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Iran is in survival mode

“Everyone must know that America is in decline and doomed to collapse,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in his response to the reimposition of US economic sanctions against his country.

Iran on the other hand, he claimed, has achieved “economic independence” and boasts a “blossoming industry.” A week after the Khamenei’s defiant November 3 address, Iranian Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri warned against the threat of “unemployment and decline in purchasing power in the era of new sanctions.” This analysis is publicly shared by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who said: “I don’t have a good feeling about the [rising] prices.”

The discrepancy between the two points of view begs the question: Which assessment of Iran’s economy to believe?

Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, probably does not share Khamenei’s view of Iran’s economy as “blossoming” or independent but in his November 12 opinion article in the New York Times, Nasr argued: “The ruling circles in Tehran already seem confident that the economy has absorbed much of the shock of American sanctions.”

Iran’s Law Enforcement Force (LEF) appears to agree more with Jahangiri’s and Zarif’s analyses than with the assessments of Khamenei and Nasr. Changes within the LEF are a good indicator.

Improvement of the performance of the LEF and personnel changes indicate their risk analysis. Since 2015, the LEF has been led by Brigadier-General Hossein Ashtari, who previously served as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) counter-espionage chief. On October 24, Brigadier-General Ayoub Suleimani was promoted to LEF deputy chief, which may mean he is eventually to replace Ashtari.

Suleimani’s rise is the latest in a series of personnel changes at the very highest levels of the LEF since December 2017. In January this year, barely a month after bread riots broke out in more than 80 cities over Iran, Ashtari appointed a new Plan and Programme chief, a new dean for the Law Enforcement University, a new engineering chief, a new head for Interpol and a new Economics and Finance chief. In March, Ashtari appointed a new police chief in Greater Tehran. He also made other lower-level appointments.

The personnel changes are somewhat surprising because the LEF’s performance during the unrest of the past year has been professional and effective. As Brandeis University’s Saeid Golkar has pointed out: “Iranian police were well-organized, trained and equipped.”

Police did not overreact to the protests and did not escalate grievances through excessive force. Some protesters were killed but those incidents were in smaller towns. In the major urban population centers, police contained the protests with no loss of life. Golkar correctly said the performance of the police was so good the regime did not need to deploy the Basij and IRGC forces.

The LEF personnel changes may be seen as further optimization of the Iranian police in anticipation of a deepening social crisis in an Iran under the weight of US economic sanctions. Regardless of how forcefully Khamenei tries to communicate his message about Iran’s “blossoming” economy, the regime largely appears to be planning for the worst.

Iran has gone into survival mode and one must expect increased policing as ordinary Iranians’ purchasing power steadily declines.

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