Iran’s catch-22

Make no mistake, Iran may not have asked for the events that have unfolded over the past week, but they do provide oxygen for its dying regime. That alone should be of great concern, writes Saeed Rahnema.

By: /
10 January, 2020
A picture of Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, is seen on the former US Embassy's building in Tehran, January 7, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
Saeed Rahnema
By: Saeed Rahnema
Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

Following actions over the past week — the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by US forces in Iraq, Iran’s retaliatory missile attack against US bases there and the horrific downing of a commercial airline, now looking increasingly part of this mess — there is an observation largely missing from the analysis: While Iran would not have chosen the death of its top general, the weakening regime was in desperate need of fuel for its fire. With the United States initiating the first of these events, Iran may have received just that.

The Islamic regime in Iran has from its inception in 1979 dreamt of regionally expanding its influence. Thanks to a number of factors following the long Iran-Iraq war, and taking advantage of successive failures of US policies in the Middle East and continued regional conflicts, the Islamic regime was able to establish footholds in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Yemen, among others. Putting itself on a collision course with the United States and its allies, in particular Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Islamic regime quickly realized that nurturing and supporting militant Shia groups in the region was essential for its existence and mobilization as needed. Yet, it also realized that maintaining these groups was hugely costly, not just financially, but also politically. Hence the catch-22: Iran has needed to keep these groups to protect itself, yet there are inherent dangers in holding on to them.

With heightened tensions following the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in 2018, the imposition of sanctions and a series of confrontations that escalated significantly with the January 3 assassination of Soleimani — the top culprit responsible for successfully exporting the Islamic revolution — the regime faced another catch-22: if it did not respond proportionately by attacking a major American target, it would be further discredited among its supporters, but if it did retaliate, it would be hit hard by further US attacks. After orchestrating massive funeral processions earlier this week for Soleimani by inciting religious sentiments and closing schools, government agencies and shops, Iran opted initially for a face-saving response, shooting several missiles to two safe targets — military bases in Iraq. (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among others, has now said that intelligence points to Iran as the cause of the Wednesday crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which killed all on board including 63 Canadians and 82 Iranians. The reasons for the downing of the plane by surface-to-air missile remain unclear, however.)

As it stands now, it appears the unexpected killing of Soleimani was ironically both good and bad for the Islamic regime.

The losses are obvious; Iran was humiliated and lost its most experienced military strategist. But, the regime also gained a lot. Just a few weeks ago, it was confronted with yet another rebellion of the Iranian people who poured into streets in over 180 cities. These protests and their brutal suppression posed a most formidable challenge to the very foundation of the Islamic regime, at a time when for a variety of reasons it could no longer make full use of the range of apparatuses of state control, i.e. economic, ideological, and repressive.

Economically, the regime is broke, largely as a result of mismanagement, out of control corruption and the growing costs of its external operations. Severe sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have only worsened the situation. Over 40 percent of the economy is under the control of religious foundations operating as holding companies that pay no taxes, and a significant part of the government budget, more than what is spent on education, is allocated to a multitude of disgraced Islamic institutions and seminaries.

Now the regime has the ability to unite many of its different factions…and lead to an even worse situation for the movements of workers, women, students, environmentalist, and ethnic and religious minorities.

Ideologically also, the regime is almost totally bankrupt. The apparatuses which were once more potent than those of the fascist regimes are now discredited. Even the most ardent loyal supporters see the moral bankruptcy of the Islamic elite, with mullahs and Islamic generals and their families living lavishly and their children driving around the streets of Tehran in their Porsches and Lamborghinis, and daily news of billions of dollars disappearing and disgraced officials escaping Iran – many landing in Canada. Outside of Iran as well, the regime has faced humiliating situations in major Shia cities in Iraq, with attacks on Iranian consulates and calls for Iran to “go home.”

As a result of all of the above, all that remains are the repressive apparatuses, which have always been in their arsenal, but are now essentially the sole means of ruling the country. In the latest country-wide protests, reportedly several hundred people, possibly more, were killed and several thousand imprisoned.

In its fourtieth year, the regime is dying, but it is a very slow death. Now, thanks to the lawless act of the Trump administration, the regime has the ability to present itself as a victim of imperialism, and unite many of its different factions. While it will not succeed in mass mobilization for its upcoming parliamentary elections in February, it will most certainly gain support from some sections of the population. It will strengthen and embolden the more hardline factions and lead to an even worse situation for the movements of workers, women, students, environmentalist, and ethnic and religious minorities. The killing of Soleimani has ironically provided some much needed oxygen for the dying regime.

The situation and latest developments will present gains and losses for the US government as well. While Trump and the Republicans gain by getting to proudly announce the killing of a terrorist leader, which may help Trump’s re-election, the losses are big. Every American in the region is now in greater danger than ever, and in Iraq, where over 5,000 US troops are currently stationed across 15 bases, they will either be staying much longer and more troops will need to be (re)deployed, or the US will have handed Iraq to the Iranian regime and its agents. The vote by the Iraqi parliament earlier this week to expel Americans — though not legally binding — is another humiliation for the US.

It is difficult to anticipate the cost-benefit for both sides with any great precision and to determine which regime has gained more from Soleimani’s killing. All 176 who lost their lives Wednesday have already paid the price for this unfolding drama. Others caught in the crosshairs — including Canadian troops — continue to face uncertainty. But what is most certain of all is that the losers are — and will continue to be — the Iranian people whose bold movements against the Islamic regime have to endure more hardships, and the Iraqi people who face continued and escalating conflicts living under an illegitimate pro-Iranian government.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter