Not since the mid-1980s, the height of the war with Iraq, has the Islamic Republic had a year this bad. For ordinary Iranians, 2020 brought disease, death and dearth on a scale few have experienced. For their theocratic rulers, it brought a series of embarrassments and reversals, at home and abroad, bookended by the loss of two of the regime’s great champions.
Year’s end saw a glimmer of optimism — things could scarcely get worse — in 2021, especially if the new administration is Washington is more charitably inclined toward the regime in Tehran. But the likelihood of a hardliner becoming Iran’s next president in the summer bodes ill, for Iranians and the wider world.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s annus horribilis began with the devastating death of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and designated for terrorist activities by the U.S. He was killed on Jan. 3 in a U.S. drone strike on his convoy in Baghdad.
The location and his company — the head of the most powerful Iraqi Shiite militia was killed with him — were appropriate enough: Soleimani managed the militias and terrorist groups that Iran uses for mayhem and mass murder across the Middle East. Khamenei wept bitter tears at the funeral, and prominent regime figures swore revenge.
But Soleimani was unavenged 11 months later when new threats of retribution rang out from the same quarters, this time for Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the country’s top nuclear-weapons expert. To the regime’s mortification, he was shot dead on the outskirts of Tehran, presumably by Israel.
Both men were given showy funerals, and Iranians were encouraged to mourn them as martyrs and show solidarity with the theocracy. But a stampede at Soleimani’s funeral killed 56 people, providing a telling reminder of the government’s incompetence and lack of concern for citizens. In any case, no stage-managed sorrow could distract attention from the regime’s rotten core, which was exposed again and again throughout the year.
The downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet shortly after takeoff from Tehran on Jan. 8 was a foreshadowing of tragedies to come. Typically, the regime’s first response was to deny that an Iranian missile brought it down, until the lie could no longer be sustained. The killing of 176 people on board, most of them Iranians, went unpunished.
The pattern was repeated when the coronavirus epidemic broke out. Officials dissimulated and obfuscated, even as the death rate quickly became the region’s worst. By the time borders were shut and cities locked down, the medical system was already overwhelmed.
The regime then alternated between claims the crisis was made worse by U.S. sanctions and assertions that it needed no outside help. It pleaded poverty and demanded $5 billion from the International Monetary Fund, but apparently had no difficulty funding the IRGC and its nefarious activities.
If things were bad on the domestic front, they were not much better abroad.
Iran’s long-standing strategy of intervention by proxy in the affairs of its neighbors faced difficult challenges, made even more daunting by the loss of Soleimani, the strategy’s main executor. Having given up prime-mover status to Russia and Turkey in the Syrian civil war, it was powerless against repeated Israeli attacks on IRGC installations and supply routes in the country. The continuing political impasse in Lebanon — and the devastating explosion in the Beirut port — left its cats-paw, Hezbollah, on the defensive.
In Iraq, Tehran-backed political parties faced widespread public dissatisfaction, and the deadly attacks on protesters by Shiite militias only deepened resentments about Iranian interference. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is less beholden to Iran than his predecessors; if he can push through proposed election reforms, the vote next summer could reduce the influence of sectarianism in Iraqi politics, and with it Iranian leverage.
The flurry of “peace” deals between Israel and Arab states brought more worrying neighborhood news. If last year’s attacks on Saudi oil installations and Emirati shipping were meant to shake regional support for the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, they only pushed the Arabs into a closer embrace with the Israelis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Saudi Arabia portends even worse to come for Tehran.
The new alliances allow Iran’s enemies to strengthen their defenses, and to access more advanced offensive weapons. Tehran’s own chances of acquiring modern weaponry were improved by the Trump administration’s failure to extend a United Nations embargo on such purchases, but the expected flurry of deals with Chinese and Russian arms manufacturers has not materialized: Trump’s sanctions, tightened even in his final weeks in office, continued to scare away those seeking business with the regime.
The outcome of the U.S. presidential election allows the regime some reason for optimism about 2021, especially since President-elect Joe Biden has signaled his interest in returning to the nuclear deal that Trump trashed. Excited at the prospect, the Iranian government drafted an annual budget that projects oil exports at pre-sanctions levels.
But this optimism may have been unwarranted. In the weeks after the election, the Biden camp began to equivocate about a return to the nuclear deal and indicated a swift dismantling of Trump’s sanctions was not on the cards. For his part, Khamenei has said there can be no new negotiations: The U.S. must return to the deal, period.
Significantly, the European signatories of the deal may be having second thoughts, given Iran’s breaches of its terms. Trump’s departure gives them political license to fall in line behind the American position and press for Iranian concessions on non-nuclear issues, such as missile development and other menaces. They will likely go along with Biden’s proposal that Arab states have a prominent voice in negotiations, which would have been anathema for Tehran even before the “normalizations” with Israel.
And so, the Islamic Republic arrives at the end of 2020, looking back in anger and frustration, and with fingers tightly crossed for the year to come. Putting the pandemic to one side, the event that will define 2021 is the Iranian election, scheduled for June.
With hard-liners making the most of the early running, the campaign will likely feature even more anti-Western rhetoric than normal — hardly the most propitious climate for diplomacy. After a year in which the regime has failed on every other front, it will almost inevitably double down on its only other source of legitimacy: the visceral anti-Americanism that sustains Khamenei and his theocrats.
For ordinary Iranians, another unhappy year awaits.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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