Political upheavals are like dam failures. To the casual observer, they appear to happen in an instant. In actuality, what causes dams – and political systems – to break are years of unaddressed small leaks that create mounting pressure, until one final drop causes the entire structure to collapse. Iran is starting to show some leaks and the West needs to be prepared or risk getting flooded.
On 23 May, a 10-story building collapsed in Iran’s south-western city of Abadan. Large parts of the commercial Metropol building, located in the busiest street at the centre of the city, were reduced to rubble. The death toll has risen to 41, with many more injured. The incident in Abadan is the deadliest of its kind in Iran for years.
Authorities are blaming the collapse of the building on individual corruption and lax safety measures. They have so far arrested 13 people for construction violations. Property developer of the Metropol building, Hossein Abdol-Baghi, is said to be one of the victims of the collapse, according to the authorities. Yet locals are deeply suspicious of the official narrative and believe influential backers, likely senior leadership, helped him flee the country to escape Iranians’ wrath.
The belief that Abdol-Baghu must have escaped speaks to the level of anger at corruption in the Islamic Republic. When Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sent a cleric to Abadan, he was shouted down as he tried to address mourners near the site of the collapse. It wasn’t an isolated incident. The Ayatollah has been the main target of demonstrations across Iran, with protesters even chanting “Death to Khamenei!” Iran’s government considers anti-Khamenei slogans a red line.
While this is not a prediction of Iran’s imminent collapse, leaks are appearing in more places and more frequently across Iran.
Three weeks ago, the government cut subsidies for eggs, chicken, dairy products, and cooking oil which has sent prices soaring. Inflation has reached nearly 40 per cent. Despite the resumption of Western sanctions since 2018 after the US pulled out of the multilateral 2015 nuclear deal, many Iranians blame government ineptitude and corruption for the growing litany of woes, including high inflation. Economic protests have spread across the country and have quickly become political.
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The province of Khuzestan, where Abadan is located, was also the centre of anti-regime protests in 2019 prompted by the rising cost of fuel. They ended in violence with more than 300 people killed and thousands arrested, according to Amnesty International. Incidentally, Iran’s biggest oil and gas reserves are in Khuzestan and are a frequent site of popular discontent. The stark contrast between the wealth being extracted and the high poverty levels in the region, physically manifests the inequality and corruption Iranians face.
In an eerie echo, the mass protests that swept across Kazakhstan earlier this year also originated from their main oil and gas production region – Zhanaozen – after a sudden hike in prices. Kazakhstan had been the most stable nation in the region before civil unrest nearly toppled the government. Like Khuzestan, Zhanaozen had been the site of frequent protests over the years.
The recent seizure of international tankers and increasing attacks between Israel and Iran point to a more reckless Iran as it faces mounting pressure both internally and externally. And with reports that the country now has enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb, it is a critical time for the US to increase its support for its partners in the region.
The UAE in particular could play a decisive role in spearheading diplomatic efforts to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. The Emirates has improved its relations with Israel and the West, and its historic ties to Tehran positions the country as the ideal interlocutor for a renewed deal. The UAE is also looking to burnish its diplomatic credentials and will therefore be keen to demonstrate its ability to broker a much-needed agreement.
Despite the pessimism around the possibility of a renewed multilateral deal, the worsening economic conditions in Iran, the arrival of new diplomatic players like the UAE could be the missing piece needed to solve this ever-changing jigsaw.
Dr Majid Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council, a board member of the Harvard International Review at the University of Harvard, and a member of the Gulf Project at the University of Columbia.