Why the West should not interfere in the popular protests in Iran

People face riot police as they take part in a demonstration in support of Iranian protesters in Paris, on September 25, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

Mass protests across Iran, now entering a third week, show no sign of abating even though the government is using force in an attempt to crush protesters. اضافة اعلان

With few independent journalists inside the country and with no internet access, it is difficult to know what is happening exactly. But what is certain is that what started as a small demonstration following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in hospital on September 16 three days after having been arrested by the so-called morality police for violating a law requiring women to wear head scarves fully hiding their hair, the Islamic Republic is now facing one of the most serious revolts against the regime.

This time, the protests have spread to more than 40 towns and cities, and young Iranians are openly calling for the toppling of the regime. More than a decade ago, nationwide demonstrations broke out to protest the result of the 2009 presidential elections; this time, Iranians are not complaining about the high cost of living, unemployment and poor government services, they are simply fed up with the ayatollahs’ rule.

As is to be expected, the Iranian leadership has found it easier to blame Western media for instigating the protests, in the process demonstrating that it has lost touch with its own people. The most likely response is to resort to force, rather than appear weak and make concessions.

Reports talk about tens of fatalities and thousands of arrests. It can be expected to get messier in the coming few days.

Iran’s problems are not the product of foreign conspiracies, as the regime claims. To begin with, over 60 percent of Iran’s 80 million people are under 30, and that poses a major challenge to any government that is unable to create decent jobs and provide high-quality services.

According to government figures, the unemployment rate among Iranian youths aged 15 to 24 is around 24 percent, with an annual increase of no less than 2 percent. More than 90 percent of Iranian youths are literate. And while the country has a respectable GDP growth, forecast by the World Bank at 3.7 percent for 2022, currency devaluation and inflation have pushed the real poverty line to at least 50 percent. The inflation rate hovers around 30 percent.

The regime will respond by blaming US sanctions for its economic woes. And that is partly true. But the Iranian economy is growing despite the sanctions because Iran is able to sell most of its oil, mainly to China. In fact, figures show that Iranian crude exports rose in July by 110,000 barrels per day; in June it had exported 810,000bpd.
Yet, despite the West’s interest in following events in Iran, it would be wrong to interfere. The US does not have a credible record with Tehran. Its attempt to influence the course of the ongoing protests would only embolden the regime.
But where does the money go? According to a recent report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the Islamic Republic raised its military spending to $24.6 billion — an annual increase of 11 percent — and for the first time in two decades is among the top 15 countries in terms of the military budget.

Compare this to how much the government spends on education, for example. Iran’s public spending on education as a share of GDP stood at a 3.6 percent in 2020, down from 3.7 percent the previous year, according to the World Bank. For health the percentage was 6.7 percent in 2019, down from 8.46 in 2018.

It is difficult to estimate how much money Iran spends to support its proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. But whatever the figure is, it must be in the billions of dollars — money that is badly needed back home.

It is no secret that a majority of Iranians find their government’s foreign military adventurism extremely unpopular. In 2018, student protests broke out in the second most populous city in Iran, Mashhad, over socio-economic hardships. The slogan “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I Give My Life for Iran” was repeated by the protesters. Exporting the revolution has been one of the primary factors that soured ties between revolutionary Iran and its neighbors.

Yet, despite the West’s interest in following events in Iran, it would be wrong to interfere. The US does not have a credible record with Tehran. Its attempt to influence the course of the ongoing protests would only embolden the regime.

What is going on in Iran is a matter that concerns the Iranian people and their right to choose their leaders and system of government. This applies to other nations as well.

It is true that millions of Iranians are suffering and are now calling for an end to more than four decades of a reactionary and often ruthless theocratic rule. But it is their struggle and any foreign interference would only play into the hands of the ayatollahs and the hundreds of thousands of armed men who are dependent on them.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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