Nineteenth century jurist Robert Ingersoll once said: “Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power. This is the supreme test.”
These words still ring true when it comes to individuals, institutions, states and even fledgling empires.
Defeat and deprivation can be dealt with; skilled rulers can use these to build a narrative to lull population into silence.
You can convince them that were it not for evil external forces, the Promised Land would have long since been theirs, that milk and honey would flow were it not for the Great Satans of the world.
But what do you tell them when you’ve won? How do you convince them to tighten their belts when you are declaring victory?
This is the dilemma the Iranian government is faced with. If you take the long-distance view from a Tehran balcony, everything looks wonderful: from being a deadly enemy in the 1980s, Iraq is now a zone of influence.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad (clearly beholden to Iran) is more firmly ensconced than at any point since the start of the civil war and Hezbollah is more battle-hardened and influential than ever, having extended its sphere beyond its traditional domain of Lebanon.
But at home there are rumblings where there should have been celebrations.
Over the past few weeks, at least 20 people have died during widespread protests which began with Iranians decrying the high prices of everyday items and raising their voices against what they see as widespread corruption and an economic model that does not look after their needs.
While there are rumours that the protests — which began in areas considered bastions of Iran’s hardliners — were intended to embarrass Rouhani (who made economic reform a major electoral plank), slogans were soon raised targeting the country’s powerful clerical establishment.
Significantly, some protesters even raised the slogan, “not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran” — an indication of discontent with what is being seen as a diversion of resources towards an expansionist foreign policy at the expense of ordinary citizens of Iran.
This is the cost of empire, as Iran’s expansion has not come cheap: while exact figures are elusive, Iran has provided credit lines of $4.6 billion to the Assad regime, a figure that does not include arms supplies or payments to the Iran-backed militias fighting in Syria.
Consider that there are over 50,000 militia members serving in Syria, each of whom is paid around $300 a month, not including the cost of training and supply. And then there’s the support given to Hezbollah, the Houthis and a host of other groups across the Middle East.
In all, it adds up to a pretty penny indeed and it seems the Iranian people — long fed on a diet of resistance — are now questioning why the state’s resources are not being spent on their welfare.
They have a point: while Iran’s GDP shot up after the lifting of sanctions, living standards have relatively declined and unemployment among young people remains a huge issue.
While the current protests are small and scattered and spread across smaller towns as compared with the massive demonstrations of 2009 which were mainly in large urban centres, the Iranian state’s response has been textbook: protesters have been accused of being foreign agents and enemies of the state, though at the same time there have also been calls for dialogue and for the government to address genuine demands.
Even now, with the Revolutionary Guard claiming to have quelled the “sedition”, it is clear that the root causes of the protest remain unaddressed.
Of course, what the Iranian establishment desperately needed in order to smear the protesters was for the US to openly support them and, true to form, the White House obliged.
Neocons who mutter “bomb Iran” with every breath suddenly became champions of the Iranian people, along with a President who doesn’t want a single Iranian to enter the US.
In typical fashion, Washington’s attempt to raise this issue in a special session of the UN Security Council quickly descended into farce, with Russia questioning why the Black Lives Matter protests in the US were not discussed in the Security Council as well.
Getting an accurate picture of what is happening in Iran is not an easy task: allies of Tehran will look at these protests as a Central Intelligence Agency/ Mossad conspiracy and opponents will portray them as the spark of a revolution, and both will use allied and subservient media outlets to propagate those views.
The truth, elusive as it may be, appears to be somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, all politics is local (even for aspiring empires) and — to borrow some wisdom from Bill Clinton’s 1992 election slogan — in the end “it’s the economy”.
By arrangement with Dawn...