If Donald Trump's 'Great Satan' Interferes In Iran, It Will Play Right Into The Regime's Hands

Although seemingly emerging from nowhere, the deadly protests that have rocked Iran in the last few days are not without precedent. Rather, they are the most recent demonstration of the Islamic Republic's long-standing legitimacy problem, which has manifested itself in previous expressions of public dissatisfaction, most notably in 1999 and after the 2009 presidential election.

The perceived legitimacy of any political regime depends upon a range of factors, including ideology, democratic accountability and economic performance. The Iranian regime's problem is that, as decades have passed, it has lost credit with its citizens in all of these areas.

Revolutionary ideology has lost its shine over time, while the democratic dimensions of the Iranian Constitution have been undermined by the non-elected branches of government, which have blocked the political, social and economic changes that presidents like Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani were elected to make.

Finally, performance legitimacy has declined as the regime has failed to ensure continued economic growth and rising living standards.

While the regime's economic failings appear to have been the proximate cause of the current protests, the wider dissatisfaction with the regime was soon evident in the way that complaints about the price of bread evolved into chants of 'death to Khamenei', the country's supreme leader, and demands for radical political changes.

There is also some evidence that opposition to Iran's foreign policy, or at least the costs involved in it, have fuelled the protests, with the chant 'not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran', heard in several cities.

The protests began in the city of Mashhad in late December and later spread to several areas of the country. The unrest, which the country's Revolutionary Guard is trying to quell, has resulted in at least 21 deaths.

Iran protests
An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. protests were sparked by economic hardship, high living cost and unemployment. STR/AFP/Getty Images

At this point, it is too early to determine what the implications of these developments are likely to be. Nevertheless, while the geographical and demographic scope of the protests is wider than ever before, with Iranians from poorer, more conservative areas involved as well as the urban middle classes and students, there seems to be little likelihood that the protests will pose a challenge to the regime on the scale of those in 2009.

Instead, the most likely short-term consequence is an increased unity amongst the normally fractious factions of the regime as they seek to maintain their grip on power.

The main winners from that process will be Iran's hard-liners. Particularly if the protests drag on and Rouhani, the current president, feels compelled to condemn the protestors outright, rather than maintain his current position of supporting the right to protest (but not to commit "sabotage").

Were he to do so, he would lose all credibility with the voters who backed him in 2013 and 2017, and become a lame-duck president who the hard-liners could ignore with impunity.

The choices facing the international community under these circumstances are few and of limited attractiveness.

The worst possible course, however, would be for U.S. President Trump to choose this moment to try to rip up the 2015 nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions. Such a course would play straight into the hands of Iran's hard-liners, who would exploit it to rally Iranian nationalist sentiment and direct attention away from the regime's internal failings toward the machinations of the 'Great Satan'.

Dr Steven Hurst is Reader in Politics, Department of History, Politics and Philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University.