It is not sanctions that the autocratic mullah regime in Iran fears most, but the increasing recognition of its domestic opposition on regional and international platforms as well as legitimization of their demands of the repressive regime in the eyes of the global audience. The regime has professed to have bypassed and circumvented multilateral and unilateral sanctions for more than three decades, but the domestic woes and growing discontent among Iran’s diverse ethnic and religious groups is now ringing alarm bells for the elites of the establishment.
In other words, the Iranian Spring is in the air, and we may see its advent sooner than we had anticipated. That is why Tehran is holding onto its stand of supporting the embattled minority government in Syria. However, this attempt to prop up the Syrian regime is doomed to fail, as President Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered. For years, Persian nationalistic discourse has played on the fault lines of ethnic and sectarian divisions, exploiting weak spots in countries like Azerbaijan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and a number of other Arab and African countries. Now it seems that this policy of supporting extremists no matter their ideological ground will boomerang on Tehran, taking a toll on the domestic stability of one of the most populous countries in the Middle East.
Turkey has clearly thrown in the towel in its short-lived engagement with Tehran, which commenced in 2010, saying that it has reaped no benefits from this relationship so far, be it economic or political. Ankara sees the increased Iranian support of Kurdish terror against Turkey and its shaping and directing of radical leftists and ultra conservatives alike as a hideous attempt to rend the social fabric of Turkey.
Further complicating matters for Turkey is the indifference and unresponsiveness of the Iranian regime to calls made by Turkey for cooperation on the resolution of conflicts in the immediate neighborhood. Iran has followed a Shiite-only policy in neighboring Iraq, pushing Sunnis, Kurds and Turkmens to the sidelines of politics, which has in turn led to lingering instability and daily violence. We all know what a destabilizing factor Iran plays in Arab countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain, and we know about its covert initiatives in Gulf countries.
Now it may be Iran’s turn to taste the bitterness that comes with playing on ethnic and religious sensitivities. Turkey has never meddled in ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iran, and Saudi Arabia has a long-held policy of not resorting to playing the Sunni card to confront Iran. This may change, however, as in recent years Tehran has pushed Ankara and Riyadh to the limit. The establishment of the International South Azerbaijani Turks National Council in May by Iranian Azerbaijanis in Turkey could be a warning shot across the bow for Tehran. Ankara is not encouraging this movement yet, but it is not acting against it, either, allowing it to operate in Turkey. Meanwhile, angered by Iran’s attempts to stoke tensions in the north as well as in the south of the country, Saudi Arabia is now reconsidering its options in confronting Iran over its role in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries. Egypt, another powerhouse in the Middle East, is also emerging to assume a stronger role in challenging Iran.
Scratching the soft ethnic and religious underbelly of Iran may bring on a doomsday scenario for the militant mullah regime. A third of the country’s population is Sunni, yet Sunni Muslims are routinely persecuted and prosecuted for exercising their religious rights. Sunnis have even been denied permission to have their own mosque in the capital.
The grievances of ethic groups are equally troublesome for Iran. Apart from the Azeris, who are the largest minority, there are Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkmen and others. As Iran boasts a highly centralized government, most, if not all, of these groups feel isolated and marginalized in Iran. For example, Arabs living in the oil and gas-rich province of Khuzestan are among the most deprived in Iran, as oil and gas revenue goes to the central government.
Even Persians today feel resentment against their government. Clearly a revolution is in the making, albeit slowly, in Iran, no matter how hard Tehran tries to delay this day of reckoning with repressive tactics, widespread human rights violations and summary executions of opponents of the regime.
The Iranian opposition learned valuable lessons in the summer of 2009, when millions of Iranians rose up to protest the contested election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Turkey did not signal any support for the opposition during the mass protests, and indeed threw its weight behind the regime. Yet Tehran reciprocated by increasing its support of groups that threaten Turkish national interests in the Middle East. Next time, they may find Ankara not so eager to accommodate the government’s efforts to crack down on its opposition.
As revolutions in each nation are different, the Iranian Spring will be unique in nature. A deepening rift between the Iranian president and regime opponents, including senior religious figures, may very well be early signs of the demise of the regime, indicating that the mullahs, the real power at the top, are having trouble holding it together. A power struggle among the establishment may deepen rifts in Iranian society, leading to proxy battles. That its belligerence to the West and Israel is a façade serving to obscure the nation’s domestic problems may be further exposed, changing the regime dynamics. Domestic economic woes such as rampant corruption, rising unemployment and stubborn high inflation will eat away what support the religious zealots continue to enjoy.
Iran may also lose Turkey as the only nation amenable to ordinary Iranians, allowing them to enjoy vacations and travel in the Middle East, as the regime’s intensified efforts to hurt Turkey continue to be exposed in Turkish dailies, exacerbating the existing image problem for Iran. For years, the Iranian government has allowed its citizens to travel freely to neighboring Turkey, even though it has declined to openly encourage tourism between the two countries lest Turkey’s moderate culture and electoral democracy influence Iranians. Almost 2 million tourists visited Turkey in both 2010 and 2011, but this number has dropped dramatically, by almost 50 percent, in the first half of this year, mainly due to the decline of purchasing power of Iranians as the exchange rate for Iranian rials weakens.
In contrast, the number of Turks visiting Iran is low, fewer than 100,000 annually, because Tehran has always treated Turkish visitors with suspicion, and Iranian security agencies routinely harass them, even briefly arresting some on trumped-up charges. The fact that Iran temporarily suspended visa-free travel with Turkey and Azerbaijan this week, citing security measures, for the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which will take place in the Iranian capital of Tehran later this month, is a testament to the apprehension Iran feels about visiting Turks. After the summit ends on Sept. 1, the previous visa-free scheme for citizens of Turkey will be restored, Tehran claims.
With its long-running efforts to meddle in the internal affairs of neighboring countries, Iran has brought increased attention to its own domestic problems, exposing vulnerabilities to exploitation by others. It is a tit-for-tat policy, and Iran will be the loser in this game as it is clearly outnumbered in the Middle East.