Iran Protests: US Expectations vs. the Reality

On November 15, the Iranian administration announced a decision to decrease the gasoline subsidies, resulting in a threefold increase in gasoline prices in the country. The move caused a massive public anger and protests across the country. According to an intelligence assessment published by semi-official Iranian news agencies, more than 100 cities witnessed protests during the first days after the announcement of the new gasoline decision. The same report indicates that the level of violence and destruction during the protests was considerably higher than in the similar events in January 2018. However, by resorting to such measures as a massive internet shutdown, the Iranian government managed to contain the situation, preventing the protests from escalating into a full-scale security and political crisis. 

From a foreign policy point of view, the recent events were a clear indicator of the depth of the confrontation between the United States and the Islamic Republic. The American officials were quick in reacting to what was happening in Iran, expressing direct support for the protesters. In fact, the US administration’s officials appeared convinced that their policy of imposing “maximum pressure” on Iran has been successful, leading the Iranian people toward turning against the government. As such, Washington is not hiding its intention to continue its pressure policy against Iran. Meanwhile, the same officials, especially US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been trying to draw a link between the recent protests in Iran and the ongoing protests in Iraq and Lebanon, claiming that Iran’s regional involvement is the main cause of public anger in all those countries. 

For its part, the Iranian government sees the current wave of unrest across the region as an American-led plot to create a gap between Iran and its regional allies, in order to contain the Islamic Republic’s regional influence. At the same time, Washington’s public support for the recent protests just made the Iranian officials more convinced that the main aim the US pursues through its maximum pressure policy is to initiate a regime change in Iran, not to bring the Islamic Republic to the negotiations table, as the White House has been claiming since its withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018. As such, Tehran is expected to adopt an even more uncompromising stance against Washington within the framework of what’s named as the policy of “maximum resistance.” 

Ironically, not only the recent protests are not expected to result in a regime change in Iran, but they would help the more conservative camp in the Iranian political system to gain more power and influence. In fact, the US withdrawal from the JCPOA led to the gradual death of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s main foreign policy achievement, leaving him exposed to the increasing domestic criticisms. Meanwhile, the undeniable negative effects of the US sanctions on Iran’s economy have caused most of Rouhani’s economic plans to hit a deadlock, giving way to even harsher criticisms, as well as widespread public disappointment over his administration’s economic performance. As such, the only things the conservatives need to do is to wait till the next elections to completely sideline the moderate and reformist camp in the Iranian political sphere. Indeed, this would be sharply in contrast with what the US has expected and tried to achieve.

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