Iran’s Leadership Faces a Heightened Crisis of Legitimacy

Tehran Confronts Problems at Home and Abroad

Iranian-Western relations have returned to their normal rhythm of a tightening ring of Western economic pressure, with new sanctions targeting IRGC officials and European denunciations of Iran’s violation of the JCPOA. At the same time, domestic discontent has risen sharply in Iran as a result of the government’s inadvertent killing of dozens of Iranians aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.
On January 14, France, Germany, and the UK formally accused Iran of violating the terms of its 2015 agreement to curb its nuclear program, which raises the spectre of the reimposition of U.N. sanctions lifted under the deal. In the statement, the E-3 said, “Iran has continued to break key restrictions set out in the JCPOA. Iran’s actions are inconsistent with the provisions of the nuclear agreement and have increasingly severe and non-reversible proliferation implications.” According to European officials, the Trump administration leveraged a prospective 25 percent tariff on European automobile imports in order to guarantee that Britain, France, and Germany would declare Iran in breach of the accord, testifying to Washington’s resolve on the issue.
On January 18, Washington took another measure to strengthen the hand of the Iranian protest movement when the State Department announced that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Hassan Shahvarpour, Khuzestan Province’s Vali Asr Commander, was being personally sanctioned for his involvement in “gross violations of human rights against protestors.” According to information supplied by Iranian dissidents, IRGC units under Shahvarpour’s command were responsible for the killing of up to 148 Iranians during the November protests in Mahshahr last year.
With respect to administration rhetoric, President Trump again rebuked Khamene’i directly on Twitter: “The noble people of Iran—who love America—deserve a government that's more interested in helping them achieve their dreams than killing them for demanding respect,” and urged Iran’s leaders to “abandon terror”. In an earlier, more caustically worded tweet, President Trump noted that “The so-called ‘Supreme Leader’ of Iran, who has not been so Supreme lately, had some nasty things to say about the United States and Europe,” and advised Khamene’i that “he should be very careful with his words!”
While the Western pressure campaign continues to take a toll on the Iranian government’s regional posture, a new source of stress has arisen on the domestic front. Earlier this week, Mojtaba Zolnour, the Chairman of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said "human error" was responsible for the downing of the Ukrainian plane in Tehran on January 8 which killed dozens of Iranian citizens. Iranian authorities have denied any larger responsibility for the tragedy, laying blame instead on a low-ranking missile operator who reportedly took the decision to fire "on the basis of his own judgement.”
This explanation did not sit well with Iranian protesters, who have defied security forces by repeatedly taking to the streets in protest. Many students and middle-class Iranians gathered in anti-government protests, while security forces responded with deadly force, wounding several. In a highly symbolic gesture indicating the deep distrust and resentment accumulated by Tehran’s handling of the incident, crowds of people outside Beheshti University refused to trample over giant U.S. and Israeli flags that had been painted on the ground, in an apparent rejection of the government's attempts to deflect blame.
Nor was rejection of the government’s narrative limited to the streets. Gelareh Jabbari, a host on the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting TV network, offered a public apology "for lying to you for 13 years," in an Instagram post last Monday addressing the crisis. Similarly, Taraneh Alidoosti, one of Iran’s most popular actors, also criticized the regime in a post to her 5.8 million Instagram followers. “We are not citizens, we are captives, millions of captives,” Alidoosti wrote in a now-deleted instragram post.
Indeed, by all accounts, the Iranian government is suffering from its most acute crisis of legitimacy in some time. And the actions and rhetoric of Western powers suggest that the pressure is unlikely to lessen any time soon.