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Iran is facing serious problems at home. What that means for its conflict with the U.S.

Red Crescent workers check the debris from the Ukraine International Airlines plane
Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA
Red Crescent workers checking the debris from the Ukraine International Airlines plane on the outskirts of Tehran.

Short of plunging headlong into war, it’s hard to imagine how Iran could have made a bigger hash of its latest confrontation with the United States. It took only days to forfeit an image of victimization on the world stage and a rare feeling of domestic solidarity.

Accidentally shooting down a passenger plane — and then stonewalling until the last shred of deniability is gone — will do that. You look not only incompetent, but callous and deceitful, as demonstrators on Iranian streets have been making very clear to the government. You’ve just killed 176 innocent people — and left the impression that you care mainly because you got caught. 

The response also compounds other missteps, like failing to anticipate that the United States would go after one of your most senior generals, allowing his movements to be tracked – and perhaps his entourage to be penetrated by foreign intelligence. In addition, security officials couldn’t prevent a stampede of mourners at the general’s funeral, leading to 50 more deaths. It has been a rough couple of weeks.

Overall, Iran and the United States did appear to be looking for ways to cool the atmosphere after the killing of Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3. Iran fired missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation, but took care to minimize casualties. They succeeded at that — no one was hurt. Experts don’t expect that to be the end of it, but a stronger response might be on hold while Iran deals with more immediate worries. 


The domestic political atmosphere is particularly tense. Iranian authorities had just extricated themselves from another round of protests in November over a sudden increase in fuel prices. Widespread and increasingly violent protests are becoming a regular feature of life in Iran. With each round, criticism of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the political establishment gets more pointed. 

The attack that killed Suleimani focused attention on the Americans, whose sanctions have pushed the economy into a deep hole. Initially, Iranians appeared largely united in mourning of the general and their outrage at the United States. But protesters now are demanding that their own officials be held accountable for shooting down the Ukrainian jet, which Iran says was mistaken for an incoming U.S. cruise missile. 

Among protesters’ chants are “Death to the Dictator” — meaning Khamenei. Reformist politician Medhi Karroubi might still be under house arrest a decade after unsuccessfully running for president, but he told Khamenei in a letter that he’s unfit to run the country.

The political establishment also is gearing up for parliamentary elections next month, which provide another avenue to express public discontent. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that authorities have barred nearly a third the current parliament — 80 members — from running again. Vocal hardliners as well as reformers have been banned. Although it’s not clear exactly why, the intent seems to be to circle the wagons around Khamenei and the establishment at a sensitive time.

The killing of Suleimani was a huge shock to the Iranian political system. Khamenei was seen shedding tears at his funeral. But Maysam Behravesh, a former Iranian intelligence analyst writing in Foreign Affairs, says Iran’s leaders need to ask themselves a lot of questions, too. Iran not only failed to imagine that tensions would reach a level that the United States would consider an attack on Suleimani, he said. The successful attack also suggests that an organization as militant as the Revolutionary Guards has been compromised by foreign intelligence.

Behravesh says that Suleimani’s replacement, Esmail Qaani, holds the same views as his former boss, although he is less pragmatic and independent, meaning he might turn out to be more rigid. Suleimani’s death will encourage the Revolutionary Guards to act “more ruthlessly and with greater calculation,” he says. “What is at stake is less and less the pride and prestige of the revolutionary cause … and more and more the very survival of that establishment in power.” 


Iran expert Suzanne Maloney at the Brookings Institution agrees that this story is not over; Iran’s overall goal remains: To force Washington to back off on sanctions, and if it can, to avenge Suleimani by coming out with a strategic win, such as weakening the overall U.S. position in the Middle East.

As it has for the past 40 years, Iranian leaders will use “purposeful rather than wanton projection of power, conscious of the costs and benefits, opportunistic in exploiting openings or weakness, inventive in the application and wide-ranging in scope,” Maloney predicts. “Faced with an American vise grip on their economy and advantageous unconventional capabilities, nothing will be off the table as Tehran assesses its next moves against the United States.” 

Iran has a history of orchestrating terror attacks, using cyberwarfare and proxies who have their own reasons for wanting to attack U.S. interests. As Maloney says, the United States is now “locked into a long, unpredictable conflict with Iran where the propensity for miscalculation is high.” 

And while there might be a pause while Iran tends to domestic issues and considers its options, a pause is all it will be. 

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/13/2020 - 10:43 am.

    The “wag the dog” scenario with respect to the killing becomes more apparent every day.

    How to drive apart two adjacent countries that have many affinities while withdrawing from the region?

    Two incompatible goals that cannot be achieved without much mischief and the high probability of disastrous consequences.

    Especially when the US seems to care less and less about other countries dignity and aspirations. That is the recipe for simmering violence and dangerous splinter movements.

  2. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 01/13/2020 - 10:52 am.

    “It took only days to forfeit an image of victimization on the world stage and a rare feeling of domestic solidarity.”

    Yes, well we would be remiss not to observe that image was being perpetuated primarily by lefty media intent on taking advantage of an opportunity to encourage discontent with the President.

    Listening to lefty media (NPR especially, ugh) dance around the history of the man that was targeted was cringe worthy. It also took some brass to ignore the fact that Trump joins most all of our recent Presidents, including Obama, in ordering assassinations or destructive retaliations.

    In my opinion, it’s incumbent on those media sources to now take advantage of this opportunity to join with Iranian people who are courageously speaking out against the violent junta that rules over them. The people who were filmed during demonstrations, studiously avoiding walking on the US and Israeli flags the government has painted on many streets were sending us a message…I hear them, do “you”?

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 01/14/2020 - 06:24 am.

    Bad news for Iran, Trump will not pull back crippling sanctions, he may increase them. Phase one for Trump, bring American economy back, phase 2, use our economic might to force changes needed for past 30 years. Protesters ripping down Soleimani posters, flew in face of MSM insistence that Iranians were protesting the killing of a brutal terrorist. The Iran people want a new Government for themselves. Only the MSM wants an overthrowing of our Government.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2020 - 12:57 pm.

      Bad news for Iranians, I think you mean.Trump is not making any friends for the US there with his sanctions and his ban on Iranians entering the US (His tweets about “standing with” the people of Iran are a cruel joke in light of his abandonment of the Kurds).

      “Phase one for Trump, bring American economy back, phase 2, use our economic might to force changes needed for past 30 years.”

      It’s really funny that you pretend to think Trump (he who once said he needed no exit strategy regarding Iran) has a plan for anything. Comedy gold. He’ll be here all week, folks!

      “Protesters ripping down Soleimani posters, flew in face of MSM insistence that Iranians were protesting the killing of a brutal terrorist.”

      Originally, they were. Now, they are protesting the lies their government fed them. Amazing how people in some countries think their leadership should not lie to them.

      “The Iran people want a new Government for themselves.”

      Maybe. Maybe the Iranian people want some reforms to the government they have. I can promise you, however, that they don’t want another government imposed by the US.

      “Only the MSM wants an overthrowing of our Government.”

      Please tell us who. Wanting someone else to be President is not “wanting an overthrowing of our Government.” Who in the “MSM” wants an overthrow?

      • Submitted by joe smith on 01/14/2020 - 05:44 pm.

        RB, Why would you want to be friendly with a country that spawns death and disruption throughout the Mid East. Sadly Iran is using our money we gave them for signing horrible Iran deal to terrorize the region. Instead of blaming USA for standing up to the corrupt regime, the Left should be helping support Iranian people to change their Government. Trump is doing the right thing by imposing sanctions and sent a loud clear message, kill an American, you will pay dearly.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/15/2020 - 08:51 am.

          “Why would you want to be friendly with a country that spawns death and disruption throughout the Mid East.”

          Beats me. Our loyalty to Saudi Arabia is a continued source of puzzlement.

          “Sadly Iran is using our money we gave them for signing horrible Iran deal to terrorize the region.”

          This is the last time I am going to dignify that assertion with a response, but the money transferred to Iran was Iran’s money that the US was obligated to transfer to them. I know skipping out on your debts is an important part of Trumpism, but it is frowned upon in the rest of the world.

          “Instead of blaming USA for standing up to the corrupt regime, the Left should be helping support Iranian people to change their Government.”

          The US government has no credibility in this regard. TI get the sense that the Iranians would prefer to do this on their own, without yet more foreign “assistance.”

          “Trump is doing the right thing by imposing sanctions and sent a loud clear message, kill an American, you will pay dearly.”

          North Korea is still reeling from the punishment meted out in retaliation for the death of Otto Warmbier.

  4. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 01/14/2020 - 09:54 am.

    “Iran fired missiles at US bases in Iraq in retaliation, but took care to minimize casualties.” You are giving them more credit than they deserve. The fact that there were no casualties speaks to the incompetence of their defense systems, just like the passenger airline that was accidentally shot down.

  5. Submitted by David Moseman on 01/14/2020 - 10:14 am.

    What is really fueling these protests? They are not street parties. To participate means risking life as well as foregoing other pursuits, like spending time with family.

    Why are we taking the time to read this article? I see the Middle East as the potential trigger zone of WWIII. Thus the more I can learn the better prepared I can be to face the future.

    This unrest shows the vulnerability of economies dependent upon energy export. US sanctions on Iran oil export have led to Iranian social unrest.

    Such problems are faced by all the countries in the Middle East, along with Australia and yes the US. To reduce greenhouse gasses will mean a radical reduction in the use of fossil fuels. That will upend the economic order and cause energy exporters to loose income. Iran could no longer subsidize fuel at the same level and forced gas prices to rise in November. That sparked the mass protests, then.

    If Australia cuts its Cole exports the economy will falter. That will lead to mass unemployment and political upheaval. In a recent Washington post article it was pointed out that there past five elections have flipped party based on the environment question. Will the current fires force the current Australian government out?

    Many voters see the environment as the key issue in this year’s US elections.

  6. Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/18/2020 - 04:24 pm.

    The rise in “tensions” (a euphemism, given that Trump’s illegal assassination of a high government official has brought the US into a war with Iran) is entirely the doing of the Trump administration, which gratuitously blew up the nuclear deal with no plausible replacement strategy. Trump’s sanctions are both sadistic and indefensible, since Iran is apparently being sanctioned solely for carrying out its obligations under the nuclear deal, which hardly seems just or legitimate.

    This, of course, is the standard play of America’s Neo-conservatives: if any step is taken to reduce long term tensions with Iran (such as the nuclear deal), then those steps have to be blown-up by conservatives as soon as they get the chance. So this increase in “tensions” was baked into the cake as soon as the incompetent white electorate cast their ballots for the grossly incompetent Trump.

    As for the likelihood that this strategy-of-dunces will result in “regime change”–the pie in the sky orgasmic dream of professional Neo-con failures like Bolton–that has been a fool’s wager for 40 years now, and is a simple case of Waiting for Godot. Indeed, it is even more unlikely, given the national affront that Trump inflicted upon Iran by his illegal assassination of Soleimani. Just as air power alone cannot accomplish a regime change, even less can economic sanctions.

    The drama will now focus mainly on operations in Iraq, as that (democratic) government has now revoked the US military’s license to use bases in Iraq as a result of Trump’s illegal action. Thus, its PM must now work to force an illegal occupying power (the 5000 or so US soldiers) out of its territory–which it’s likely the Revolutionary Guard will assist with. So as usual with American Neo-conservative “strategy”, Trump’s actions will prove of far greater benefit to Iran than the US. But keep re-tweeting and cheering street protests in Tehran, for all the good it will do, or effect it will have!

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