An Iranian mud dilemma

Inaction, on the other hand, will place the public focus on the beleaguered economy and foreign military adventures, two issues that have already brought Iranians to the streets.

Iranian rain forests near the Caspian sea  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian rain forests near the Caspian sea
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The US policy on Iran, marked by the withdrawal one year ago from the nuclear agreement known as JCPOA, is continuing a path of pressure: renewal of sanctions; designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization; and the recent increase in military preparedness for a possible confrontation with the Islamic republic. While Iran reciprocated, with its own designation of the US Army as a terrorist organization and by issuing a nuclear ultimatum to Europe, the Islamic regime finds these unprecedented moves enormously frustrating. In this fragile state of affairs, a miscalculation by Iran could possibly ignite the flames of a war that no one wants.
It is difficult to predict how the Iranian regime will react to all these moves, particularly the designation of its most trusted military force – and the main driver of its destructive foreign policy adventures – as a terrorist organization. Considering that IRGC controls the lion’s share of Iran’s economy, estimated to be as much as 75%, vigorous enforcement of new sanctions will have a devastating effect on Iran’s already weakened and struggling economy.
At first, Iran’s reaction was limited to members of parliament wearing IRGC uniforms as a sign of defiance and solidarity. The usual blistering editorials and statements from officials, including the supreme leader, were also released. But in recent days, the Iranian response has moved in a different direction, and the regime has reportedly given its proxies the green light to attack American forces and interests in the region. Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai-Nejad, a senior religious leader, warned that the US Navy fleet could be “destroyed with one missile.”
These threats have been taken seriously, raising the level of preparedness of the US and its allies in the region. This creates a real dilemma for the Islamic regime. Responding by utilizing the proxy allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen could likely trigger an immediate response from the US Fifth Fleet, and more importantly, justify Trump’s decision and give him the upper hand internationally.
Inaction, on the other hand, will place the public focus on the beleaguered economy and foreign military adventures, two issues that have already brought Iranians to the streets in protest.  
AMERICAN PRESSURE could not have come at a worse time. Aside from sanctions and designations, a flood of near-biblical proportions has devastated the country from the shores of the Caspian Sea in the North to the plains of Khuzestan in the South. 
Cities and villages have been destroyed, and surviving inhabitants have been left abandoned, cut off from the rest of the country. Roads and bridges have been washed away and power grids disrupted, making aid delivery in many areas extremely difficult if not impossible.
Widespread damage, exacerbated by 40 years of intentional environmental neglect, is fueling anger across the country: from the deforestation of Iran’s dense and ancient rain forests near the Caspian Sea to intentional drying of Khuzestan’s wetlands; and from irresponsible oil drilling in areas such as Hour Al-Azim in the South, to badly built dams and bridges that have collapsed and made transportation exceptionally difficult in many areas. IRGC’s hand can be seen in every disaster. The anger is so raw and genuine that in many areas, officials don’t even dare to enter due to fear of the local population. 
Take Khuzestan, Iran’s main oil-producing province. Before the flood, Khuzestan already faced problems: water shortages; environmental devastation; high unemployment, particularly among the youth; and widespread discrimination and oppression against the local population. Now, the flood and the government’s slow response has made things worse. The situation is similar in other areas.
The people’s anger was so raw and widespread that, in an unprecedented move, the Islamic regime has allowed Iraqi Shi’ite militias to cross the border from Iraq into Iran. Caravans of Hashd al-Shaabi fighters now roam around Iranian cities such as Ahwaz, Dezful and Abadan. 
The IRGC claims that they came in order to help the flood victims. Yet the word on the street is that they have been brought to Khuzestan to intimidate people and help with suppression of riots should the people’s anger manifest itself, as it did at the end of 2017. And so, further aggravation is being piled up with the debris.
It is not yet clear what the future holds for the Islamic regime in Iran, but it looks quite grim. The regime is beginning to resemble an old, wounded horse that is stuck in the mud. Its demise might be the product of a thousand cuts rather than a single fatal blow. Bleeding to death, however, might further push a scenario of orchestrating a heroic death. This is one more reason to put American forces on alert.
Dr. Nir Boms is a cofounder of CyberDissidents.org and a research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies. Shayan Arya is an Iran expert and human rights activist and a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran-Liberal Democrat.