Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

Iranian regime's priority is ensuring its survival and quashing regional protests

Tehran is banking on Lebanese protesters running out of steam while at home and in Iraq, the situation is more complex

Hezbollah's activities could be banned in Germany. Reuters
Hezbollah's activities could be banned in Germany. Reuters

Iranian leaders and their allies are counting on stamina to weather the storm and are hoping demonstrators’ energy and fervour will wane as the year draws to a close. In Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, the Iranian regime’s priority is securing its survival and preventing the three uprisings from bearing fruit by any means necessary – whatever the cost.

Russia remains committed to its Iranian ally and is confident of its promise to stop the spread of instability. What is new is the shift in the European position with regards to Iran. The Europeans have run out of patience with Iran’s violations, not just in terms of the 2015 nuclear deal but also the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps's direct participation in staging riots, and stoking sectarianism and violence against peaceful protests in Lebanon, from its outposts in Syria and the Bekaa Valley.

This has made countries like Germany draw closer to the US position, despite previous opposition, causing concern and anger among the ranks of the Iranian leadership. A few days ago, German daily Der Spiegel reported that the nation’s interior ministry had requested an inquiry into Hezbollah’s activities, with an agreement reached by the government in Berlin to impose a total ban on the organisation in Germany next week. The report said Germany would treat members of Hezbollah members as it treats ISIS.

Iran has decided to take a rigid, escalatory and uncompromising approach

For 18 months, US ambassador to Berlin Richard Grenell sought to persuade European states to adopt the American perspective on Iranian and Hezbollah activities; the new policy in Germany bears his hallmarks. Iran will undoubtedly be furious. The leadership in Tehran spared no effort in convincing the Europeans to push for exemptions from US sanctions but has since been steadily let down as European banks and businesses refused to deal with the regime, fearing they too would be sanctioned. The Iranians have used a combination of blackmail and threats, and a pattern of escalation and de-escalation, aware that a US-European alliance would further increase their isolation. Meanwhile, as protests rage on home turf, sources say the regime in Tehran is determined to reject any dialogue with demonstrators. Iran’s leaders are convinced the protests in Lebanon will die down in a matter of weeks. In short, Iran has decided to take a rigid, escalatory and uncompromising approach.

The Europeans are concerned about a possible Iranian assault of the level and magnitude of the attack on Saudi Aramco facilities. They are also concerned about Iran clamping down on demonstrations at home and dragging the Lebanese uprising into violence by engineering chaos that would consolidate Hezbollah’s control of the country. Such actions would inevitably impact relations.

Berlin is resentful of Iranian threats and blackmails against Germany, France and Britain, all signatories of the nuclear deal. The German government believes the time has come to publicly call out Iranian violations of the deal instead of continuing to try to salvage it. After Us President Donald Trump walked out last year, the deal can no longer be revived, given the inability of European powers to compel businesses to trade under the Instex special purpose vehicle designed to bypass sanctions. Iran’s nuclear enrichment actions and ballistic missile programme have driven another nail into the deal’s coffin. The IRGC’s involvement in the suppression of protests in the region could mobilise public opinion in Europe against the Iranian regime’s authoritarianism and expansionism.

Mr Trump is said to be annoyed by attempts by French President Emmanuel Macron to ingratiate himself as mediator with Tehran while suggesting lifting sanctions. The source said: A US source said the administration was willing to talk but negotiations would not be conditional on lifting or easing sanctions.

The Trump administration will continue using sanctions as a tool to tame, isolate, contain and punish the regime in Iran. If European pressures on the regime increase, its isolation and financial hardship will only deepen. But the question is: what will its leaders then do?

In Lebanon, the Iranian leadership thinks the crisis will not last longer than another month due to fatigue and the impasse that protests have reached

In Iraq, the situation looks extremely complex and difficult for Iran, with no light at the end of the tunnel as protests continue and the death toll rises. Iranians are hurting themselves and their neighbour by refusing to allow Iraq to become a normal country. The regime’s logic does not allow for a withdrawal from Iraq or the disbanding of the Popular Mobilisation Forces. The bloodshed will continue and the risk of a US-Iranian military confrontation will increase, either because of deliberate provocation by the Iranians to draw Mr Trump into conflict or as a result of an incident involving US forces in Iraq.

In Lebanon, the Iranian leadership thinks the crisis will not last longer than another month due to fatigue and the impasse that protests have reached. The Iranian leadership is betting protesters’ endurance will decrease as the ruling class plays a waiting game.

So far Washington has succeeded in ensuring European support for the demands of the uprising, led by the need to form a government of technocrats rather than politicians affiliated to traditional parties under the dominance of Hezbollah and the IRGC.

The situation is now very delicate. If Iran succeeds in suppressing the Lebanese uprising, the ruling class will return with a vengeance and retaliate against those who dared to question them and call for them to be held accountable.

Western powers are waking up to the fact the key to protecting Lebanon from chaos and total collapse is to pressure and punish Iran and its proxies. But accountability will take time. It is therefore necessary to be patient and think pragmatically and strategically if the uprising is to achieve its lofty goals.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute

Updated: November 30, 2019 07:48 PM

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