What is happening today in Iran proves that the Spring is alive and well. In fact, we may trace its beginning to Iran in 2009, where it was triggered by election-rigging in Ahmadinejad’s camp. Two years later it spread like wildfire throughout the Arab world. Two regional oil powers, Saudi Arabia and Shiite fundamentalist Iran, did everything possible to drown the Spring in blood. Saudi Arabia financed the coup of General Sisi in Egypt, and Iran backed Assad’s efforts to wipe out the Syrian revolution. Hostility toward the Spring was shared equally by the Saudi and Iranian regimes, but Iran seemed to have the upper hand in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria – the Shia Crescent that keeps Israel awake at night.
Everything seemed finished: Saudi Arabia up to its neck in Yemen; Syria carved up among the victors (Putin, Erdogan and Khamenei); and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s long-time ally, aligning himself with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Suddenly, however, Iranian workers, students and young people took to the streets and spoiled the party. The paradox is that Iranian “triumphs” hastened the outbreak of the current demonstrations. Unlike the Green Movement that broke out in Tehran in 2009, the current protests are not calling just for reform of the Islamic regime, rather they are demanding its overthrow.
On the diplomatic front, Iran’s moderate reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, could pat himself on the back after the signing of the nuclear agreement with the Obama administration. The Iranian people put their faith in Rouhani. He managed to get rid of most economic sanctions on Iran, but on the other hand, he allowed Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, to conduct his adventures in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The sanctions were lifted, Iran returned to being an oil economy, which initially grew by 12%, and the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria was over.
The problem lies in the fact that economic growth did not trickle down. Daily life remains tough, and the annual budget submitted by Rouhani slashed subsidies on food and fuel. The public realized that oil revenues were being used to finance Soleimani’s adventures. Thousands of Iranians have poured into the streets protesting against Hezbollah, Hamas and Shiite militias in Iraq and Yemen. They are attacking the Iranian leadership because they feel that the military ventures have taken priority over the people’s welfare.
Today, many clever people are celebrating at the expense of the Iranian regime. They are led by the Saudis, Trump, and Netanyahu. The joy may be premature, however. Not because the demonstrations have still not swelled into a general revolt, but because the fall of the Iranian regime will benefit not the Saudis, nor Trump, nor Netanyahu. Iran’s fiscal difficulties stem from the same structural problems that Saudi Arabia suffers (even though the Saudis are dealing with them in a different way.) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman staged a palace coup and called for the modernization of his economy. The plan, Vision 2030, is intended to deal with the plunge in oil prices, which has spawned a budget deficit. Nevertheless, many pundits doubt his ability to make the necessary changes without an overhaul of the kingdom.
Despite their differences, Saudi Arabia and Iran are running a similar economic system of centralization in favor of the ruling class. In the case of the Saudis, it’s all about the royal court and those close to it. In the Iranian case, it’s about the Revolutionary Guards and those close to them. In both countries, the religious establishment is the final arbiter of law and lifestyle. Modesty patrols invade the private lives of citizens, and freedom of speech is limited to statements that do not harm the regime and “public sentiment.” Needless to say, interpreting “public sentiment” is in the hands of religious scholars alone. The two countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are hungry for foreign investment to diversify their economies, but corruption and severe restrictions on freedom drive potential investors away. Saudi Arabia and Iran both rely on oil exports to finance an Islamic welfare state, blocking the technological revolution which drives the economic engine of the 21st century.
The third industrial revolution, built on renewable energy and the Internet, makes oil economies irrelevant. At a time when traditional industries are losing ground to advanced manufacturing based on technology and renewable energy, Arab regimes and the Iranians are becoming an obstacle to economic development. They are sentencing most of their citizens to a life of backwardness and poverty. The origins of the Iranian and Arab Spring have roots in the failure of neoliberal economic regimes to ensure the welfare of the citizens, not only in the Middle East but also in Western economies and, first and foremost, the US itself. The fact that the Saudis succeeded in thwarting the Egyptian revolution, and the Iranians in thwarting the Syrian revolution, is temporary. The Spring will not skip over them.
The collapse of the Iranian regime, if it occurs, is liable to remove the “strategic threat” that has made Netanyahu’s entire career. In any case, the Iranian threat is more an Israeli fantasy than reality. Israel has been Iran’s excuse to expand its influence in the Arab world. The Iranian revolution has challenged the Saudi kingdom for hegemony in the Islamic world. Iran and Hezbollah inscribed “Jerusalem” on their banner in order to conquer Aleppo, Mosul, Sana’a, and Beirut.
The fall of the Iranian regime would catalyze the collapse of other dictators in the Middle East, such as Egypt’s Sisi, Syria’s Assad, and eventually the Saudi regime. The last seeks to sidestep this destiny by trying to build a modern economy layered on an archaic regime, but it cannot work. The Iranian threat will be removed from Israel, and in its place there will be a much greater threat: without nuclear weapons, without fundamentalist ideology, but equipped with weapons of knowledge and freedom of information. Let’s call it the threat of the new Arab Democracy.
The State of Israel is very invested in threats, and it has a strong army that identifies and deals with them. However, IDF intelligence failed to predict the revolution in Egypt, just as it did not foresee the first intifada 30 years ago. The concept of Arab civil society, modern economics, democratic government, the entry of the Arab world into the 21st century through renewable energy, and the internet revolution are not considered a possibility. The statement by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman that” democracy does not suit the Arabs” is a guiding light for Israel.
The fact is that Israel, the start-up nation and the “only democracy in the Middle East,” views benighted regimes such as the military dictatorship in Egypt and the Saudi royal family as strategic allies, and their possible fall as an immediate and tangible danger. In the Arab region, a reality will be created in which the “only democracy in the Middle East” will be judged according to what it is: a colonialist and fundamentalist state, a remnant of the last century. And who knows, perhaps the Spring will also knock on its door.
*Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman