Contested by youth, Iranian regime is turning more than ever to China and Russia

Tehran: Doctoral researcher, specialist in Iran working on the recomposition of interstate balances in the Middle East and Central Asia, Catholic Institute of Paris (ICP)

Paris, Dec 3 (The Conversation) Observers hold their breath. The social movement that has shaken Iran since September 16, 2022 is of such magnitude that specialists are petrified. Everyone is waiting. Everyone recognises that something unprecedented is happening in Iran, behind closed doors, and that the courage shown by the protesters is unprecedented.

Who are these protesters, what is their relationship to the theocratic Iranian state, and what impact can their uprising have on the foreign policy of a beleaguered regime?

A generational break

The rebellious generation, born at the turn of the year 2000, is thirsty for freedom. It is so much so that it seems ready to assume the consequences of an insurrection against the regime in Tehran: a violent repression which has resulted in 448 deaths and some 15,000 arrests at the time of this writing.

Unlike its elders (more fearful of the consequences of an insurrection against the regime, and whose uprisings, like the 2009 Green Movement , were still within the political framework of the Islamic Republic), this young generation is ready to pay a heavy price in the name of its ideals.

The impact of social networks on his ability to be connected with the world, and thus to perceive the “disconnection” of his daily life, strewn with prohibitions, compared to the freedoms enjoyed by his peers elsewhere on the planet, is undoubtedly the one of the main explanations for this generational break.

The long-term repercussions of the current movement are still difficult to anticipate. However, it is likely that the socio-political situation in Iran will change.

The magnitude of the uprising is such that, even if it were to be totally crushed in blood (at the cost of several thousand victims, like an “Iranian Tiananmen”), the modalities of coexistence between the regime and the population will be significantly impacted. A trend seems to be emerging: the multiplication of acts of civil disobedience.

Unlike previous generations, young people dare to hold their representatives accountable; and like the geopolitical strategy adopted by their regime at the regional level they act asymmetrically, diversifying their modes of expression and their demands.

The Khomeini ideological heritage is distant for these young adults who are now entering active life, who have known neither the war against Iraq (1980-1988), nor the mobilisation of families, nor the bombardments of cities, nor the fierce repression that fell on political dissidents in the late 1980s, let alone the 1979 revolution.

Disaffection with religion

A second trend reinforces this generational shift. As the French Islamologist Olivier Roy predicted in the 1990s, the establishment of a theocratic regime in Tehran has, paradoxically, contributed to the acceleration of the process of secularization of Iranian society.

Indeed, by making religion the bedrock of political power , the ideological regime decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini has caused a phenomenon by which any rejection of power automatically becomes also a rejection of religion.

The regime established its control over society by imposing on its population a form of “political spirituality” which is reminiscent of the use that Michel Foucault had made of this same notion, in his “Iranian articles” of 1978 . Forced adherence to this mode of governance explains, in part, the growing disaffection of young people vis- -vis the Khomeini theocracy.

These variables (generational transition and secularization of society) appear all the more significant since the young people who are rising up today will be the active population of the next four or five decades.

Unless the regime manages to quickly put in place a system of control and social oppression capable of reducing the risk of internal destabilization to nothing, it will inevitably have to evolve under the weight of the demands emanating from society.

The “Asianization” of Iran’s Foreign Policy

This evolution of the society-power relationship in Iran cannot be fully understood in its proper measure without taking into account the geopolitical context within which it occurs.

The ability of the social movement to reproduce and grow resonates with the major reconfigurations that are taking place at the regional, continental and global scales and which, in turn, impact the Iranian regime’s policy and condition its response to the uprising. popular.

However, in matters of foreign policy, the tendency of Iran has been, for several years, towards “Asianization” .

In the Middle East, the geopolitical situation freezes around the constitution of two opposing poles: one constituted by Iran and its regional allies, mainly Shiites, the other taking the form of an anti-Iranian axis driven by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

However, beyond establishing a militia presence in Iraq and Lebanon , and securing an alliance with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria and the Houthi rebellion in Yemen , this strategy has not allowed the Islamic Republic to reap the expected economic gains. All these countries are bankrupt or in ruins, and it is unlikely that this “bloc” geopolitics will change significantly in the medium term.

At the regional level, the Asianization of Iran’s foreign policy therefore appears to be the result as much of the inconsistencies of a strategy of influence based solely on the mobilisation of parastatal armed groups as of the anti-Iranian wall. erected by its geopolitical adversaries. In this context, the regime has no choice but to turn “towards the East” to revive its economy and hope to calm social unrest.

And this, especially since the rupture of the Iranian nuclear agreement ( Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action , JCPOA) by Donald Trump in May 2018 definitively convinced the regime that any normalisation effort with the West would be in vain.

It is difficult to measure, in Europe, the psychological and symbolic impact of this act, experienced as both a betrayal and a humiliation, which made the Iranian reformist movement lose all credibility (which had supported the project of openness for more than a decade) and reinforced the ultra-conservative camp in its hostility to the West.

Positions being more or less frozen at the regional and international levels, the Iranian geopolitical pivot is now being played out at the continental level. The regime responded to the “betrayal” of the JCPOA by announcing in March 2021 the establishment of a 25-year comprehensive strategic partnership with Xi Jinping’s China, and by strengthening the already strong relationship with China. Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The use by the Russian army of Iranian-made drones in Ukraine proves that the level of strategic cooperation between the two countries is at an advanced stage , and that the powers that be in Tehran and Moscow are moving in the same direction in the face of the West, under the gaze of a China which is limiting itself for the time being to discrediting the international order without molesting it too much.

This new Eurasian momentum is also giving rise to a proliferation of diplomatic initiatives by Iran with other important partners on a continental scale, such as Turkey, India, Pakistan and the post-Soviet republics of Asia.

Central and Caucasus. Iran’s integration into major Chinese ( Belt and Road Initiative , BRI ) and Russian-Indian ( International North-South Transport Corridor , INSTC ) infrastructure projects demonstrates the desire of Iranian leaders to tie the country’s development to the networks of intercontinental connectivity that are gradually taking shape outside of any Western control.

In this, this “Asianization” process culminates in Iran’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) .

The acceptance in September 2021 (one month after the inauguration of conservative President Ebrahim Ra si ) of Iran’s candidacy (filed fifteen years earlier) proves that an executive in line with the vision of the Supreme Guide is a guarantee of stability in the eyes of the member countries of the SCO, and particularly China, which oversees the entire process of establishing this “post-Western” international order .

Tested by four decades of isolation but still in place, the Tehran regime, once a “pariah” for the West as for the East, is proving, in view of the current geopolitical circumstances, to be a respectable and worthy partner for a much of the Eurasian continent.

Towards Chinese-style social control?

But what about the interaction between this geopolitical reorientation and the protest movement? For now, the two trajectories are evolving separately.

The popular uprising emerges from a generational and secular transition, in a bottom-up movement .

Conversely, the “looking east” policy is only a priority for the regime, which has every interest in strengthening its ties with China and Russia, both for geopolitical considerations and because of the prospects that enhanced collaboration with these countries in the field of new technologies (artificial intelligence, facial recognition, predictive algorithms, etc.) is likely to offer in the face of the risk of internal destabilization.

An air of “Chinese-style” social control hovers over Iran . The fact remains that a system of social control, however effective it may be, can only be effective if it arouses the fear of the population. However, in Iran, the wall of fear seems to be crumbling little by little.

(Except for the headline, the story has not been edited by Siasat staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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