I wrote here about protests in Lebanon against a government dominated by Hezbollah, and therefore by Iran. Hezbollah’s leader initially expressed support for the protesters, pretending that the target was other players in Lebanon. When protesters refuted that myth, he changed his tune and warned of civil war. Since then, Hezbollah has violently attacked protesters.
Iraq is experiencing a similar dynamic. Large-scale protests have broken out again. As in Lebanon, the target is the government. As in Lebanon, Iran dominates the government.
The grievances are mostly local, but the target is not. One protester complained that all of the Iraqi parties and factions are corrupt because Iran is using them to try and export its system of clerical rule to Iraq. “Iran out” is a popular chant.
Ayham Kamel, the Middle East and North Africa practice head at Eurasia Group, calls the protests a “showcase [for] the failure of the proxy model where Iran is able to expand influence but its allies are unable to effectively govern.”
Inasmuch as Iran’s rulers are unable effectively to govern Iran, it’s no surprise that the leaders of its proxies are unable effectively to govern Lebanon and Iraq.
As with Lebanon, Iran blames the West for the protests in Iraq. Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused the U.S. and its regional allies of “making chaos” in the region.
That Iran is concerned about the protests in Iraq is clear from the fact that, a day after mass protests erupted, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the architect of its regional security apparatus, flew to Baghdad. He reportedly told Iraqi officials, “we in Iran know how to deal with protests.” He added, “this happened in Iran and we got it under control.”
However, the day after Soleimani’s visit, clashes between the protesters and security forces in Iraq became far more violent. Nearly 150 protesters were killed in less than a week.
Thuggish regimes always know how to deal with protests. Until they don’t.
At a time when Iran is struggling internally under the weight of U.S. sanctions, the threat to its external influence posed by protests in Lebanon and Iraq must surely be unnerving, no matter how confidently Soleimani talks.