Will Iran’s Regime Survive The Fallout Of Coronavirus And Economic Sanctions — Or Will The Islamic Revolution Wither?
Iran is positioned precariously in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic.
With the virus shattering its economy, and US sanctions adding salt to injury, the country is on the verge of a collapse.
What lies ahead is of great worry to its leaders and the neighbourhood.
Iran has been hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic with more than 3,000 deaths and counting. Despite this, the authorities refrained from imposing a lockdown for almost a month.
A partial lockdown was ordered on 28 March, which halted intercity travel and advised social distancing. Unlike the rest of the world, however, Tehran has, till now, refrained from ordering a complete lockdown. Iranian leaders are afraid that the country would not be able to cope with the economic costs of such a step.
The fear is well founded. Iran is already reeling under harsh economic sanctions imposed by the US.
The Trump administration has demanded that Iran curb its nuclear ambitions, roll back its missile programme and cease its ‘malign activities’ in the region.
Tehran has refused to negotiate, accusing the US of economic terrorism. The sanctions, meanwhile, continue to bite, pushing Iran closer to a collapse.
Last year, the Iranian economy contracted by approximately 10 per cent. Inflation reached an alarming 40 per cent, driven mostly by a spike in food prices.
A complete lockdown may panic Iranians into hoarding commodities, especially food products. The country has insufficient agricultural capacity and imports essential items such as cereals and sugar.
Moreover, the Iranian currency has lost half its value since 2018. At the time of writing this article, one US dollar was trading for 42,000 Rial.
The situation has become so difficult that the government is forced to ration commodities. How long the country can cope with such sustained financial pressure is anybody’s guess.
European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borell recently warned that the double whammy of sanctions and Coronavirus could see the country collapse.
The leaders of Iran are not oblivious to this danger. For the first time in 60 years, Iran approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $5 billion loan.
It has also pursued vigorous diplomacy to persuade the US to provide sanctions relief. This effort was redoubled after the country was hit by Coronavirus. It has received words of support from different quarters including China, Russia and the UN but little else.
The Trump administration remains steadfast in its “maximum pressure” policy.
President Trump says that he is willing to talk. In May last year, Trump asked the Iranians to “call him” to negotiate a fair deal. Iranians have repeatedly refused.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to mediate were also rebuffed last year.
The Iranian leadership cannot go back to the table now without losing face, both among the international and domestic audience.
On the other hand, Washington is patiently turning the screws, confident in its ability to crush Iran through economic pressure. Without a release valve, the whole thing could simply blow up.
There have been intermittent protests in Iran due to the country’s economic policies. In 2017, dozens of people died in these protests when prices of commodities increased.
Many accuse the Iranian government of prioritizing its geopolitical ambitions in the region over the interests of the country’s citizenry.
The repressive regime has crushed anti-government protests in the past. As things get increasingly difficult in Iran, the probability of larger destabilising protests increases every day.
Despite this, it is nearly impossible to predict the domestic collapse of any state.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they expected it to crumble within weeks, if not days. Instead, the people rallied behind their government.
In 1991, the Soviet Union was a superpower and few anticipated the sudden implosion which disintegrated the state.
Despite the enormous pressure that Iran is under currently, it is difficult to predict what, when and how of future events.
Moreover, unlike others in West Asia, Iran is not a run-of-the-mill Islamic state, despite its leadership. It has a highly educated and modern population. The birth rate in the country is quite low.
In contrast to the mullahcracy that rules the country, the population is fairly irreligious.
The mosque attendance numbers are reported to be low. All in all, Iran is different from other West Asian and North African Muslim states, where regimes were overthrown during the Arab spring 10 years ago.
Besides, the country has been under American sanctions for decades in the past and has shown strong resilience. If the masses rally in support of the government against ‘American tyranny’, the Iranian regime could last for decades, although the people will be severely impoverished.
However, one can never be over-prepared and it is time for the Indian government to make contingency plans for the region.
India has little incentive to support the Iranian regime, which has repeatedly tried to interfere in the internal matters of the country, most recently after the Delhi riots.
Both, foreign minister Javad Zarif as well as supreme leader Khamenei claimed that Muslims were being massacred in India, drawing rebuke from the MEA. Khamenei has also made provocative statements on Kashmir in the past.
Having said that, India has vital stakes, which must be defended. The Chabahar port project, for example, is one. Destabilisation in Iran could also push refugees out of the country into the surrounding regions, especially Afghanistan.
According to the UN, Iran hosts around three million Afghan migrants/refugees. Thirdly, the collapse of Iran would change the delicate balance of power in West Asia. The long-term implications of such a development need to be assessed.
Fourthly, a regime collapse in Iran could bring new leaders at the helm. By interacting with various stakeholders inside and out of the country, India could gain a significant first mover advantage if and when that happens.
The strategic mandarins in New Delhi need to keep all these factors in mind as the US-Iran tangle in West Asia nears its endgame.
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