With thousands of Iranians taking to the streets, the Islamic Republic may be too busy to start a conflict with Israel, Sima Shine, former deputy head of the National Security Council for Strategic Affairs, told The Jerusalem Post.
According to Shine, the demonstrations will, in a way, “decrease the appetite of military conflict by Hezbollah or Iran as the events are forcing the regime to concentrate on their internal issues.” Therefore, the chances of conflict breaking out between Iran and Israel on the northern borders of Syria and Lebanon “are smaller and smaller.”
The five days of nationwide demonstrations are the largest show of dissent against the clerical regime in Tehran since the Green Movement was brutally suppressed by security forces in 2009.
The protests, which first took the form of economic protests against the high cost of living, quickly turned into demonstrations against the regime and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Across the country Iranians burnt pictures of him, chanting “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei.”
The United States and European countries lifted sanctions against Iran in January last year, releasing roughly $100 billion in assets after international inspectors found that Iran had dismantled large parts of its nuclear program. Iran’s economy has improved over the past two years, but with high unemployment and growing inflation, the average Iranian has not felt it.
While the spark for the protests was the economy, protesters have also taken to the street denouncing the Islamic Republic’s role in conflict zones like Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza; burning pictures of the Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who is in charge of Iran’s policy in those countries.
“It’s a lose-lose situation,” Shine said, explaining that while the regime is not able to fix the economy in a short amount of time the IRGC also cannot pull out of countries like Syria or Yemen because “they see it a reason for national security.”
“I don’t see the IRGC changing its policy, their political and national interests are important. But they must be thinking ‘did we do too much abroad while ignoring what is happening internally?’”
Israel has long voiced alarm over the Tehran’s nuclear program and its support for terror groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials have accused Iran of growing involvement in the Hamas-run enclave, and while Tehran froze its financial support to Hamas in the Gaza Strip after the group refused to support the Assad regime in 2012, it is now reported to be providing the militant group some $60 to $70 million.
According to Israel, two years after the nuclear deal was signed, the Islamic Republic has also increased its financial support for Hezbollah to $800m. a year.
When sanctions were in place Iran provided it’s Shiite Lebanese proxy group some $200m. Iran is also reported to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars in for their militias in Syria and Iraq as well as supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen fighting pro-government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition.
Iran’s military budget is reported to be around $15 billion a year and its role in Syria has cost the country a great deal. In 2015 the UN special envoy for Syria, Steffan de Mistura estimated that Tehran was bankrolling embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad to the tune of $6b. to $35b. per year.
According to Shine, while Iran’s role in Syria “costs money,” pulling out of the war-torn country won’t save the economy.
“The major problem in Iran is the economy,” Shine said, adding that “we don’t know where we stand with these protests, if we are the beginning, middle or end. Social media is calling for a nation-wide strike, which will make the situation a lot worse. Because that means people who aren’t going on the street also support the protesters.”
“And that,” Shine said, “could be a turning point.”