Iran and the Turmoil in Iraq

Why the protests in Iraq pose a grave threat to the Islamic Republic.

Something different is stirring in Iraq. Shiites are demonstrating against their government. The influential Shiite Grand Ayatollah of Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, although born in Iran, has been critical of Iran’s interference in Iraqi affairs. Similarly, the radical Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr has also been critical of Iran machinations in Iraq. Both clerics have decried the killing of hundreds of Iraqis by the authorities.  The Ayatollah Sistani, a moderate cleric who has opposed Khomeini’s imposition of the “rule of the clergy,” and had displayed a tolerant view of the U.S. troops in Iraq, demanded that the Iraqi government investigate who gave the order to shoot the demonstrators.

Both Iraq and Lebanon have experienced massive, wide spread demonstrations in the month of October, and they are still ongoing. In both cases, Shiite-Muslims played a significant role in the demonstrations, demanding that their respective government resign and new elections to be held, and be open to the people. Significantly, in both countries, Shiite co-religionists hold power - in Baghdad and Beirut. In Lebanon, Sunni-Muslim Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, and in Iraq, Shiite Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who only assumed the office a year ago, offered to resign.

The demonstrators in Iraq are protesting high unemployment, poor public services, and widespread corruption. They also want to see the abolition of the political parties and the Iranian backed militias. Some want to see a presidential system that would replace the parliamentary form of government. In the last month, Iraq has experienced an unprecedented wave of violence not seen since the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in 2017. 

On Monday, November 4, 2019, hundreds of Iraqi demonstrators set fire to the Iranian Consulate in Karbala, a holy Shiite city, where their hero, Hussein ibn Ali, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, was martyred. The young demonstrators climbed over the consulate’s fence and tore down the Iranian flag, replacing it with an Iraqi flag. They protested against the killing of their friends in Najaf, another holy Shiite city, by pro-Iranian Shiite militias. The young people hold Iran responsible for the killing of their friends, and the attempted repression of the protesters.

Iraq’s President, Barham Saleh, (interviewed by this reporter years ago) a Kurd, vowed late last month to hold early parliamentary elections once a new law is passed. He also mentioned that the Prime Minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi would resign once a replacement is found. AFP reported (October 31, 2019) that in a televised address, Saleh stated, “I will agree on early elections based on a new electoral law and a new electoral commission.” He added that a consensus among the political parties is needed to “prevent a constitutional vacuum.”

According to the 2005 Iraqi constitution, the prime ministership can be put to a vote of confidence based on a request from the president or by members of parliament. PM Mahdi was installed a year ago, in a deal brokered by Iran between unlikely partners, the radical populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the parliamentary leader Hadi al-Amiri. But, as far as the protesters are concerned, the problem is not with the prime minister, rather, it is the ruling elites and the parties they represent. In Iraq, like in Lebanon, a complex confessional system exists in which the prime minister is a Shiite-Muslim, the president is a Kurd, and the Speaker of Parliament is a Sunni-Muslim. In Iraq, like in Lebanon, outside powers are competing for influence. It is Iran who plays a major role, and to a lesser extent, the U.S.

Once the U.S. pulled its personnel from Iraq in 2011, Iran was able to exert overwhelming influence in the country. Although the two countries (Iran and Iraq) fought a bloody and high-casualty 8-year war (1980-1988), in recent years, Iran has had significant political and economic influence in Baghdad. Iran has had, on its side, loyal Iraqi-Shiite militias who do its bidding.

Many protesting Iraqis have accused Iran of being the primary sponsor of the corrupt and inefficient system they seek to overthrow. Tehran, on its part, has sought to repress the protesters. It has been reported that Gen. Qassim Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, has been sent to Baghdad to advise the Iraqi authorities on how to deal with the protesters. These authorities have reportedly killed 250 protesters thus far.

In recent days, Iraqi protesters have been seen burning posters of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, an act which would have been unthinkable before the flare up of the recent protests that started early in October this year. In response, Shiite militias backed by Iran are actively using violence to suppress the protests. They are deploying snipers and are firing on unarmed demonstrators. The violence by the authorities, and the Shiite militias loyal to Iran have spurred outrage among Iraqis, and anger toward Iran.

According to Alissa Rubin of the New York Times (November 1, 2019), “United States and Iran have weighed in on the protests, signaling that they view calm in Iraq as a priority. But while the United States has sided with the demonstrators, Iran has charged that the unrest has been fomented by Israel and the United States.” Last week, more than 200,000 Iraqis marched in Baghdad, raging against the foreign occupier - Iran. Saad Eskander, a former head of the Iraqi National Archives, stated that “the revolution is not anti-American, it is anti-Iran, it is anti-religion ­- anti political religion, not religion as such.”

It is reasonable to assume that Iran’s recently announced decision to renew its Uranium enrichment at its Fordow facility, in a flagrant violation of the 2015 Nuclear agreement, is an attempt to draw attention away from the internal economic difficulties it is experiencing. It is now enhanced by the blow to the regime’s prestige as a result of the massive demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon. There is elevated concern that these recent difficulties the Tehran regime is experiencing might prompt it to initiate military action against Israel.

In Tehran, there are fears that the turmoil in Iraq and Lebanon, caused by the demonstrators (and in particular the participation of Shiite co-religionists among them), might spread to Iran itself. The Ayatollahs regime recoils from the prospect of large anti-regime protests similar to what occurred two years ago, and even more so in recalling the 2009 more famous demonstrations. These fears have driven the regime to send Soleimani to Baghdad with orders to suppress the demonstrators.

What is occurring in Iraq and Lebanon appears to be a second round of the “Arab Spring,” which in 2011 skipped over the two countries. This time however, the masses are protesting not only their corrupt political elites and their economic mismanagement, they are aiming at changing the system altogether and making it more inclusive and competent. They demand technocrats rather than political hacks.  What makes these demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon remarkable are that the people protesting are crossing confessional/religious lines. To the Iranian regime, these developments pose a serious threat to their hegemonic ambitions, and to their dream of a Shiite Crescent.