Will Iran be undone by domestic dissent?
These are the views of Dr Glen Segell, research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa in northern Israel. Segell has worked in Israel, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, South Sudan, and the United Kingdom, but his inflected vowels are unmistakably South African. He made aliyah the day after finishing matric at King David Victory Park in 1984.
Segell contends that Shia Islam (dominant in Iran) can be benign, contrary to popular portrayals.
“The greater threat is Sunni Islam,” Segell asserts. “Those attacking shuls, schools, and soft targets around the world are Sunnis – there is no record of such attacks by Shias.” He warns, though, that “almost 100% of terrorist attacks are ‘lone wolf’ operations that can come from anywhere and be inspired by anyone”.
Nevertheless, the Iranians are spreading their brand of Islam actively, and with more success than any time since their 1979 Islamic Revolution. He explains how the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988 put the brakes on Tehran’s ideological ambitions. The wars in Iraq and Syria, and the failed “Arab Spring” have given Iran an opening.
“In the ‘Arab Spring’, authoritarian regimes in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were toppled. The liberal youth who mobilised through social media had no effective means to govern. A failed state environment was created. Into the gap fell radical organisations who tried to take control. Failed states and fragmented states gave space to ISIS and Iran,” Segell says.
Yet, there is growing discontent within Iran. Economic conditions are deteriorating, and the currency, the rial, is collapsing as emerging markets plummet. Sanctions bit hard, and their expansion as the Trump administration abandons the 2015 nuclear deal will hurt the Iranian people considerably.
A cold winter in January resulted in the biggest anti-regime protests in five years. Demonstrators sported placards that said, “Leave Syria! Give us education!” and “Forget Hezbollah! Give us health!”
This could be a turning point.
“There is a greater possibility to depose the ayatollahs because of economic reasons,” Segell says. “There is growing resentment of wasting Iranian money on these proxy wars. They are embattled, especially if Trump decides to turn up the heat. The key question is what would replace this regime? It may create another fragmented, failed state.”
Segell does not view Israel’s attention on Africa as being motivated by a particular desire to curb Iran’s actions, but admits that Iran has much more to offer African states in terms of oil, goods, and access to markets. It has, as yet, not made substantial inroads into majority Sunni North African states.
Turning to Tshwane’s solid ties with Tehran, he says the ANC’s friendship with Iran runs deep from the struggle days, although Iran simultaneously supplied the oil that fuelled the apartheid government.
Segell notes that South Africa has raised the possibility of Iran joining BRICS, the bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The country has substantive business dealings in Iran, such as through telecoms giant MTN, and somehow, has managed not to offend Saudi Arabia, Iran’s ideological arch foe. South Africa has aggressively championed Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology for non-military use.
“It’s in the interests of South Africa not to have sanctions and internal discontent in Iran. It’s facing both,” Segell said. “South Africa should urge Iran to renounce its nuclear weapons programme, stop its missile programme, and offer greater benefits to its people. It can then move forward, be more respected in the world, and have better ties to Africa… It’s not in the interests of South Africa to support a government that its people don’t support.”
Keep an eye on the Iranian street this winter, where the state is likely to attempt to crush popular resistance once again. South Africa could potentially use its leverage with Iran to persuade it to act responsibly, and bring much-needed stability to the Middle East.
Pictured: Glen Segell