The mullahs of Iran have some unpleasant news to digest; police and rioters were fighting today in the streets of Tehran as unhappiness over the country’s collapsing currency and decrepit economy boiled over into violence. As the New York Times reports, protesters linked the regime’s unpopular foreign policy with their domestic woes. The Times story says that one demonstrator apparently shouted that “They spend billions of dollars to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, but now they say they have no money!”This is very true, and it is not the kind of thought the mullahs want their flock to be thinking.Essentially, Iran is trying to support a hugely ambitious foreign policy on the back of a weakening economy, and it’s unclear how long the political system can bear the strain. This is a time for everyone concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and its hegemonic aspirations in the region to ratchet up the pressure. That doesn’t just include economic sanctions; it includes the pressure on Iran’s client regime in Damascus. Assad was once a vital asset for Iranian foreign policy, but he is increasingly a point of vulnerability — a cost center. Iran has to support him because the loss in prestige and regional influence would be crippling if it is expelled from Damascus — but Iran can’t keep bailing him out forever, and the effort to do so will further destabilize the shaky economy at home.This is the regime’s greatest moment of vulnerability since the contested re-election of President Ahmadinejad sent hundreds of thousands of angry protesters into the streets. That doesn’t mean that today’s protests will swell and grow into a major challenge to mullah rule; rather, what we see is the regime being forced into a corner where it will have to choose between its inflated and unsustainable international ambitions (including the nuclear program) and its domestic hold on power.Raising the price for Iran’s policies in Syria and enhancing the effectiveness of sanctions are the best cards in our hand. They must be played aggressively and for all they are worth. We don’t want a war and we don’t want an Iranian bomb; now is the time to redouble our efforts to bring this standoff to a peaceful and successful close.
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