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The ayatollahs’ anxiety is showing

Faced with internecine strife and external pressure from the United States and Israel, Iranian honchos appear to be growing agitated.

The Grand Bazaar in Tehran as strikes and protests against Iran's economic situation have taken hold since 2018, when the United States enforced new sanctions after leaving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Credit: Omid Vahabzadeh via Wikimedia Commons.
The Grand Bazaar in Tehran as strikes and protests against Iran's economic situation have taken hold since 2018, when the United States enforced new sanctions after leaving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Credit: Omid Vahabzadeh via Wikimedia Commons.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and commentator. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, as well as on U.S.-Israel relations. The winner of the Louis Rappaport award for excellence in commentary, she is the author of the book "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'”

Whether the uprising in Iran is leading to the ultimate collapse of the 40-year reign of the ayatollahs remains to be seen. But there is reason to believe that, unlike the protests of 2009-10 and 2017-18, the current unrest has weakened the regime’s grip irreparably.

One good sign is that today’s demonstrations have spread to rural areas of the enormous country, beyond the cities. And though they are being met with the same kind of violence as those that were quelled in the past, they do not seem to be abating. Indeed, even the mass arrests and gunning down of thousands of protesters by mullah-led militias and police have not succeeded in extinguishing the fire in the hungry bellies of the populace.

Another indication of cracks in the Islamic Republic’s armor is the panic that it has been exhibiting in relation to the assault on its hegemonic agenda by the United States and Israel.

The White House withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the disastrous nuclear deal pushed through at all cost by the previous administration in Washington—and simultaneous increase in sanctions has made it more difficult for the Islamic Republic to keep up the pace of its spinning centrifuges without emptying its till and the pockets of its citizenry. Which is why the latter took to the streets on Nov. 15 in the first place, initially to decry a government hike in gas prices.

Meanwhile, Israel has been bombing strategic Iranian targets in Syria and engaging in constant low-scale combat with Tehran-backed terrorists in Gaza. It also has been punctuating these attacks with enhanced warnings and threats against any moves by Iran to make good on its vows to annihilate the Jewish state.

Faced with internecine strife and external pressure, Iranian honchos appear to be growing agitated. Statements issued by regime representatives over the past weekend provide a window into their anxiety.

On Monday, for example, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi declared that the Islamic Republic would “give a crushing response to any [Israeli] aggression or stupid act.”

Morteza Ghorbani, a senior adviser to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander, Hossein Salami, was more specific. “If Israel makes even the smallest mistake against Iran, we will flatten Tel Aviv into dirt from Lebanon,” he reportedly told Iran’s Mizan press service. “Our fighters’ fingers are on the trigger on the order of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. If the leader gives an order to attack Israel with missiles, the Zionists will raise their hands and surrender.”

Both Mousavi and Ghorbani were referring to remarks made by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Saturday in an interview with the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera—on the sidelines of a policy conference in Rome—and by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at a gathering in Jerusalem on Sunday sponsored by the Hebrew newspaper, Makor Rishon.

Katz said that if a military operation were the “last possible way to stop” Iran from “produc[ing] or obtain[ing] nuclear weapons,” Israel would be prepared to act accordingly.

Bennett was less diplomatic. Pointing to Iran’s efforts “to establish a ring of fire around [Israel],” with bases in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere, he announced that the time had come to “move from containment to attack.”

Tehran’s loud reactions in Farsi to the above comments—like its recent claims that the protests were fomented by “foreign forces”—are significant. They indicate that the regime is desperate to persuade the Iranian people that the real enemies robbing them of their livelihood and freedom are not the ayatollahs, but rather America and Israel.

Hopefully, the mullahs are beginning to grasp that bullets and other forms of brutality no longer guarantee the indefinite continuation of their iron grip.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”  

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