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

Widespread and increasingly violent protests are becoming a regular feature of life in Iran. And with each round, criticism of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the political establishment gets more pointed. 

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

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. 

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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.” 

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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.