What hurts Iranians may not harm the regime

Ali Gharib writes: Now is the autumn of Iranian discontent. And who can blame them? Over the past week, the value of Iran’s Rial fell 40 percent against the dollar.

The economic woes drove Iranians into the streets of Tehran yesterday, where they reportedly clashed with riot police during a few modestly-sized and — best as I can tell — relatively isolated protests. The largest, and perhaps most significant, were in Iran’s famed bazaar, which shut down as protesters moved through, and outside the Bank of Iran. At the former locale, the shopkeepers’ closures ostensibly protected their stalls from demonstrators, but that doesn’t seem to be how the story actually played out.

The latest protests seem unlikely to be the spark that brings down the Islamic Republic. Instead, they focused on the government’s mismanagement of the economy — a realm, unlike foreign affairs and the nuclear program, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually has power to enact policies. But the showing could be a harbinger of what’s to come as Iranians go to the polls next year.

Many analysts and media accounts speculated that the bazaaris had a hand in organizing the protests, a notion confirmed by a source in Tehran who normally keeps abreast of opposition goings-on by social media. The source found out about the protests late, remarking: “This time it’s the bazaar, no need for Facebook or e-mail.” [Continue reading…]

Tony Karon writes: For Iran’s citizens, who have seen the prices of many basic foodstuffs more than double since last year, and who are struggling to access even life-saving medicines, the effect of the sanctions is more than mere “collateral damage.” The sanctions are, as U.S. officials like to point out, designed to put Iran’s economy in a “chokehold”, in the hope that one of the effects will be that the resultant economic pain rouses them to defy and challenge the regime, forcing it to rethink its nuclear program in order to win Iran’s release from the stranglehold of sanctions that are fomenting rebellion. While official statements might insist that innocent Iranians are not the target of that “chokehold,” an unnamed senior U.S. intelligence officer showed no such squeamishness when explaining the sanctions strategy to the Washington Post earlier this year. “In addition to the direct pressure sanctions exert on the regime’s ability to finance its priorities,” the official said, “another option here is that they will create hate and discontent at the street level so that the Iranian leaders realize that they need to change their ways.”

Advocates of that line of thinking may have seen Wednesday’s protests as vindication — but it may not be that simple. While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad eagerly concurs that it is Western sanctions that are behind the economic chaos in Iran, his political opponents — loyalists of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei — actually blame Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the economy for the precipitous currency collapse. That sentiment appears to have been shared by many on the streets in the series of small demonstrations around Tehran on Wednesday: Most of the protesters’ rage appears to have been directed at Ahmadinejad, who was accused of failing to take measures necessary to protect Iranian living standards. After all, the Iranian economy isn’t exactly on the verge of collapse, and the regime is believed to have a foreign currency reserve of some $100 billion. Indeed, the fact that it is still sending billions in aid to prop up the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad — another sore point with protesters on Wednesday — underscores the fact that is not exactly bankrupt, yet.

So, even if sanctions are fueling the economic pain that is prompting Iranians to return to streets in protest, the expectation that such demonstrations will prompt Iran’s leaders to surrender a nuclear program that has been among their long-term priorities requires a considerable leap of faith. ”It would be optimistic at best to hope that the deteriorating economic circumstances will spur Iran’s leaders to shift their nuclear stance,” said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last month. “They do not seem to know or care much about the country’s economic situation — their own income has been hurt only a little, if at all, and they appear unconcerned about the prospect of popular unrest given their past success at repressing opposition. For now, they are likely to stay the course on both domestic economic policy and the nuclear issue.” [Continue reading…]

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