BEIRUT- Why are citizens protesting in Iran? It’s a question raised by many local strategic analysts who described the Iranian protest as “one of the biggest for almost decades.” The answer lies primarily in military investments.
The protest wave erupted a week ago in the second most populous city in Iran, Mashhad, over socio-economic hardships – mostly high youth unemployment.
“The Iranian regime has allocated most resources to exporting the revolution and widening its regional influence; that’s why a huge amount of money is being spent on the revolutionary guard,” said Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Institute for Gulf and Near East Military Analysis, a Dubai-based think tank. Kahwaji is also founder and principal SD Arabia, an Arabic news website dedicated to military affairs that is a content partner of Defense News.
“The mismanagement of the economy and the bad allocation of resources have created a high level of poverty, which caused this huge reaction – especially after the recent decision to lift government support and funding to low income people,” Kahwaji added. “This has led to a backlash; the people have made it clear that they don’t want their government to be spending their money on the military adventures in Iraq, Syria and Gaza.”
The slogan “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I Give My Life for Iran” was repeated by the protesters – referring supposedly to the billions Tehran has spent on its allies across the region, mainly in the form of arms, equipment and training programs.
In mid2017, Israeli defense officials estimated Iran was spending $800 million annually on Hezbollah, and $70 million on Hamas – Gaza’s dominant faction, according to Reuters.
Recently, the agency quoted Israel’s armed forces chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot as stating that Iranian investment to support Hezbollah totals between $1 billion and $700 million each year. Investment in the Palestinian arena has also been growing with an increase in the annual funding in the Gaza Strip for Hamas and Islamic Jihad totally $100 million, according to Eizenkot.
One source who spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed Iran’s expanded military capabilities noting that “the Iranian protest is clearly due to implemented financial constraints set by the government in order to achieve specific objectives, such as enhancing Tehran’s defense capabilities while investing in missile defense, nuclear projects and auto-piloted vehicles.”
Last December, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Aerospace Force announced that Iran is today, “at the cutting edge of technology in the missile, drone and radar industries as well as the electronic warfare sphere.” Iran’s parliament has also voted in favor of boosting investment in its missile defense and foreign operations programs by more than $500 million, last August.
“Iran’s military spending has increased by roughly 20 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. During the last four years of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, Iran’s military spending has more than doubled,” said Majid Rafizadeh, president of the International American Council.
“Rouhani’s proposed budget for 2018-2019 has also prioritized the military by increasing its budget by nearly 90 percent while cutting subsidies for the poor,” Rafizadeh added. “The reason behind such a surge is linked to the Iranian regime’s military adventurism in other countries especially in the Syrian civil war as well as its support for proxies across the region.”
In a study published last February, Rafizadeh noted that the 2017 Iranian budget bill adds up to about $106 billion, according to official numbers. Roughly a quarter of this is transferred directly into the military, ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
In terms of response to the protests, military analyst Naji Malaeb expects police response and tear gas will be followed by the revolutionary guards and armored forces taking over.
“If we do not witness splits supported by internal or external armament within the Iranian army, the regime will remain stronger; and the significance of that is the speed in which the head of the Revolutionary Guard Lt. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari announced the elimination of the uprising,” he added.
Chirine Mouchantaf contributed stories on Middle East defense and wrote for SDArabia, an Arabic security and defense magazine.