Last week, an Iranian lawmaker publicly acknowledged the clerical regime’s habit of extravagant spending on projects that support the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It was a bold move in light of the backlash that Tehran has already faced from Iranians of every stripe, as they struggle with a devastated economy and a lack of government assistance during the coronavirus pandemic.
Heshmatullah Falahatpisheh, a current member and former chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, estimated the total expenditures at 30 billion dollars. But his remarks referred only to the time preceding his own visit to Damascus, in December 2018. Iran’s activities in Syria haven’t noticeably diminished since then, and its direct financing of the Assad regime only represents a portion of those activities.
Iran has surely allowed its losses to grow well beyond the 30 billion dollar mark by selling oil at artificially deflated prices, by sometimes giving it away altogether, by selling arms on credit, and by providing support not just for the Syrian government but also for a range of militant proxies that fight alongside Assad while taking their orders from Tehran. Those proxies have often been compared to Hezbollah, which has drained Iranian wealth into Lebanon for virtually the entire life of the Islamic Republic.
In light of the long history of Tehran’s funding of foreign proxies, Iranian citizens have had a long time to become fed up with the regime’s misplaced priorities. Popular sentiment on this topic found a voice in January 2018, when Iran found itself in the midst of a nationwide uprising. The movement started in the country’s second-largest city in the last days of 2017, as a protest against recent economic policies. But it quickly morphed into a broadly focused political protest characterized by explicit calls for regime change.
Chants of “death to the dictator” helped to demonstrate that the Iranian people tend to regard the very structure of the Iranian regime as the root cause of problems with the economy. Other popular slogans kept focus on the economic consequences of that regime’s continued hold on power. By calling upon authorities to “forget Syria, think of us,” the protesters highlighted the vast differences between the public’s priorities and the regime’s obsession with exporting the Islamic revolution.
All of these messages remained alive in smaller-scale protests throughout 2018, in which the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi dubbed a “year full of uprisings.” This inexorably led to another nationwide uprising in November 2019, this time spurred by the government’s plan to raise the domestic prices of gasoline in the face of economic indicators showing that the majority of the population was living in poverty.
Of course, those problems are still mounting. The ongoing coronavirus outbreak is just the latest example of how Tehran’s incompetent and selfish leadership tends to make natural disasters worse. Officially, the Islamic Republic has lost about 7,000 citizens to Covid-19. But according to sources like the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the actual death toll is six times higher. The NCRI has also reported on the fact that regime authorities have barely provided the people with any financial support during this crisis, despite having hundreds of billions of dollars in available assets.
Last year, nearly all of Iran’s 31 provinces were affected by flash flooding, and the government’s response proved to be just as self-serving. Residents of flood-damaged towns took relief efforts into their own hands while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps focused on protecting businesses and infrastructure in which it has a large financial stake. Where these efforts came into conflict, the people and the IRGC clashes, leading to arrests, injuries, and additional deaths. It also no doubt helped to set the stage for the anti-government uprising that would emerge several months later.
This goes to show that on those rare occasions when Iranian lawmakers criticize the regime’s spending, they are amplifying the threat of revolt that could overturn the entire system on which their careers depend. Regime authorities have begun to acknowledge this risk in public statements. Days before Falahatpisheh made his remarks about the Syrian project, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech to student members of the regime’s civilian militia and urged them to take control of university protests so they would not be recognized as calls for regime change.
Khamenei also identified by name the major driving force behind anti-government protests: the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK). Until the 2018 uprising, the mere mention of this resistance movement was considered taboo among regime officials. But with the emergence of nationwide protests, those officials found themselves struggling to find any other explanation for the organization or the messaging.
With each new sign of unrest, the regime presumably finds it more difficult to downplay the MEK’s popularity or to deny the potential for its leadership to step in following the collapse of the existing regime. That prospect is far more realistic than most Western policymakers give it credit for. And Iran will only move closer to that outcome as more and more people become aware of the true extent of the regime’s greed and obsession with exporting the revolution at the expense of its own people.
But the international community must remember that the progress toward regime change will be greatly impeded if ever Tehran receives a financial lifeline which allows it to keep the same priorities but throw a few extra dollars at the public. Right now, the mullahs seeking that lifeline in the form of a five billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund. They say that it will help them to manage the crisis created by the coronavirus, but ordinary Iranians understand that it will do nothing to address the crisis created by the mullahs themselves.
In recent years, the MEK has loudly objected to the notion of sanctions relief, on the understanding that it would benefit the regime, not the people. Recent uprisings have shown that the MEK speaks for large swaths of the Iranian public. And they have also shown that what that public wants more than an improved economy is an end to the regime that destroyed it in the first place.