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Analysis by Bobby Ghosh | Bloomberg

Jan 5, 2023

What to expect in 2023:Going into the new year, I’ll be keeping my eye on two stories that could dramatically change the geopolitics of the Middle East: the protests in Iran and the general election in Turkey. I’ll focus on the former here, and come back to the latter in a column soon.

The most important question about the Iranian protests is whether they can evolve into a full-blown revolution capable of toppling the Islamic Republic. Some argue that bridge has already been crossed: What began as sporadic demonstrations against the restrictive dress code for women — sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police — has long since evolved into full-throated calls for the downfall of the regime.

Three months after Amini’s death, the protests have lasted longer than any previous expressions of public dissent since the 1979 Islamic revolution that led to the creation of the theocratic state. In the past four decades, the political system installed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has left Iran isolated in world affairs, debilitated its economy and denied its people both economic opportunities and a political voice.

Unsurprisingly, the mostly young protesters want the entire edifice of that state dismantled. The regime’s heavy-handed crackdown — including mass imprisonment, rape, torture and executions — has not cowed them. If anything, their voices have grown more strident, their demands more insistent. Calls for the death of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are now routine, as are the destruction of statues and posters of the regime’s heroes, such as the military commander Qassem Soleimani.

Khamenei, having himself played an important part in the events of four decades ago, can hardly have missed the recent parallels. This may explain his vague offer of compromise: The possible suspension of the morality police. Just as in 1979, the protesters have rejected the ruler’s eleventh-hour olive branch.

But to bring him down, the protesters will need to coopt some elements of the state; Khomenei was able to overthrow the Shah of Iran only after large sections of the armed forces mutinied. There have as yet been few signs of disgruntlement within the security apparatus, which is comprised of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the military, the paramilitary Basij and the police.

But if we’ve learned any thing from the history of revolutions — including Iran’s own — it is that change can come slowly, and then all at once.

From the year behind us:Pakistan’s Floods May Reveal China as a Fair-Weather Friend: Islamabad has tried to switch allegiance from Washington to Beijing, but when it came to the crunch Chinese assistance was conspicuously lacking. For one thing, the government of President Xi Jingping was beset with problems of its own.

For another, China simply hasn’t developed the state infrastructure and bureaucratic system to respond quickly to disasters abroad.

An Unarmed Putin Wants a Culture War With the West: With his troops suffering humiliating reversals in Ukraine, the Russian president has been trying to rally international opinion behind him by retreading old anti-Western tropes from the Soviet era. But if anything, Moscow had more pomp as a cultural beacon under the USSR than it has soft power with Putin now.  

Tunisia’s Democracy Is Collapsing. Biden Shouldn’t Just Stand By: Kais Saied’s consolidation of power has gone unchallenged by Western powers and by an American president who promised to make the promotion of democracy the leitmotif of his foreign policy. It is not too late to undo the damage.

US Should Brace for More Pushback From Erdogan: With Turkey’s economy in tatters and an election looming, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will need every distraction he can engineer. Anti-Western foreign policies are red meat to his base, so the US and Europe should expect more provocations in the months ahead.

An Indian Restaurant’s Rise Mirrors Asheville’s: Chai Pani, which serves Indian street food, is the most outstanding restaurant in the US this year. This is a testimony to both the evolution of American tastes and the rise of small cities like Asheville, NC.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

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