Iran regime grapples with its worst crisis, hamstrung by internal power struggle

Challenges of COVID-19 and economic meltdown are exacerbated by frequent explosions — most of which may have less to with Israel than a battle between reformists and conservatives

People wearing protective face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus walk through the Nasr Shopping Center in Tehran, Iran, July 15, 2020 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

People wearing protective face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus walk through the Nasr Shopping Center in Tehran, Iran, July 15, 2020 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The stream of mysterious explosions and fires in Iran over the past few weeks has stirred the imagination of countless Israelis and media outlets.

Is it possible that a foreign intelligence entity is trying — and managing — to destabilize the Islamic Republic? Is someone trying to drag Iran into a war or a confrontation?

Just this week, there was an explosion at a power station in Isfahan Province and, later the same day, a fire broke out at a phone factory in northwestern Iran. In late June, there was a big explosion near a military facility in Tehran and another one in a civilian hospital in the capital, where 19 people were killed.

However, officials have not been quick to blame Israel, the United States, or the West, at least not in most cases — and there could be a reason for that.

This July 5, 2020, satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. shows the substantial damage done by an explosion and a fire at an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Setting aside the most dramatic incident, the July 2 blast at the nuclear facility in Natanz — which is said by some experts to have significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program, damaging an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant, and which foreign media reports have attributed to Israel — the other cases have been blamed by the Iranians on such banal causes as poor maintenance, rising temperatures and negligence. (A report on Thursday said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] has concluded that contractor Ershad Karimi was the perpetrator of the Natanz attack.)

This summer in Iran has indeed been hot. This week, temperatures reached 43°C (109°F) in the port city of Bandar Abbas, 35°C (95°F) in Shiraz and 34°C (93°F) in the capital Tehran.

And the national infrastructure is rickety anyway, and every year there are fires and even explosions. Still, this year, their number has increased.

Footage of a fire at a factory near Tabrinz, Iran on July 19, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian Diplomatic and Security Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, suspects a different cause.

“Since March, we have witnessed hundreds of fires, perhaps even a thousand, across the country. That’s unimaginable. Why would a foreign entity do something like this? What interest do they have to attack a hospital? And I’m not talking about Natanz,” he said.

Meir Javedanfar (YouTube screenshot)

“Somebody’s trying to weaken President [Hassan] Rouhani and tarnish his public image,” he elaborated. “We saw that in the attempt to pass a motion of no confidence in the Iranian Majlis (parliament). Now, the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei has apparently blocked that effort — and all of a sudden, there has been a significant fall in the number of fires and explosions.”

Javedanfar was alluding to the tensions within the conservative wing of Iran’s leadership, which has ruled the parliament since last February’s election.

The elected speaker of the Majlis is Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a well-known conservative who previously ran against Rouhani. Ghalibaf was a top-ranking IRGC official and a commander of its Air Force.

Along with his parliamentary peers, Ghalibaf has been trying to challenge Rouhani and the members of his moderate-reformist wing ahead of the next presidential election, in May 2021.

This handout picture provided by the Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency (ICANA) on May 31, 2020, shows Iranian Parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (C) chairing a parliament session in the capital Tehran (ICANA NEWS AGENCY / AFP)

Rouhani, who has been president since 2013, cannot be reelected, but a representative of his moderate wing will aim to succeed him, possibly in a contest against Ghalibaf.

One of the names mentioned as a potential candidate for the moderate wing is Ali Larijani, a former speaker of the Majlis, who was recently appointed as adviser to the supreme leader.

Inundated with problems

The struggle between these two wings is deeply affecting Iran, complicating its response to the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the country.

“Rouhani can’t do much in the face of the pandemic and the economy. About 60 percent of the Iranian economy is not steered by elected officials, but by what’s known as the ‘Deep State,’” Javedanfar said.

“These are entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the allegedly ‘social’ funds. When the first COVID-19 cases were discovered in the sacred city of Qom, Rouhani wanted to impose a lockdown, but Khamenei and the ‘Deep State’ prevented him from doing so. Iran now has very significant problems, and I’m doubtful whether it can deal with them,” said Javedanfar.

Asked whether he thinks Iran will retaliate for the explosion in Natanz, Javedanfar was skeptical.

“In my estimation, the Iranian leadership is trying these days first and foremost to survive, at least until the US presidential election [in November],” he said. “They understand that even if Joe Biden is elected, he isn’t expected to lift the sanctions immediately, but his election would at least inspire hope.

Javedandar, indeed, argues that the accumulation of crises constitutes the biggest challenge the regime has faced since it came to power, albeit not one that threatens its collapse.

“I don’t know any Iranian administration since 1979 that has had to deal with such significant crises and challenges as today,” he added.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during the inaugural session of the new parliament in Tehran on May 27, 2020. (AFP)

Indeed, Iran is inundated with problems that threaten to suffocate its economy and citizens.

The most striking figure is the steep fall in the value of the Iranian currency, the rial. As of January, the rial was 128,000 to the US dollar. In recent weeks, the exchange rate fell as low as 250,000 rials to $1. The past few days have seen a slight improvement, after intervention by the Central Bank of Iran.

Unemployment rates have skyrocketed due to the pandemic, subsidies have been canceled and annual inflation is at 41%, leading to a dramatic rise in the price of basic commodities like rice and poultry.

Real wages have been eroded, and the administration knows full well that a new generation of poor people creates a fertile ground for instability. Even Rouhani’s deputy has acknowledged that Iran’s economy is at a critical stage.

Deliberately inflated numbers?

This week, Rouhani announced there have been an estimated 25 million coronavirus cases in Iran — out of a population of about 82 million — numbers so high as to be implausible. There may conceivably be several million carriers in Iran, but it’s also possible that Rouhani chose to inflate the numbers.

First of all, he may have wanted to create a sense of a crisis too dramatic for his government to handle, as a way to evade responsibility.

Secondly, he may have hoped to restore calm to the Iranian street. After turbulent demonstrations last November over a sudden increase in gasoline prices, the first wave of the pandemic was met with relative equanimity. However, over the past few weeks, protests were renewed on a smaller scale, after authorities decided to execute three organizers of the November protests. The court then announced it would reconsider the verdicts amid fear of a public outcry.

Moreover, it is possible that Rouhani is trying to signal to both Khamenei and the public that parliament and the conservative wing have been trying to curb him in a way that poses a direct threat to Iranian citizens and their health. Wary of the conservatives and well aware of the despair among young people, and the disappointment in his performance, he may be trying to improve the position of his wing ahead of the election in May.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a televised speech marking the anniversary of the 1989 death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, June 3, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Either way, the COVID-19 resurgence that started in May is indeed severe. There have been about 200 coronavirus-related deaths in Iran every day, and anger and concern are deepening.

“The situation is terrible,” Javedanfar said. “Those who can are trying to leave the country. There are more cases of depression and aggression. The despair leads people to act illogically, and the administration’s [handling of the crisis] encourages that behavior.

“Tehran’s stock exchange market is somehow booming in the most difficult time financially the country has experienced. We’ve seen unprecedented records. People invest fortunes in various companies that are on the verge of bankruptcy, and the administration resuscitates them. The Telegram channel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps encourages the public to invest in the stock exchange. Do you understand? People who can’t make a living are selling their cars, farmers are selling their tractors, in the hope of getting rich via the stock market.”

China’s vague deal

One development in Iran’s relationship with the outside world that has received significant attention is the agreement between China and Iran, according to which China will allegedly invest in Iran.

But it is doubtful whether this deal has substance. It seems more like a statement of intent that is meant, on the one hand, to show the United States that China will not accept dictates from US President Donald Trump and, on the other, to serve Iranian interests by giving hope to the public.

The deal includes no concrete or specific elements, at least not for the time being. For now, it seems designed to provide some internal resilience for the Iranian administration.

The explosion at a health clinic in Tehran, Iran, on June 30, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Facing paralyzing sanctions from the US and the rest of the world, the grim financial situation and the pandemic, the future of the Iranian public and administration is unclear.

Will Iran become more conservative? Perhaps. If a conservative president wins the election, the delicate balance between conservatives and moderates will be disrupted, and all three branches of government will be in the hands of conservatives — the parliament, the presidency and the judiciary, which is currently headed by Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative who has been flagged as a potential heir to Khamenei.

On the other hand, a victory by the moderate wing would send the message that the Iranian leadership wishes to follow the same lines as before, perhaps in the hope of change on the American side.

Neither a conservative takeover nor a balance between conservatives and moderates, however, is likely to bring about the collapse or overthrow of the regime.

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