Protests in Iran shape relations with the west

Two Manchester Metropolitan University politics students assess Tehran's response to upheaval

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On 2 November the United Nations Security Council, co-hosted by the United States and Albania, held a meeting to discuss Iran’s ongoing human rights violations. Members of the council each gave their recommendations on how the Iranian government should be investigated against international law. Iran is in the global spotlight and its international ties are under scrutiny.

Tensions have been rising between Tehran and its Middle East neighbours since the women-led protests began in September.

Iran has a majority Shia Muslim population and claims it wants to wield its influence in the region to protect other Shias, when most regimes in the Middle East are governed by Sunni Muslims. This underpins its relations with Saudi Arabia in particular.

Following coverage of Iran’s protests on Saudi Arabia’s state television stations, Iran’s Major General, Hossein Salami told Riyadh: “This is our last warning, because you are interfering in our internal affairs through these media, you are involved in this matter and know that you are vulnerable.” 

This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has been on the receiving end of Iran’s outbursts

These threats echoed around the international stage, with the US responding that it will not hesitate to respond if necessary, not just to protect Saudi Arabia but all its Middle Eastern allies. 

This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has been on the receiving end of Iran’s outbursts. In a regional cold war going back a decade, partly fought by proxies, Saudi Arabia has faced drone strikes and missile attacks. Some observers fear that hardliners in Iran will use Saudi Arabia’s coverage of its protests as a pretext for further attacks.

But Iran’s foreign policy is not just about the Middle East – it is also heavily tied to its nuclear ambitions.

In 2015 the group of world powers known as P5+1 – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany – signed a deal with Iran to prevent the country developing nuclear weapons in return for an easing of sanctions. When President Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, Tehran resumed its nuclear activities, even though the remaining western powers stayed committed to it.

US president Joe Biden has indicated he wants to revive the deal but Tehran’s crackdown on the protests is an obstacle. In September Biden said: “We stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.”

Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, responded defiantly in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that the west had “double standards” on human rights, referring to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the recently found unmarked graves of indigenous people in Canada.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s closer ties with Putin have not gone down unanimously well in Tehran

Although there is no evidence of Iran joining Russia in its war on Ukraine, it has supplied Vladimir Putin with drones for his forces to use. Iran insists it is remaining neutral, rather than forming an alliance with Russia, but the two countries have grown closer. As the west’s condemnation of Iran’s human rights record grows, one fear is that the Iran-Russia relationship will become closer still.

But Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s closer ties with Putin have not gone down unanimously well in Tehran. His confidants, including foreign policy adviser Ali-Akbar, and top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, believe a strong relationship with Russia will benefit Iran and that it should distance itself further from the west. Others remember a history of betrayal between Iran and Russia and warn against closer ties. These include former foreign minister Javad Zarif, former president Hassan Rouhani, and the secretary of the Supreme National Security Coucil, Ali Shamkhani. 

This only adds to internal conflicts in Iran. Hardliners have been in the ascendant over reformers of late but the regime’s crackdown on protesters has drawn criticism. Some of Iran’s leading economists, including Massoud Nili, Mohammad Tabibian, Mousa Ghaninejad, Mohammad Mehdi Behkish and Hassan Dargahi, have urged the Iranian government to respect the protesters’ demands. In an open statement they said that in the areas of welfare, political participation and financial and political transparency “the government has moved in the wrong direction and against the demands of the people”.

Hannah Willis

Their alliance is pure strategy

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian morality police has instigated the discontent of the people and the need for change. But the actual background to this protest is not only feminism. 

This movement is against the tyranny of the theocratic system of the Islamic republic and its current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran is under a dictatorship and Iranians have suffered enough. They are looking for a democratic government with a leader elected by the people. “Death to the dictator” is what they are ferociously shouting for now in the streets. Separation of religion and state is needed. 

The corruption of high-status government officials has led to economic instability and distrust among the people. The protests have become globalised and contributed to arm-wrestling between powers. 

The protest has destabilised the Iranian regime, which has responded with repression against the protesters and has blocked internet access to silence voices and minimise global impact. But this blockade has not hidden international criticism. 

Russia and Iran are two isolated countries that share common opponents

Iran is a strategic global actor. It has immense quantities of oil and gas. It controls the Strait of Hormuz, which lead to the Persian Gulf, through which 25 per cent of the world’s oil passes. And the country has been developing a nuclear weapons programme. 

Russia and Iran are two isolated countries that share common opponents. Although historically they have had their ups and downs, today they see co-operation as mutually beneficial. Their alliance is pure strategy. 

Russia no longer receives money from the sale of gas bought by Europe, which accounted for 60 per cent of its revenues in the energy market. The costs of the war with Ukraine are suffocating Russia economically. 

Iran, supporting the horrendous conflict, has supplied Russia with more than 2,000 drones, demonstrating some of its weapons’ potential. Iran may seek research and industrial support from Russia as it presses ahead with with its nuclear programme. They may share expertise in suppressing protests. 

Iran and China are also implementing the 25-year strategic a co-operation agreement they signed last year, covering economic, military and security issues. With Russia and China drawing closer – albeit it uneasily on Beijing’s part – the alliance creates new concerns for the US and the West.

The regime will not give up easily and will continue to repress and intensify its reprisals against the population. But as analyst Vali Nasr said, instead of changing the regime, there may be changes in the regime. 

Paula Montero

Photo by Taymaz Valley/Creative Commons

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