London: The protests that have rocked Iran since last September beg the question of how domestic and international policies impact states that overplay their hand and attempt to impose their self-perceived ‘superior’ ideology on the world.
Just how far are states willing to go in their pursuit of such delusional campaigns and at what cost?
Protests against the regime in Tehran are not new.
Citizens across different groups have expressed their rejection of the Iranian government's policies and tactics at various points in time since 1979 when the clerics took up the reins of power.
Such manifestations of opposition have taken many shapes and forms over the years: an armed revolt by Kurdish parties in the months that followed Ayatollah Khomeini's ascent to power; violent clashes between the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran and the fledgling regime in the early 1980s; and student protests at the end of the 1990s, to name a few.
With the collapse of the socioeconomic structure came recurrent protests, which in last September turned into angry and violent turmoil following the murder of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the so-called ‘morality’ police.
The irony for the Iranian regime is that increasing popular opposition at home comes amid a string of successes abroad as it solidifies its influence and dominance over regional states.
Some states, like Iraq, suffered a military (albeit partial) defeat at the hands of the Iranian regime. Others, like Syria, became a base for Iranian expansion in a somewhat unexpected feat for Tehran given Damascus' history of independent foreign policy.
These successes abroad were supposed to translate into prosperity at home, but instead it has only reinforced the regime’s hardline approach and military tyranny.
In reality, Iran’s successes abroad mean very little to the ordinary Iranian citizen, who has suffered from international sanctions imposed on Tehran as a punishment for its intransigent policies.
These successes abroad were supposed to translate into prosperity at home, but instead it has only reinforced the regime's hardline approach and military tyranny.
In reality, Iran's successes abroad mean very little to the ordinary Iranian citizen, who has suffered from international sanctions imposed on Tehran as a punishment for its intransigent policies.
Iran's quest for regional domination has taken on different names over the past 43 years, such as "exporting the [Islamic] Revolution" and "protecting holy shrines."
However, the foundation on which it was built is the same.
Lessons learned from the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) galvanised the rise of the Iranian regime and formulated its view of the world — a world that has rejected the revolution and its ideals and values, bar those few who saw it as a new form of struggle against imperialism and the West.
However, the Iranian Revolution lacked the means, power, or even the attractive ideology to change the world like the French Revolution did.
The war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq had tipped the balance within Iran in favour of conservatives, as they would later be labeled, represented by then-president of the republic Ali Khamenei, today the Supreme Leader and Wali al-Faqih.
The reformists, refusing to relinquish the political game completely, made a comeback with the election of cleric Mohammad Khatami as president.
However, their return was short-lived, and the attempts to revive it, led by Mir-Hossein Mousavi, were soon stifled, leading to the Green Revolution in 2009.
It became clear then that the real existential threat to the revolution and its regime came from outside of Iran's borders, as was the case during the war w Iraq.
The collapse of the Soviet Union offered an example of what the collapse of a heavily-centralised system governed by a rigid ideology could mean. Meanwhile, the population inside Iran's borders was subdued.
The US invasion of Iraq under American president George W. Bush presented Iran with a golden opportunity to extend its influence and grip into its neighbouring country. It has since become a major actor in Iraq's politics, security, and economy.
Lebanon becomes Iran's testing ground
But before that, in 1982, Lebanon was the first Arab country to witness the practical application of Iranian foreign policies.
As optimism following the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's victory in the face of the 1982 Israeli invasion (of Lebanon) began to dim, Iran began its launch of its 'Islamic Revolution' in Lebanon.
The small country became Iran's testing ground and this period of time saw the taking of Western hostages, the attack on US Marines and French paratroopers' barracks, and the waging of war on the Amal Movement, the second most powerful Shiite force in the country.
Since the mid-1960s, Lebanese Shiites had been at the centre of political change in Lebanon. Many of them joined leftist and nationalist parties, before joining the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.
In Lebanon, the Syrians and Iranians became entangled in a dangerous dance.
While the former eyed a tight grip over every corner of Lebanon, the latter knew that gaining a foothold on the Lebanese-Palestinian borders would give them not only an invaluable strategic advantage but also credibility for their propaganda mantra of liberating Jerusalem "at the hands of the faithful."
While the dance floor became a bloody battlefield and Lebanon was in ruins, the show continued.
Damascus and Tehran reached an agreement on how they would "split the work" between their local allies. Hezbollah would be in charge of fighting Israel and serving the Iranian agenda, keeping its weapons after the end of the civil war based on a twisted interpretation of the Taif Agreement.
On its part, Amal would oversee the distribution of spoils generated by the Lebanese state among the Shiite loyal to Syria.
Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was one of the victims of this shift in Syrian policy toward cementing the alliance with Iran at the expense of Syria's relations with Arab countries after Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency upon his father's death.
It was in this context that Lebanon was dragged into the July 2006 war.
However, Iran's exploitation of Lebanon as a pawn in its policies peaked with Hezbollah's dispatch of thousands of its men to fight alongside al-Assad in Syria after its own revolution.
Iran benefited greatly from its presence in Lebanon — especially in its ability to threaten Israel with nuclear weapons which it was attempting to build.
Lebanon also helped Iran circumvent economic sanctions.
But it was Hezbollah that gave Iran moral vindication after forcing Israel to withdraw from the occupied south of Lebanon in 2000 — a feat Tehran does not shy away from flexing over many countries.
Iran benefited greatly from its presence in Lebanon — especially in its ability to threaten Israel with nuclear weapons which it was attempting to build. But it was Hezbollah that gave Iran moral vindication after forcing Israel to withdraw from the occupied south of Lebanon in 2000 — a feat Tehran does not shy away from flexing over many countries.
Hezbollah just might be the star of Iran's strategic achievements, thanks to its military, security, and political power, which has made it Lebanon's de-facto ruler since the Doha Agreement in 2008.
Syria and Iran: A loyal alliance serving both regimes
Hafez al-Assad was a vocal supporter of the Iranian Revolution since its early days. This adamant support was rooted in the poor relations between Iran and the majority of Arab countries due to Tehran's strong alliance with Israel under the Shah and its constant threat to the Gulf Arab states with its large US-fuelled military power.
Al-Assad saw in this alliance new pressure on his arch-rival, the ruling Baath Party in Iraq, which had just reached the Algiers Accord with Iran a few years before to settle the conflict over Shatt al-Arab after an agreement between Baghdad and Tehran to eliminate the Kurdish armed movement.
Added to this is the implicit sectarian dimension in the policies of al-Assad senior, who was too cautious to declare it explicitly. The anti-Israel Shiite Iran became a powerful lever of support to the Alawite minority's rule over Syria.
This became a multifaceted opportunity for Hafez al-Assad. In the war against Iraq, al-Assad and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were the only Arab leaders to support Iran, providing it with weapons, logistics, and intelligence.
The Damascus-Tehran alliance has not been broken since.
However, the Syrian Revolution in 2011 exposed the fragility of al-Assad's regime.
Once covered up and disguised, the sectarian and social composition of this regime was exposed when Bashar al-Assad became president and the pivotal role that the sons of former officials played in controlling all the profitable parts of the economy came to light.
When the winds of change blew, Iran rushed to offer a helping hand, sending thousands of Shiite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to Syria to save its ally from its inevitable downfall.
It is widely believed that Iran and its allies, under the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, played a pivotal role in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power between early 2012, when most of the Syrian army's structure collapsed, and the autumn of 2015, when the Russian military intervention began in the country.
But there is no such thing as a free lunch and Iran made sure it reaped the benefits of its efforts.
Iranian products penetrated the Syrian market, and large-scale real estate investments were made in parts of Damascus and its suburbs. Reports of demographic changes in some Syrian regions are not entirely unfounded.
It is widely believed that Iran and its allies played a pivotal role in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, but Iran made sure it reaped the benefits of its efforts. Iranian products penetrated the Syrian market, and large-scale real estate investments were made in parts of Damascus and its suburbs.
Refugees are also not allowed to return to their homes, which are being used to house people loyal to Iran instead.
Furthermore, Syria became an important addition to the string of bases and land passages that provide the logistic ground for any eventual clash between Iran and Israel. Its airports, warehouses, and roads can be of great use to Tehran in support of Hezbollah or even in a direct confrontation.
Iraq and Iran: An exceptional history
Iraq's story with Iran is quite exceptional in the history of Iranian-Arab relations. Every day — and perhaps every hour — there is a reminder of the intense and thorny history between the countries.
It is a history rife with Iranian scepticism of Arab presence in Iraq that dates back to the pre-Islamic period on the one hand, and Iraq's questioning of the sincerity of Iranians' belief in Islam and accusations of racism against Arabs on the other.
Looking for an outlet from the harsh sanctions imposed by the United Nations after its foolish invasion of Kuwait, Iraq adopted a truce of some kind with Tehran. In fact, the horrors that each country caused the other between 1980 and 1988 and the ensuing exhaustion of both Iranian and Iraqi society had already necessitated such a move.
Several meetings brought together officials of the two countries during the period of sanctions against Iraq between 1990 and 2003 — especially as talk of "dual containment" of both countries gained popularity among White House officials during Bill Clinton's presidency.
The US invasion of Iraq was a precious gift to Iranian strategists and leaders and enabled Tehran to carry out its agenda which included assassinating former enemies, inciting pro-Iran forces in the country to get a firm grip over the widest possible segments of the economy.
Tehran also boosted its control of Baghdad's finances and media and prevented the Americans from building a regime loyal to Washington by engaging in guerrilla warfare against US troops to prevent their stay in Iraq for too long.
But Iran's road to dominion in Iraq was a bumpy and resistant one.
Some of this resistance was rooted in sectarian considerations, in response to the exclusion of Sunnis, accused of reaping the benefits of Saddam Hussein's era by Shiite parties loyal to Tehran.
Some Sunni responses went as far as outright terrorism, such as the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (ISIS), which destroyed what little chances Iraq had to rebuild a unified state.
This ended in disaster for Iraqi Sunnis before their compatriots belonging to other sects.
Opposition to Iranian influence and the corruption it brought along came in the form of civil revolts and movements — the most prominent being the October 2019 revolution, which security forces squashed in a bloody crackdown on Iran's orders.
And the crisis afflicting Iraq, where Iran plays a central role, is far from over.
Opposition to Iranian influence and the corruption it brought along came in the form of civil revolts and movements — the most prominent being the October 2019 revolution, which security forces squashed in a bloody crackdown on Iran's orders. And the crisis afflicting Iraq is far from over.
Legislative elections in October 2021 reaffirmed that the deep rift in the country is not restricted to the sectarian divide as cracks are emerging between Shiites themselves.
Iran, Yemen, and an intractable civil war
Yemen is the newest addition to Iran's sphere of influence.
In both Yemen and Lebanon, Iran relies on a group with a problematic relationship with the state and the country.
The Zaydi sect is significantly different from the Lebanese Shiite in terms of history, Fiqh, social composition, and the role of traditional social structures like the tribe and the family. But the two are alike in their fluctuating stance on the state, lending it a helping hand at times and fighting it at other times.
Another commonality is the dispossession and state negligence experienced by both Lebanese Shiites and Yemeni Zaydis — a key driving force behind both groups' quest for rights and privileges equal to those their compatriots enjoy.
The Ansarallah group, more commonly known as the Houthis, found in the Islamic Republic of Iran a backbone, knowing that their alliance with Tehran would pose serious threats to Saudi Arabia's national security and engender a decisive break and definitive enmity with Riyadh.
The repercussions were also significant at home, turning the conflict between Zaydi-majority regions and the central government into an intractable war.
The six rounds of fighting known the Saada Wars only deepened the Yemeni rift, which had been fuelled by the policies adopted by late President Ali Abdullah Saleh who pushed his hardline allies to clash with the Zaydis, worsening the general political climate further.
Along with the Saada Wars, the Yemeni chapter of the Arab Spring in 2011 complicated matters further for Saleh and his ability to continue ruling Yemen, despite his insistence on his role as a central player in any settlement in the country.
However, things escalated when the Houthis decided to take control of the capital, Sanaa, and overthrow the government headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi following the 2013-2014 National Dialogue.
The capture of Sanaa in September 2014, believed to have been made at Iran's signal, was a turning point in the conflict, which still rages on today, despite having eased following the truce.
Today, immense efforts are being exerted to return to the truce following its expiry in October 2022.
Iran's expansionist project is riddled with contradictions and flaws.
Perhaps most significantly, this project is taking place in Arab states that have fallen into an internal vacuum resulting from the collapse of the state (Lebanon and Yemen), a revolution against it (Syria), or a foreign invasion (Iraq).
Domestic factors paved the way for Iran's role in the four countries by shattering the national consensuses needed to determine and defend the public interest of each country and its people. Once this was done, enlisting external help to fight internal enemies became a widely-used justification in all four cases.
Another flaw is that Iran does not an agenda aimed at building national consensus.
Instead, its agenda is based on exploiting domestic rifts (be they sectarian, political, or ethnic, like its alliance with certain forces in the Kurdistan Region) to topple the state and replace its institutions with militias loyal to Tehran under the guise of defending groups threatened by Israel (Hezbollah) or terrorism (Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq).
Another flaw is that Iran does not an agenda aimed at building national consensus. Instead, its agenda is based on exploiting domestic rifts to topple the state and replace its institutions with militias loyal to Tehran under the guise of defending groups threatened by Israel.
The third flaw is that the fruits of Iran's imperial project may not be as sweet as they seem.
Sure, part of Iraq's oil and the Syrian economy are now under Tehran's control but, for regular Iranians protesting against clerics, the role their leaders are playing in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq has brought them nothing but poverty, deepened their global isolation, and cemented the hostile view that the world has of them.