Last week, prior to the shock resignation of Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the issue of Iran’s regional projects led to heated debates on both social and traditional media outlets.
The debate sparked off on February 12, 2018, when Zarif emphasized the Islamic Republic’s support for anti-Israel militants — in spite of the economic costs of this policy. Zarif announced: "We are proud of defending the people of Palestine", while admitting that, as a result of this defence, "we are all under pressure.”
A day later, Ali Karimi, former superstar of the Iranian national football team, asked the following question on his Instagram page: "Which 'we' are under pressure Doctor Zarif? Strictly speaking, 'you', or 'us'?" Voria Ghafouri, a current Iranian football star, also addressed the foreign minister on Instagram: "You are not under pressure. As a matter of fact, it is the ordinary people who are under pressure."
In an unexpected response to these comments, Ayatollah Khamenei said on February 18, 2019: "Some people, who benefit from the country's peace and security enjoying their jobs and their favorite sports and bite the hand that feeds them, should know that security is obtained by the current policies of the Islamic Republic.”
Just a few hours after the Supreme Leader's remarks, Iranian media reported that the ministry of sports' security department had summoned Voria Ghafouri to explain his now-famous Instagram post. However, even after the Leader’s harsh reaction, Ghafouri insisted on his position, maintaining that the purpose of his post had been to “reflect people’s pain.” He added: “I am ashamed of seeing people queuing to buy meat and chicken”.
The above exchange between the two famous footballers and the Iranian authorities unsurprisingly made the headlines and led to a massive reaction on social media. Many people praised the footballers, especially Voria Ghafouri, who had dared to insist on his position after the Leader’s remarks. They expressed support for the footballers’ comments regarding the effect Tehran’s foreign policy has on people’s standards of living. On the other hand, some criticized Karimi and Ghafouri, accusing them of siding with the foreign-led propaganda of Iran’s enemies.
The Rise of Support for Iran’s Regional Projects
There is no independent, reliable survey on the view Iranian people have regarding the Islamic Republic’s involvement in other countries’ affairs. However, there is little doubt that this view has been subject to tangible changes over the last few years.
In general, it would appear that people’s support for the Islamic Republic’s regional projects has usually been affected by the country’s economic conditions. For instance, it appears that the more economic sanctions affect people’s livelihoods, the more they become sensitive about the costs of Iran’s regional policies.
In such an atmosphere, after the intensification of international sanctions in 2011, social networks hosted a meaningful increase in the expression of critical views about Iran’s financial support for Lebanese and Palestinian militants. This criticism also rose after the Islamic Republic’s increasing involvement in Syria’s civil war in 2012.
However, ISIS victories in Iraq and this group’s advances toward Iranian borders in 2014 increased people’s concerns and boosted public support for the Revolutionary Guards’ extraterritorial operations. Due to the new security conditions, the Iranian regime managed to convince an increasing proportion of people that “if today we do not crush our enemies in Syria and Iraq, we will have to confront them tomorrow inside the country.” At the same time, the positive prospect of the nuclear negotiations and people’s increasing hopes for the removal of international sanctions played a tangible role in decreasing their concerns over the economic costs of Iran’s regional projects.
Over the course of the following years, the military victories of Iranian forces and their allies in Iraq and then Syria led to even more public support for the Revolutionary Guards’ military presence abroad.
Under such conditions, it was no surprise that Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the extraterritorial branch of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, became one of Iran’s most popular personalities. According to a survey conducted by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) in conjunction with Toronto-based polling organization IranPoll.com, in the beginning of 2018 Soleimani was possibly more popular than any other official in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This telephone survey, which was conducted between January 16 and January 24, 2018 and included interviews with 1,002 Iranian citizens throughout the country, suggests that 64.7 percent of respondents had a “very favorable” opinion of Soleimani, with 18 percent being “somewhat favorable” to him. The majority of Ghasem Soleimani’s supporters were apparently not conservative people. For instance, only 19.1 percent of respondents were "favorable” to Ebrahim Raeesi, the main conservative candidate to rival Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election — less than one fourth the number of respondents who had a similar opinion of Ghasem Soleimani.
It was clear that in addition to the Iranian conservatives, a great proportion of pro-Rouhani people and reformists, ranging from celebrities to activists, supported Iran’s military presence in other countries of the region. Many of such people did not support the Revolutionary Guards in general, but they supported this force’s role in confronting regional enemies of Iran.
Apart from the conservatives and reformists, many ordinary Iranian citizens who do not engage overtly in politics express friendly opinions about Iran’s presence in the region out of patriotism. Many of these citizens went on to social media to express their unhappiness with the Iranian regime’s performance when it came to the economy and from social perspectives, but they believed Iran needs strong commanders such as Soleimani.
Perhaps the most surprising supporters of Iran’s presence in Syria and Iraq were a group of Iranian regime opponents, including some foreign-based opposition activists. It may seem strange that even a certain number of Iranian monarchists — harsh critics of the Islamic Republic and Ayatollah Khamenei — were among these supporters. Such opposition figures did come under verbal attack from other opposition activists, but defended their position by emphasizing that they, as Iranian nationalists, were not ashamed to support Iranian soldiers who fight against foreign enemies.
Fall of Support for Iran’s Regional Expenses
Despite the significant support for Iran’s presence in Syria and Iraq, for many Iranians this support has not been endless or unconditional.
Since the end of ISIS in Iraq and successive defeats of this group in Syria, many of supporters of Iran’s military presence in the Middle East have questioned the continuation of this presence. For many critics, it has especially been unclear why Iran needs to stay in Syria when it seems obvious that ISIS is no longer on the verge of approaching Iran’s borders.
In particular, many people seem worried about the possibility of the Revolutionary Guards’ continued presence in Syria near Israeli borders. Of course, one cannot deny that the staunch supporters of the Iranian regime do not disagree with the Revolutionary Guards threatening Israel. Many of these supporters persistently seek revenge against Israel’s numerous raids on the bases that allegedly belong to the Revolutionary Guards or their allies. However, it appears that an increasing number of Iranians are expressing concerns about the heavy costs that the country will bear from a possible military conflict with Israel.
In addition, Iran’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen since 2015 has also worried a considerable number of Iranians. This involvement has always had fewer supporters than Iran’s presence in Syria or Iraq. It was clear from the beginning that many people who backed extraterritorial enterprises to counter ISIS did not see any point in Iran’s involvement in a civil war that had nothing to do with their country’s security, taking place about 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) beyond its borders. One cannot deny that a great number of Iranians dislike Saudi Arabia and absolutely do not support this country’s war against Yemen, but at the same time, they do not want to pay the cost for yet another civil war in a faraway country.
The Case of Iran’s Support for anti-Israel Groups
Apart from controversies over the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Syria’s and Yemen’s civil wars, Iran’s support for anti-Israel militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas has been the subject of heated discussions on social media for quite a long time.
The majority of the critics of this support seem to be against it out of economic, rather than political, considerations. Many of them may be indifferent to or critical of Israel’s policies. However, the critics disagree with the Islamic Republic’s huge expenses to support anti-Israel armed groups. Not only on social media, but also in a number of street protests since January 2018, people have been criticizing Tehran’s financial support for Lebanese and Palestinian groups, especially since such funds are badly needed to resolve the economic problems of Iranians.
There is no surprise that the intensification of economic hardship over the last year has largely contributed to a rise in people’s sensitivity over the Islamic Republic’s extraterritorial expenditure. On the other hand, it is also clear that the Iranian regime is determined not to step down from its regional policies, thus cracking down on any critical views toward Iran’s support for its militant proxies in the Middle East.
As a result, it would appear that, until further notice, the Iranian Leader and his associates are quite dedicated to portraying the Islamic Republic’s regional policies as a red line that will never be easy to cross. This dedication is obviously the main rationale behind the regime’s harsh reactions to critical remarks on the Islamic Republic’s regional expenditure, including the recent remarks by Voria Ghafouri and Ali Karimi.