Firemen search for survivors at the scene of an explosion at the Sina At'har health center north of Tehran on June 30, 2020. Photo: Amir Kholousi / ISNA / AFP

Recent days have been some of the worst the Iranian regime has suffered, including a series of explosions and fires on an almost daily basis in sensitive military facilities, critical infrastructure or unspecified installations.  

Meanwhile Iran’s currency is in free fall. Demonstrations are spreading in major cities. And abroad, its designs to consolidate Syria into a playground of Iranian mercantile interests and a foundation for projecting power directly against Israel have encountered not only expected Israeli, but also Russian pushback. 

When a regime like Iran that traffics in ruthless power to survive faces such a string of humiliating displays of incompetence and impotence, it raises serious questions over its longevity.

Known events in Iran

A review of the events unveils the collective enormity of what has happened.

On June 26, a building in the solid-fuel assembly plant of the Khojir missile facility, which also has deal with nuclear-warhead designs, exploded with such force that it was seen 70 kilometers away. At the same time, an explosion and fire destroyed the power plant servicing the southwestern city of Shiraz, plunging it into darkness.

On June 30, an explosion, fire and then hefty secondary explosions ripped through the sub-basement levels of a medical center in northern Tehran. The government arrested some people for unspecified reasons and changed its explanation several times.

On July 2, an explosion, responsibility for which was claimed by an unknown opposition group, the Homeland Panthers, ripped apart the new centrifuge assembly building in the Natanz nuclear center. The Iranian regime has all but admitted this major setback to its enrichment program. The same night, a major complex of unknown use exploded and burned in Shiraz.

On July 3, another enormous fire erupted in the northwest part of Shiraz in an unknown location and facility. The same night, another large fire destroyed an unknown facility in Salmas near Tehran.

On July 4, a fire and explosion in southwest, predominantly Sunni Arab province of Ahvaz destroyed the power plant and further south, at about the same time, the Karoun Petrochemical plant failed and released what was claimed to be chlorine gas, sending about six dozen to hospital.  

Early on July 7, a powerful explosion engulfed a warehouse or factory of unknown use in Beqarshahr south of Tehran. This is the same general area in which the Israelis two years ago seized Iran’s nuclear archives, namely Turouzabad-Kharizak, and in which Israel and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suspect also was a major nuclear warehouse.

Throughout the entire span of these events, demonstrations by workers unpaid for three months by both government and private entities have plagued the city of Ahvaz and Shush, and even paralyzed its transportation and rail centers.

Also, by the end of last week, Iran’s currency had sharply fallen, dropping from about 200,000 rials to the dollar on Friday to 264,000 by Monday. Social media in Iran posted unverified videos of bank runs

In short, Iran was afflicted by the explosion of two admitted military targets (the Khojir missile and Natanz enrichment facilities), two power plants (Shiraz and Ahvaz), one petrochemical factory (Karoun), and three mysterious fires in Shiraz, Baqershahr, and the Tajrish Square area of Tehran.

Two cities are beset by demonstrations (Ahvaz and Shush), the currency is collapsing, there may be a run on the banks, and demonstrators are blocking transportation hubs. Taken together, this collection represents two sorts of misfortunes: one afflicting strategic military programs and the other the regime’s stability. 

Russian intervention in Syria thwarting Iran

To add insult to injury, the regime has also been humiliated abroad. Not only has Israel struck several times recently at Iranian forces deploying near its borders in Syria, but Russia has in the last several days occupied the main corridor in eastern Syria through which all Iranian ground transport via Iraq passes.

Russia clearly cut Iran down to size in its attempt to lord over Syria. That tension has simmered for a year as Iran attempted to outmaneuver Russia as the mentor of key security officials and apparatus, as the controller of strategy, and as the mercantile benefactor of reconstruction.  

Corruption and incompetence

The pervasiveness of corruption and incompetence led Iranians to expect an assembly line of disasters. Iranians are numbed to catastrophe as the norm and to coverup as a given. And with good reason: The videos released by the government often contain information disproving its narrative.  

For example, the video released of the latest event in Baqershahr described a minor explosion in a factory in a mundane industry. And yet a fleeting image of an official captured by the video revealed a rank insignia of a brigadier-general – hardly the level of an officer normally interested in such a small event at an insignificant facility.

Losing credibility internally

As the parade of stricken facilities mounted and diversified, the serial nature of the events combined with the regime’s fallen credibility certainly stimulated unflattering popular explanations. Ultimately, however, Iranians do not really care who did what. What matters is that their government, which deters internal opposition by an image of ruthlessness, is flailing and incapable of finding either a proper response or effective prevention. It evinces weakness.

Iran’s regime is battered and appears penetrated, impotent, and vulnerable to popular disdain, which often leads to eruption. Perhaps this is why recent political discourse, such as the one last weekend in which Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was lambasted, has turned so acrimonious. 

The question now is whether the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will use the malaise to launch a putsch, or will Iranians again take to the streets … or both?

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David Wurmser

David Wurmser is director of the Center for Security Policy’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the US-Israel Relationship. He is a former US Navy Reserve intelligence officer with extensive national security experience working for the US State Department, the Pentagon, former vice-president Dick Cheney and the National Security Council.