Mass protests have continued for over a week now in Iran. Protesters, which include masses of middle and lower classes, are raising their voices against corruption, high prices and unfulfilled campaign promises. They are also chanting against foreign wars, demanding instead that the Iranian government pay more attention to domestic needs. This renewed demand for accountability came as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani submitted the 2018 budget, the first time an Iranian president has done so publicly.
The chief of Israel’s Defense Forces, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot, recently reported that Iran spends close to 1 billion dollars a year aiding Hezbollah, 100 million dollars towards Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and, since 2012 has spent billions of dollars propping up the Assad regime. Iran has posted 2,000 military advisers in Syria, alongside 10,000 foreign Shi‘ite militiamen and 8,000 Hezbollah fighters. This is in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars Iran currently spends on its allies in Iraq and Yemen.
In December, Politico suggested that Hezbollah makes one billion dollars annually from drugs sold to the United States through drug trafficking in Latin America. But still, Iran’s unending foreign wars require large amounts of money that Iranian criminal activities abroad cannot fully cover. Therefore, most of the money comes from the Iranian state treasury. Billions of dollars are allocated yearly from the state budget to the Revolutionary Guards. The Guards not only protect the regime, but also actively participate in foreign wars, such as those in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. The Quds force, which is part of the Revolutionary Guards, oversees foreign operations and have worked closely with Hezbollah and Hamas. In addition, the Guards have stakes in the Iranian economy and its leaders have become very wealthy. It has become a state within a state, and the largest beneficiaries of the Iranian state at the expense of its own citizens.
This situation is reminiscent of that of the French absolutist monarchy at the end of the 18th century before the French revolution. The Harvard University social scientist Theda Skocpol, in her classic work State and Social Revolutions, pointed out that France’s war of Austrian succession, the Seven Years War and its intervention in the war of American independence created a tremendous burden on the French monarchy. The French crown was unable to raise sufficient revenue to finance its foreign adventures and instead of giving them up, resorted to taking more loans, eventually exhausting its capacity to do so. The financial crisis of the state caused by foreign wars was one of the key causes that brought about a revolution, as discontent spread not only to the poor masses, but also to part of the more privileged classes.
The sanctions relief that resulted from the Iran nuclear deal enabled Iran’s economy to pick up in 2016 as the Gross Domestic Product grew 12.5 percent. This also granted Iran the possibility of extending its foreign wars, exactly as loans enabled France to do the same almost 230 years earlier. And like 18th century France, Iran refuses to give up its foreign adventures.
So far, the European countries have remained silent on the Iranian crisis. The Ambassadors of France and Sweden, like the Russians, mocked Ambassador Nikki Haley when she convened the United Nations Security Council to discuss Iran’s crackdown on anti-government protesters. Our allies in Europe are concerned about the fate of the nuclear deal, which has also brought lucrative opportunities for European companies.
However, let us assume for a moment that the Europeans are correct to say that the nuclear deal guarantees that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon. The deal still does not include a solution to Iran’s terrorist and subversive activities. As a result of the deal, Iran is enjoying a free hand to intervene militarily (directly and indirectly) in the region, while the international community has been effectively neutralized.
So, what needs to be done?
First, we must make sure that Iran succumbs to a situation of attrition in the wars it is conducting, as the French monarchy did. Thus, Iran must pay a high economic and political price for its aggressive expansionism. This can be ensured by intensifying sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, officers and civilian military contractors, and anyone else involved in terrorism and foreign adventures. Likewise, Iran’s proxies in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and others must be exhausted by increasing military aid to their adversaries, forcing Iran into further economic and military stress. At the same time, we need to provide political and public support to domestic protests in order to help those sectors of Iranian civil society that are challenging the regime and encourage them to continue. Like in Bourbon France, the collapse of the state must come from within. The Iranian state must be worn out internally and externally, simultaneously.
President Donald Trump would be wasting time by going to the UN Security Council or any international forum given the current circumstances. Our allies in Europe are likely to support regime change in Iran after the regime collapses. For this goal to be accomplished the President must put together a team of passionate, committed and rational people who embrace this policy.
Published by Center for Security Policy on Monday January 8th, 2018