Street protests have erupted in some middle eastern countries in January of this year, particularly in many Iranian cities, and in Sudan, Algeria, and Tunisia as well, where the protests have been the longest and most tenacious thus far. Though the protests were diverse, a common cause was attributed to the high prices for basic daily-needed commodities (beginning with bread), unemployment (particularly among the youth), and disappointing economies stagnating with hyperinflation. However, Iran’s protests, even though they may not be unique, are special due to the country’s rising political and military stardom in the region. In the last decade, particularly since the American withdrawal from Iraq in December 2010, the Arab uprisings in 2011–12, the Syrian civil war since March 2011, and the failure of the Afghani government to stop the expansion of the Taliban, have all contributed, among others, to the rise of Iran’s might in the middle east. From Afghanistan, to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, Iran was able to construct a geo-military and political “alliance” of sorts, one that has made it a mini-colonial power in the region. It remains to be seen whether such alliance would produce any economic benefits to the concerned populations, particularly to “middle classes” that are more tuned to consumerism than political adventurism. In common jargon, the Iranian geo-military loose “alliance” is described as a Shiʿi consolidation against the political hegemony of Sunni Islam, one that is presumably led by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the former derives its wealth predominantly from oil rent, while the second is over-populated and labor abundant. Upon a closer examination, however, what is routinely dubbed as a “Shiʿi alliance” turns out a vague term for a hodgepodge of “Shiʿisms” that by and large are historically unrelated and belong to different social and economic configurations. Iran itself belongs to a majority brand of Shiʿism, that of the Twelver Imamis, and to a social and economic formation that heavily depends on oil rent and its distribution among classes and ethnicities. Like any developing country, Iran is plagued by class inequalities created by rapid and uneven development, particularly touching on the commercialization of land and what is left of traditional agriculture, hence the importance of oil rent in conjunction with political adventurism. Its ethnic composition, by far the most complex in the region, combines under one state the Farsi Twelver Imami majority with Arabs, Kurds, Azeris, Armenians, Turkmen, and Baloch. In Iraq by contrast, the Shiʿi majority, which comes at around 65 percent, and which has been historically dominated by the Arab Sunni minority (20 percent), has been in power only recently thanks to the American occupation in 2003–2010. The Syrian ʿAlawi minority, which has been in power since 1970, could also be looked upon as another brand of Shiʿism, but its social and economic base is very different from the other Shiʿisms in the region and along the Eastern Mediterranean. So is Lebanese Shiʿism, which since the end of the civil war (1975–1990) has been associated with the radical paramilitary Hezbollah organization, which acts as a state within a state. In short, the Iranian political genius consists at bringing different social and economic formations under one informal geo-strategic alliance. But what for exactly? Perhaps one question that begs itself in this regard, in particular in light of the January street protests, is whether the costs of such an Iranian-led informal alliance would pay the bills.
The last big anti-government protests in Iran came in the wake of the disputed reelection of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in summer 2009. According to opposition records, more than 73 people were killed back then and over 4,000 were arrested. There are a few major differences this time. The Green Movement in 2009 was led by reform-minded intelligentsia and educated middle class and was concentrated in the streets of Iran’s capital city. This one has been led by mostly working-class young men; there are far fewer people rallying, yet the protests are more widespread across the country. In 2009, the protests were about empowering the reformists. This time, they look and feel anti-establishment, hence against the whole Islamic Republic. Somehow the cost of the informal Shiʿi alliance, constructed in the last decades with paramilitary civil war strategies that involved the best trained Iranian special and intelligence military personnel, are turning against the very foundations of the Islamic Republic itself. What the young men and women were questioning this time in the streets of many Iranian cities is the “usefulness” of what their country has been doing inside and outside Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Is the sacrifice worth the economic misery of a large part of the Iranian populace? Should the Republic maintain its moribund paramilitary alliance while people are suffering at home? But if the questioning seems radical, it is nevertheless extremely fragile, as there already are state attempts at the highest level to suffocate it through the services of the Revolutionary Guard and other special paramilitary forces which have become the hallmark of the Republic since the Revolution. Iran has been able to forge its alliance thanks to a country-by-country civil war strategy, betting on all kinds of structural weaknesses among the rogue countries, while avoiding civil war at home. Perhaps the time has come to look inside.
Perhaps the lesson to learn in this regard is that countries like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon cannot be “on their own” anymore, as autonomous political units, assuming they ever did, and that they can only be governed through the kind of rough “alliance” that the Iranians are proposing, and to which Russia would serve as a political umbrella. This is a new reshaping of the middle east, an unexpected outcome of the street revolts, in which everyone is learning that states cannot be sovereign anymore. The obsession with state security, which has been nurtured by the likes of Nasser and Saddam Hussein, and which meant playing on the weaknesses of other states and societies, while raising the flag of civil war, now gets another turn. Now state security implies a process of collaboration between states, where a regional power like Iran would monitor the process on the ground with experts all over but in small numbers, which makes cost redundant the notion of a full-fledged occupation as was Iraq and as is Afghanistan now under American occupation. Russians and Iranians come in small numbers, bring their experts and mercenaries, impose themselves on the ground, and end up more cost-effective than the traditional colonial powers which have shaped the future of the middle east since Sykes–Picot in 1916.