The Iranian football team played Wales on November 25, 2022 at the soccer World Cup in Qatar, in a stadium located 9 kilometres from the centre of al-Rayyan. Before the match, an Iranian fan was arrested on live television for wearing a T-shirt praising the ongoing protests in his country. He was released four hours later, after his team won the match. While other sporting and non-sporting events in Qatar over the last month might have overshadowed the arrest, it is indicative of the magnitude of the anti-regime protests in Iran and the impact they have on the regional and international stage.
Due to their commonalities, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries are particularly interdependent, as the 2011 Arab uprisings clearly showed. On the one hand, the popular protests that first erupted in Tunisia spread like wildfire across the entire region, while on the other, several governments were able to "learn" containment strategies from each other and by observing countries previously impacted by similar events.
This, along with one of the defining characteristics of globalisation – the fact that domestic issues of nation states are no longer 'purely domestic' – suggest that the recent developments in Iran may represent a new tipping point for civil societies in the region and, consequently, a new challenge for several governments whether close to or unfriendly towards Iran.
The Iranian protests began with the death of a young Kurdish girl while detained by the so-called "morality police", but have spread quickly beyond the Kurds and women to include several social groups. While personal freedoms are at the heart of the protests, popular dissatisfaction is much broader. Thus, there are several reasons why the Iranian protests have the potential to reverberate at the regional level: they are intersectional, cross-generational, and cross-class. The main concerns associated with oppressive governmental systems and poor socioeconomic outcomes emerged without any kind of identity 'limitations' based on ethnicity, gender, social class, religion, or age. Furthermore, the country's age demographics are especially significant: roughly two-thirds of the population is under 30, with an average age of just over 30. This means that a large portion of the country's population was not politically 'born and raised' during the revolution, let alone the conflict with Iraq, which are the two defining moments in the formation of the Islamic Republic. This suggests that "detachment" from the current political system may be even more widespread than the protests suggest and the demographics are not that different across the region. Various social classes participated in the protests, including university students and parts of the working class. In short, the Iranian uprising exposes the weaknesses of an inadequate, poorly performing, and repressive political system; and they could undermine the regional order and the stability of governments in the region in two different ways.
First, the nature of the regimes in place across the region, and in the Persian Gulf in particular, exposes them to spill-over effects. In theory, Tehran's rival governments – Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in particular – might benefit from the Islamic Republic's instability and should be pleased to see their regional rival experiencing severe domestic difficulties. The regional political void Iranian instability creates, since domestic unrest forces Tehran to turn inwards, allows them to bolster their position. However, we have seen very little gloating in Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding Tehran’s troubles, almost as if they were thinking that similar popular mobilisations might occur in their countries too with the right spark. Broadly speaking, the desire for individual freedoms and democratic accountability is an undercurrent throughout the region and the failure of the 2011 uprisings have not ultimately prevented Sudanese, Algerian, Iraqi and Lebanese citizens from mobilising against the regimes in place since 2019. While the Gulf countries can provide a much higher level of economic goods to their citizens than Iran, the political and social dimension can be a significant mobilising factor. After all, hydrocarbon wealth did not prevent Libya and Bahrain from experiencing uprisings of their own. Thus, while Tehran's rivals may take advantage of the Islamic Republic's moment of weakness, Gulf countries should be concerned with the magnitude of the protests that could inspire their own civil societies. Countries outside the Gulf – such as Syria and Lebanon – might be more affected due to their clear transnational and direct alignment with Tehran. Both countries are in dire straits. Lebanon is still reeling from the 2019 protests that were sparked by a chronic economic crisis from which it is unable to recover and has seen the survival of a rigid sectarian political system. Syria, in the midst of a slow and difficult process of post-conflict reconstruction, owes the survival of its regime to Tehran and needs large-scale investments as well as political support, which Russia may no longer be able to provide due to the war in Ukraine. If Tehran were to move further away from its external commitments to deal with the domestic situation, this might leave Syria and Hezbollah increasingly isolated, allowing other actors, such as the Saudis or Turkey, to take advantage.
Second, there is always the risk of Tehran exporting its instability. While there is no sign that Iran is intent on creating incidents that might distract its citizens from the current domestic situation, authoritarian regimes, feeling the danger of their own demise, often resort to foreign conflicts to quash dissent at home and create a rally-around-the-flag sentiment. Exploiting the volatile regional environment could ensure that the weakness of the regime might be seen among Iranians as opening the door to foreign interventions or interference and therefore ‘forcing’ them to restrain their opposition.
It is very difficult to predict what the outcome of the Iranian protests will be domestically and what their impact abroad is or will be if they continue. However, considering the authoritarian backsliding in the region after the 2011 uprisings, the protests have the potential to further destabilise the region. The direction – chaos or genuine democratic political change – is yet to be determined.
 Heydemann, S., & Leenders, R. (2011). Authoritarian learning and authoritarian resilience: regime responses to the ‘Arab Awakening’. Globalizations, 8(5), 647-653.
 Waldner, D., & Lust, E. (2018). Unwelcome change: Coming to terms with democratic backsliding. Annual Review of Political Science, 21(1), 93-113.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect ISPI's position.