This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.
Issue: Iran, regional stability and the Middle East
1. Key Facts
- The 1979 Revolution has been the only successful (insofar as the revolutionary government and ideology has remained in power) Islamic revolution in modern history.
- An ongoing internal struggle between ‘Moderates ‘ and ‘Hardliners’ has dominated Iranian politics since the death of Iran’s revolutionary leader and subsequent President, Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.
- Current President, Hassan Rouhani, seen as a moderate.
- Iran has designs on creating a sphere of influence in the Middle East
- Iran is the only state in the Middle East openly saying that it wishes to destroy Israel
- The ‘Shi’a Awakening’ (name given to the rising activism of Shi’a communities throughout the Levant and Gulf regions) has been funded and encouraged by Iran.
- Since the 1980s Iran has been developing nuclear weapons
- Iran’s influence is growing in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon
- Demonstrations in Baghdad against the government of Iraq were quelled with sharp-shooters under the orders of the Iranian government. Numerous demonstrators were killed.
- Iran has placed missile sites in the Becca Valley (Lebanon) as well as in Syria and Iraq
- Iran is contesting with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance. It is fighting a proxy war with the Saudis through the arming of Houthi rebels in Yemen and the funding of Shi’a activism in Saudi Arabia.
- The missile strikes (14th September) against Saudi Oil fields are believed to have come from Iranian-backed Houthi rebels based in Yemen.
- Iran’s funding of the terror group ‘Hizbullah’ has been ongoing since the late 20th Century.
- Freedom of Religion or Belief is repressed in Iran: Sunni Muslims are persecuted, as are Christians and any other non-Shi’a minority
- Iran is both a destination for, and source of, sex trafficking to both Europe and the Gulf
- Iran facilitates the smuggling of Afghanis and Pakistanis into Europe.
- Iran is one of the major transit routes for the shipment of heroin and other Class A drugs from Southeast Asia to Europe.
- Iranian GDP: $430.7 billion (2017)
- Services account for 55% of the economy
- Industry is 35% of the economy
- Agriculture is 10% of the economy
- Iranian oil production has dropped from 400,000 barrels per day in 2017 to 230,000 barrels per day in 2019 and is expected to drop further.
- Oil accounted for approximately 22% of Iranian GDP in 2017
- Iranian Economy is expected to collapse by 9% in the coming year due to the economic sanctions imposed after the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (2016) – commonly known as ‘the Iran Nuclear Deal’
- The population is approximately 83 million
- 38.4% population is under the age of 25.
- Average age is 20.8 years
- 78.4% population are urbanized
- Unemployment rate 28.3% amongst the under 25’s
- Iran has a developing problem with water shortage: rivers and lakes are rapidly drying up. Precipitation levels fell by 25% from 2017-18 which helped reduce the surface water levels by 33% between 2017 – 18.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a seminal historical moment for a number of reasons: for Muslims, it was the first time in the modern era that a specifically Muslim activism had brought about regime change. For the US it destabilized the region at an important moment in the Cold War. It is therefore not surprising that the US (and its allies) supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the war between Iran and Iraq which lasted through the 1980s. It was a war which drained both sides and ultimately ended in stalemate as no side had the military capacity to defeat the other decisively.
Since that time Iran has been a source of constant concern, both in relation to its activities promoting (Shi’a) Islamic revolution throughout the region and further afield, but also in relation to its growing domination of surrounding states. Saudi Arabia has been its principal regional competitor and the two have become increasingly open in their hostility towards one another over the past two to three years as it has become more apparent that the US is withdrawing from the region.
The Syrian Assad regime had been Iran’s gateway to the Mediterranean as well as its access to Israel and Lebanon. When the ‘Arab Spring’ ignited in 2011 and then the Civil War began, it was Iranian support of the regime was the decisive factor in turning the tide against the rebels.
Iran has an aggressive expansionist policy with the Shi’a communities spread throughout the Gulf and Levant (as well as North Africa) as its assets in developing its influence. This expansionism has meant that its avowed and openly stated desire to destroy Israel has become more and more feasible as it now has, with its access through Syria and Lebanon, clear short-range routes through which to attack it.
However, it has serious internal problems as the data given in section ‘2’ highlights: dramatically falling oil revenues, large and growing youth unemployment and a growing water shortage. Any one of those three issues on their own would have been serious, but the combination of the three of them suggests that significant internal instability is not far away. The Arab Spring and the toppling of a number of the regional dictators showed that instruments of state terror cannot be a long-term stabilization method. It seems likely therefore that it will perhaps try to do what China has done successfully in another political context: seek to allow market freedoms in order to create wealth and employment whilst maintaining a tight political grip on the country. However, Iran has sanctions on it, unlike China (even though its Human rights record is comparably bad). It maybe therefore that Iran will agree to end its nuclear program in order to generate the wealth it needs. However it might also simply bypass the sanctions, for both Russia and China have indicated willingness to develop relationships with Iran that might solve (to some degree) its economic problems. Although it would not solve the major water problem the country has in the short-term.
There is no sign that Iran is seeking a major change of course and it therefore seems likely that its influence will continue to grow. At a time when President Obama, President Trump and the Democratic front-runner Elizabeth Warren all signalled their desire to withdraw from the region, Iran must be excited about the opportunities for expansion that are presenting themselves. Saudi Arabia and Israel therefore will be lobbying for continued US involvement in the region and it maybe that, if the US continues its moves toward isolationism, then both Israel and the Saudis will also start to court China and Russia.
- The Christians and other minority groups in Iran – that they will endure and that the Gospel will change Iranian society as it has done in so many societies throughout history.
- That young people in Iran would see the hopelessness that comes from the Islam which the government advocates and turn to Christ in increasing numbers.
- That the government of Iran be thwarted in its plans both for general expansionism and in its desire to destroy Israel.
- That the sanctions have the desired effect and that Iran would stop its nuclear program.
- That falling oil revenues would prevent the continuation of Iran’s Shi’a expansionism throughout the region (and in Latin America).
- That new sources of water and more efficient methods of using current supplies of water would prevent the Iranian people dying of thirst.