04/18/2023, 00.00
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Bassiri Tabrizi: Iran caught between 'existential crisis' and 'looking East

by Dario Salvi

The Rusi expert recounts the Islamic Republic between (fading) street protests and the embrace of China and Russia. The resumption of relations with Riyadh important and with "tangible" results in Yemen, but it is too early to speak of peace. The role of women the 'most important' factor in the demonstrations against the veil, but laws have tightened. The difficult international support for the uprising.

Milan (AsiaNews) - In foreign policy, attention is turning "ever further east" and ties with China and Russia are being strengthened. The resumption of relations with Riyadh is an "important development" that seems to be bringing "tangible results" in Yemen, although it is too early to assume a lasting peace because there are "other parties" involved. On the domestic front, there is a subsiding of protests, but the reasons for the uprising have not been addressed or resolved. This is what Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, an expert on Iranian affairs and Middle East geopolitics, tells AsiaNews in this interview. A Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), an advisor to international think-tanks and a contributor to the most influential global media, she has in recent years delved into the issues of radicalisation and drone proliferation. "The Islamic Republic may not be facing an existential threat, but it is certainly experiencing a deep existential crisis," he says, "which [...] will lead to more mobilisation in the future.
Below is the full interview with the Rusi expert:

Does the resumption of relations between Riyadh and Tehran really represent a turning point?
It is an important development [resulting from] negotiations that started with the previous government in Iraq of PM [Mustafa] al-Kadhimi, but it took a long time to get to where we are now and Yemen was crucial in bringing the two sides on an equal footing. In addition to the bilateral negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, there are also.direct negotiations between Riyadh and the Houthis, which seem to be bringing tangible results as we have seen and will see in the coming weeks. There is a desire on both sides to reach a détente, which does not mean normalisation but it is the recognition that these [confrontation-ridden] relations from 2016 onwards, but especially from 2017 onwards with the Trump administration have not benefited anyone.

What are the consequences on the regional level? 
Although it is too early to say, Yemen is definitely the starting point. A crucial one for Saudi Arabia, but it is also the one on which Iran seems most likely to reach an agreement. The other potential fields are Syria and Lebanon, indirectly also Iraq, which has been crucial in bringing Tehran into a bad light in the eyes of the Saudis. In the meantime, we have to see if this [agreement] in Yemen works and what it leads to, because these are limited areas. Even an agreement between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, however much it may bring détente between the parties, does not necessarily mean the end of the conflict because there are other parties [involved] that feel completely excluded. It is not an overall resolution of the conflict in Yemen. It is about translating successes into a more comprehensive agreement that is recognised by the other parties, which it is not at the moment.

Widening the field, we are increasingly moving in the direction of a clash of blocs: on one side the West, on the other Iran, China and Russia?
At the moment this seems to be the most likely trend, which moreover reinforces President [Ebrahim] Raisi's initial position that he wanted to pursue the policy of 'looking east'. Tehran has aimed to improve relations with its neighbours and, from their point of view, this policy [targeting Moscow and Beijing] is working, so they will continue in this direction. 

Recently, thousands of cases of poisoning of schoolgirls have emerged in Iran. Do you think they are related to the protests over Mahsa Amini?
It is difficult to understand what is going on because the information is limited. There have been numerous arrests of alleged perpetrators but it is not really clear who the perpetrators are, whether they are people affiliated with the government or others who want to fuel a new popular mobilisation against the leadership. It remains complicated to understand the impact and the connection with the protest movement, although there is certainly dissatisfaction among the population with the regime, not least because of the way the repressions have been handled, the executions.

Returning to the demonstrations, today the momentum seems to have waned after an initial phase in which Tehran seemed to waver. What is the situation on the ground?
The protests have subsided not because there is no longer any dissatisfaction or anger with the regime, but because the reasons have not been addressed or resolved for a number of factors. There is no acceptance [of the leadership of the Islamic Republic] to change, to reform, to give space to the issue of the veil, of the morality police. If anyone expected a softening, in reality the opposite has happened and there has been a further hardening and even stricter implementation of the rules [that stifled the uprising]. Women are monitored in the streets, spotted and arrested if they do not wear the hijab properly. The regime has not heeded the people's call for more freedom and rights; however, without this change the protests will - sooner or later - return.

Staying with teh protests, the courage and the role of women was striking. What do they represent for Iranian society today? 
This was the most important factor in all the demonstrations and potentially will have the most lasting impact when compared to the popular mobilisation of Iranians. This is also part of the fact that there is an erosion between state and society that is gradually increasing, a process that has been going on for years and intensifies after each demonstration. The Islamic Republic may not be facing an existential threat, but it is certainly experiencing a deep existential crisis that could be dangerous in the long run for its very survival and will lead to more mobilisations in the future.

The ayatollahs' repression has also hit minorities hard, starting with the Kurds...
The biggest impact of these demonstrations has been on minorities, and abroad. While, on the one hand, the regime did not give the feeling of being threatened by what was happening inside Iran, on the other hand there was an attempt to take advantage of what was happening to resolve the minorities issue starting with the Kurds, especially the dissident groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan. We clearly saw how there was an attempt on the part of Iran to link domestic and international developments, bringing them to its own advantage and mitigating a threat to its security that would otherwise have been more difficult to deal with. 

In your opinion, has there been a kind of international 'abandonment' of the Iranian protest movement?
It is hard to say, because international support is important but it is also a delicate aspect. On the domestic front, there is already a tendency for the regime to accuse the protesters of being spies, supported by the West, by international forces and, therefore, it becomes more risky to provide them with support from outside. At the international level, the albeit clumsy attempt at support came through sanctions and a series of declarations that had no impact in changing Tehran's behaviour, the points of influence are very limited. There is also a delicate balance at play, which must take into account support for the population without interfering too much so as not to make it counterproductive, because it could intensify repression. And the international movements or opposition groups outside do not always represent the vision of those demonstrating.


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