with Iran and the Houthis. The Saudis have restored diplomatic relations with the Iranians, promised them investment (crucial for the collapsing sanction-hit Iranian economy), and are withdrawing their units from Yemen. Perhaps they will shut down the Iranian opposition media they have been funding. In response, the Iranians have promised to stop supplying weapons to the Houthis, and the Houthis have said they will not shell Saudi territory.
But all this, according to observers, means defeat for Saudi Arabia. Even if the Iranians temporarily stop supplying weapons, they will never give up their support for such an influential and important ally. Postponing supplies temporarily, so that the Houthis can consolidate their successes internationally and wait for the Saudis to leave, does not mean Tehran's refusal in principle to provide assistance. The Houthis, for their part, are not going to give up on their struggle to gain full control of Yemen and defeat all other groups (including pro-Saudi) that control that state. The Houthis are particularly interested in the hydrocarbon-rich Marib and access to the Bab al-Mandeb Straits. Such Houthi gains - which, once the Saudis are gone, are likely to become possible - would provide a major boost to the Iranian regime's influence in the region.
Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer points out that this is a strategic project for Iran. "At the southern tip of Yemen is the Bab al-Mandeb (Gate of Tears), a narrow waterway between the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea. This waterway, dominated by the port city of Dhubab, is a vital artery for the global economy. 9% of all seaborne trade in crude oil and petroleum products passes through it. The Iranians, through their proxies, the Houthis, gaining control of the territory adjacent to the strait would give Tehran an additional, very important pressure point on the passage of those goods, and hence on the world economy. With a single strike, Iran could paralyse or seriously disrupt the transit of materials vital to the functioning of Western countries. The intervention of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in 2015 was designed to prevent this possibility. The Houthis advance southward was indeed halted, and in 2017 Saudi-backed forces recaptured the town of Dhubab, ending the Hussite threat to the Strait."
But if the Saudi intervention stops, the Houthis will continue their offensive operations in the specified direction. Meanwhile, the aforementioned route is also Israel's and Egypt's gateway to the East and to Asian countries, which are set to become the centre of global strategic and economic gravity in the coming period. Both Cairo and Tel Aviv are keen to export liquefied natural gas to the Asian market. Asian countries, including India, Japan, China, and South Korea, consume 70% of the global market for liquefied natural gas. Israel and Egypt, therefore, need a safe route to the east. Iranian control of territory along this waterway would seriously complicate their plans. Similarly, Spyer notes, a route through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean is vital for the US fleet. Finally, the domination of the Houthis in Yemen will be an element of Iran's project to strategically encircle Saudi Arabia.
But why do the Iranians find it possible to expend energy on all this when their regime is under constant attack at home? There are at least two reasons.
First, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a religious army of about 120,000, and a network of independent special services and the largest corporation, controlling, according to various estimates, a quarter or even half of the economy, has great power. The IRGC, and in particular its elite Quds Force, which is in charge of clandestine operations abroad, oversees support for the Houthis and other pro-Iranian groups in the region. This enables the IRGC to increase its influence, both internally and externally, and to enrich itself by stealing billions of dollars in financial aid for these groups. This process can also be seen as a way to create golden parachutes for the Iranian top brass.
Secondly, the Iranians can use foreign loyalist militias to suppress protests within their own country, and according to some reports, they do so from time to time.
The Iranian regime is in a difficult position due to economic mismanagement, international sanctions, and loss of legitimacy at home. But it is adept at using multi-layered strategies to stay in power.
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