Simultaneous popular protests across Iran and two of its most vital regional partners, Iraq and Lebanon, have posed an almost unprecedented bottom-up challenge to the Islamic Republic’s regional standing and strategic interests. 

Except for Lebanon, where Tehran’s chief non-state ally Hezbollah have opposed and tried to contain anti-establishment protests, security forces in both Iran and Iraq have killed numerous demonstrators, contesting the Islamic Republic’s claims to political legitimacy and destabilizing its regional support base. 

As simmering popular dissent is eroding the vast asymmetrical security structure that Iran has painstakingly cultivated across the Middle East over decades, the political establishment is expected to resort to a more offensive and confrontational regional strategy in response.       

The excessive use of force including by Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) elements in Iraq has claimed the lives of at least 330 since the outbreak of street demonstrations in early October. In Iran, violent state repression of protests has left at least 208 dead, according to the latest Amnesty International estimate.     

Iranian leaders attributed all three waves of unrest to the Islamic Republic’s foreign enemies.

Unsurprisingly, Iranian leaders attributed all three waves of unrest, perceived to be aimed at their influence and authority, to the Islamic Republic’s foreign enemies. “The U.S. and Western intelligence services, with the financial backing of reactionary countries in the region, are spreading turmoil,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on October 30, referring to the Saudi-led Sunni bloc, which Tehran considers a chief regional nemesis.

This was the first time since the September 14 drone and missile strikes on Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais that top leadership publicly excoriated Saudi Arabia. The criticism dashes hopes for the progress of nascent diplomatic efforts and mediations, by Iraq and Pakistan in particular, to de-escalate Iranian-Saudi tensions. 

Only a few days later, on November 6, Iran’s foreign ministry strongly dismissed the “Riyadh Agreement” signed a day earlier to end infighting within the anti-Houthi military coalition between Yemeni separatists led by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) and forces loyal to the Saudi-backed and internationally recognized government of deposed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. 

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi described the accord, hailed by the UN, as an attempt at consolidating the “occupation of southern Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its allies, directly or through their proxy forces.”

Washington and Riyadh “had similar plans for our dear country,” Khamenei continued in the same October 30 speech, specifically referring to “livelihood protests” of January 2018 across Iran, “but fortunately the people . . . came out in time and the armed forces were ready and that plot was neutralized.” 

Ironically, around a fortnight later, on November 15, widespread protests erupted across Iran again, this time over an abrupt gasoline price hike. The demonstrations confirmed the leadership’s perceptions about the existence of an international conspiracy as part of the US “regime change” and  “maximum pressure” campaign to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees. 

The government violently crushed the popular revolt in less than a week and vowed to take revenge against all foreign adversaries behind it.    

The government violently crushed the popular revolt in less than a week, as Iranian leaders carefully avoided creating any impression of compromise or retreat in the face of mounting external pressure. They also vowed to take revenge against all foreign adversaries behind it.      

Tensions in Tehran’s foreign relations have only soared since, which bodes ill for prospects of de-escalation and rapprochement in the region. Even President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “moderate” administration which has advocated (despite hardliners’ reluctance and spoiling tactics) for conciliatory efforts to resume negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, adopted a more confrontational tone in the wake of the gasoline protests. 

At a cabinet meeting on November 20, Rouhani ascribed the turmoil to “organized subversive elements” who “acted precisely on a plan the regional reactionary [Saudi Arabia], the Zionists [Israel], and Americans had formulated.” 

Doubling down on the stance, Iran’s First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri went even further, threatening retaliation against “certain” regional actors. “Some regional countries better know that if traces of their possible interference to instigate turmoil inside Iran are found, they will not see a good day in the region,” he said November 23. “Iran is not the kind of country to make such jokes with.”        

Along parallel lines, Tehran has simultaneously pressed on with retaliatory reduction of its commitments under the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—which the Trump administration unilaterally scrapped in May 2018 before re-imposing heavy sanctions on the Iranian economy.

The Islamic Republic informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, on November 15 that “its stock of heavy water,” which could be used in production of nuclear weapons, had exceeded 130 metric tons” and reached “131.5 metric tons” in violation of the JCPOA.

The United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia have condemned Tehran’s “destabilizing” behavior and called for a global response to counter it. 

Predictably, the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia have condemned Tehran’s “destabilizing” behavior and called for a global response to counter it.

Immediately after the IAEA confirmed, on November 11, detection of “uranium particles” at an undeclared site in Tehran in breach of its nonproliferation obligations, Saudi King Salman publicly slammed Tehran’s “continued deception” over its nuclear activities, dealing another blow to the chances of bilateral detente. 

Growing threat perceptions over Iran’s strategic intentions might persuade the Saudi leadership to accelerate its own nuclear and missile programs with American and Chinese assistance, which would in turn elicit an Iranian response, compounding the “security dilemma” at the heart of regional tensions.

“New threats like this will force us to revise our strategy based on the nature and geography of new threats, and predict the requirements of our country and armed forces,” Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), warned in March.  

A few months later Tehran started rolling back its nuclear restrictions under the JCPOA in response to the US “maximum pressure” and European inability to safeguard its economy against crippling sanctions.

Iran is taking a more aggressive stance driven by an internal aversion to compromise under pressure and a realization that time is not on its side.

And that seems to be the general direction the Islamic Republic of Iran is moving in: taking a more aggressive stance driven by an internal aversion to compromise under pressure and a realization that time is not on its side as US-led sanctions continue to erode its defense and deployment capability.

Given these stark circumstances, it is not surprising thatunlike previous periods of turmoilTehran did not hesitate to use excessive force on a large scale against the anti-government protesters at home. It has also sponsored a similar policy in Iraq, a move that is bound to boomerang and exacerbate its security situation in the long run, even though it might buy the Islamic Republic time in the short term. 

“Iran is under extreme pressure,” said General Kenneth F. McKenzie, head of the US military’s Central Command that oversees American forces in the Middle East, in a recent interview. “My judgment is that it is very possible they will attack again” in an attempt to “crack” the maximum pressure campaign.

This will be even more likely if US President Donald Trump wins reelection next year and decides to carry on with his crippling pressure tactics against Tehran for another four years.