US President Donald Trump’s all-caps tweet on 23 July provoked a strong response in Iran, with officials quick to rouse nationalist sentiments. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif alluded to Iran being a historic power that has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, while a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, Mohsen Rezaie, spoke of “Iran’s sword hanging over the heads of more than fifty thousand [US] troops”. But despite the veneer of outrage, the noise from the White House was music to the ears of the Islamic Republic’s ideologues. It gave them the opportunity to play one of their favourite tunes: to use the idea of the enemy abroad to rally the nation behind its self-damaging policies and divert attention from Iran’s home-grown problems.
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive narrative was a prime example of the regime’s use of this strategy, but after nearly 40 years of striking the same note, it appears to have lost an audience on the streets of Iran. Iranian demonstrators no longer parrot former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s infamous “Death to America” slogan but now chant “Our enemy is right here, they [the Iranian regime] lie telling us it’s America.” The Iranian public might not have any love for Trump, but they have become increasingly astute in drawing connections between their leaders’ self-damaging policies and Iran’s poor state of affairs. And this is where the real pressure on the regime will come.
The source of this public anger is the priority that Iran’s leaders—most notably, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—have given to pursuing the regime’s ideological stance over the nation’s material interest. There are pragmatic figures in the establishment who have sought to place ideology in the context of Iran’s national interest, but as was seen with former President Mohammad Khatami and with current President Hassan Rouhani, their views are often overshadowed. Ultimately, ideology pervades every aspect of the Iranian regime.
This argument may trigger a backlash from Iran observers in Europe and the United States. But for years, many have denied the role ideology plays in shaping the Islamic Republic’s behaviour. In recent weeks, for example, Iran observers have highlighted the high number of non-clerics in the Iranian parliament and cabinet as evidence that Tehran is no longer led by the mullahs or their Islamic Revolutionary ideology.
Such analysis is based on a faulty understanding of the realities of the power structure in the Islamic Republic. While bureaucrats may dominate the presidency and parliament, these republican institutions have become increasingly impotent in their ability to shape Iran’s affairs, particularly since the 2009 Green Movement protests. Rather, the ideologically driven deep state, led by Khamenei and implemented by the IRGC, calls the shots when it comes to major decisions in Iran.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and allocation of resources. Under the premise of supporting the oppressed—a defining pillar of Iran’s foreign policy, according to the constitution—Khamenei has been sending Iranian resources, including billions of dollars, abroad to support the country’s regional proxies and allies. Conservative estimates indicate that Iran has been spending at least $6 billion a year to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with spending reaching $15 billion in some years. More recent reports have suggested that the Iranian regime subsidised the Syrian regime with over $280 million of oil between August 2017 and June 2018.
Money spent overseas in places such as Syria could have been invested domestically in Iran to address the country’s ailing economy or some of its crucial infrastructure deficiencies, such as the widespread water shortages that have been threatening the country for decades. While the official inflation figure for the year to 21 June stood at 9.4 per cent, Professor Steve Hanke from Johns Hopkins University has estimated that the inflation rate is in fact 16 times higher, at 151 per cent. Iran’s currency, the rial, has also reached a historic low, falling by approximately 50 per cent against the US dollar since the start of 2018.
The Iranian public might not have any love for Trump, but they have become increasingly astute in drawing connections between their leaders’ self-damaging policies and Iran’s poor state of affairs.
The precedence of ideology over material interest also applies in the nuclear context. Trump may have pulled the plug on the Iran nuclear deal—an agreement that was working until the US withdrawal in May 2018—but it should be remembered that just two weeks after the deal was signed in July 2015, Khamenei killed the spirit of diplomacy by asserting that Tehran would not change its ideological antipathy towards the “arrogant government of America” and would continue to support its proxies across the region. If the Iranian regime had focused on cementing lucrative contracts during the administration of former US President Barack Obama rather than increasing its involvement in Syria or imprisoning dual nationals for seeking to improve relations with the West, there may have been enough financial pressure to make Trump think twice about pulling out of the deal.
Academics in Iran have also criticised the precedence the regime has given to ideology over material interest. Sadegh Zibakalam, an outspoken professor of Tehran University, has argued for years that ideology has limited the boundaries of pragmatism in Iran, hurting the population. Similarly, Mohsen Kadivar, an exiled Iranian Shia cleric and leading reformist intellectual, recently asserted that the Islamic Republic should prioritise its own people over the Shias in Lebanon, Zaydis in Yemen and people in Gaza.
But the regime has switched off when it comes to listening to pragmatic advice. Just last week, Khamenei said there was nothing wrong with pursuing “ideological diplomacy”. Rather than addressing Iran’s domestic problems, the regime appears more interested in constructing ten military bases in Syria, with two key sites alongside the Israeli border in an attempt to open a new potential front with its ideological enemy, Israel, which it refers to as a “cancerous tumour” that “must be eradicated”.
The priority the Islamic Republic has given to allocating resources abroad under the premise of ideology has increasingly marginalised the Iranian population. With this in mind, there should be no surprise that slogans such as “Leave Syria alone, think about us” or “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, my life is only for Iran” have become ubiquitous on the streets of Iran.
Fire and fury on Twitter may have created a timely external crisis for Iran’s leaders, but the Iranian people are increasingly aware that many of the problems they face stem not from overseas but from poor governance at home. With pressure rising, the regime should not seek to resurrect the exhausted “enemy abroad” narrative but instead focus on the change at home the Iranian people are increasingly demanding.