- - Sunday, November 24, 2019

Nations that give out “free stuff” to their populations in order to keep them quiet face a real problem when the money runs out. Then, the peasants tend to get ugly. Iran is finding this out the hard way as riots are wracking the country. In Iran, the culprits are not real peasants but middle-class car owners and business people who use vehicles to operate.

No doubt, many of the demonstrators are students. In this case, the free stuff is gas at incredibly low cost by Western standards. Although the government upped the rate by 50 percent, fuel is still ridiculously cheap compared to what Americans pay at the pumps. The Tehran government upped the gas prices in order to give cash giveaways to the real peasants — the poor and unemployed — who are also getting ugly.

In the case of Iran, the issue is much larger than a lost entitlement. As in Lebanon and Iraq — two nations heavily influenced by Iran — the issue is rampant corruption and mismanagement of resources by a hereditary theocracy of ayatollahs. Several weeks ago, I predicted in these pages that the unrest in Iraq would soon spread to Iran; it now has.


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The possibility that the street demonstrations may bring about some kind of near-term change in Lebanon or Iraq is much greater than in Iran. Lebanon is a diverse society with several Muslim sects and a strong Christian minority vying for power with the Shiites, whose base is primarily in South Lebanon. Shia power revolves around the fact that the Iranian-backed and Iranian-supplied Hezbollah can intimidate other parties with firepower that is greater than the regular army.

However, that type of strongarm tactic can only go so far. Hezbollah’s sole claim to legitimacy is that it finally drove the Israelis out of the country in 2000, but the Israelis have been smart enough to leave Lebanon alone of late and not give Hezbollah a pretext for further conflict.



Iraq is different in that — although most of the Iraqis are Shiite — a majority resent Iranian Persian influence, which they rightly blame for the corruption of the hereditary caste of mullahs that exercise enormous influence over the government. 

Consequently, the ability of Iranian-backed militias to control the growing unrest in both counties is largely due to reluctance of Arab rank and file to fire on Arab protesters at the behest of Persian senior officers, some of whom are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

In Iran, none of the Lebanese and Iraqi limitations on security forces exist. The IRGC is free to crack down hard because it is one of the three major power centers in Iranian politics, and the only one with guns. It was the civil bureaucracy that raised the gas prices, but only did so with the approval of the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who exercises the final say with the tacit approval of his fellow hereditary ayatollahs.

Consequently, we’ll likely not see a 1979-style revolution come from this round of unrest, but conditions will likely get worse before they get better.

Ayatollah Khamenei predictably blames the United States for the current trouble, and there is some truth to that. President Trump’s sanctions are successfully choking Iran’s economy, and that is the objective. The supreme leader knows he can end the problem of economics by cutting a deal with Mr. Trump but that would undercut the nuclear program and foreign meddling that are fundamental tenants of the IRGC. and the ayatollah cannot afford to anger his security force.

American sanctions are only the tip of the iceberg of what is wrong with Iran. The ayatollahs need corruption to keep the bureaucrats who run things in line, and that won’t change. Mismanagement of water through Iran’s ill-conceived food self-sufficiency program is turning much of the farmland into useless desert, and that is further likely to inflame the peasants, cash subsidies aside.

One thing that should bother the old men in Tehran the most is the relative violence of the protesters in comparison to unrest in other counties. More security forces have been killed in a few weeks in Iran than in six months of protest in Hong Kong. That should worry the ayatollahs greatly.

Aside from Mr. Trump, the supreme leader blames internal counterrevolutionary elements. When Ayatollah Khamenei and his fellow ayatollahs led the revolution against the shah, they were fighting corruption, abuse of power by the security forces and economic stagnation. Forty years later, one wonders who the counterrevolutionaries really are.

• Gary Anderson lectures in alternative analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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