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Is Iran behind Iraq and Lebanon’s ‘Awakening?’

ANALYSIS: Reminiscent of the Arab Spring to some, the phenomenon in both countries may have Iranian hegemony at the source

Eman El-Shenawi

Published: Updated:

In the Middle East this week, a fiery force has awoken from hibernation, coupling together Iraq and Lebanon in an unlikely scenario.

Both countries have been the scene of angry rallies calling for lasting fixes to their socio-economic woes. In Lebanon, it’s the #YouStink trash crisis that has commandeered the headlines, while an electricity crisis and government reform package announced by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi have hung heavy over Iraq.

Perhaps Read also: As #YouStink gains momentum, Lebanese doubtful over change

As in Iraq, Lebanon’s protests show that regardless of sect and political affiliation, there is a collective anguish on display, turning the page on sectarian splits for the people on the street.

Still, Iranian-backed actors still pose underlying risks in Lebanon – also much like Iraq. Last week, Hezbollah ministers and their allies walked out of a Cabinet meeting meant to discuss the worsening garbage crisis and boycotted the meeting that followed. They were joined by politicians who are allied against Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

For Kéchichian, Hezbollah’s political clout has not clouded their militant side. Grouping them with Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, Kéchichian describes both movements as “pro-Iranian Shiite militias” under “Tehran’s direct control.”

But the analyst believes their record remains poor.

“Militias can spread havoc, can kill and maim, and otherwise make a nuisance of themselves. In both countries, ordinary citizens are rejecting extremist groups, and both Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Hezbollah are such organizations.”

On its part, Iran has recently voiced wishes to turn over a new leaf with the Arab world, and has denied claims of any meddling in the region’s internal affairs, particularly those of Lebanon.

At a news conference in Kuwait in July, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on Arab countries to join forces with Tehran to fight against extremism and militancy in the Middle East, saying: “Any threat to one country is a threat to all... No country can solve regional problems without the help of others.”

‘Unsuccessful adventurism’

Following Tehran’s landmark deal with Western powers, intending to curb its nuclear ambitions, it is still unclear whether Iran will shift its focus to the international community on new political and economic fronts.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s domestic opponents, as well as Israeli and Gulf officials, fear the deal may lead to more unshackled, sanction-free intervention in the region. Most recently, in an op-ed by former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney published in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote that the deal will likely lead to first nuclear weapon use since WWII.

Meanwhile, U.S. and European powers express their “hope” for Iran to change tact and shift focus to new trade and energy opportunities, such as Italy recently announcing it would fund projects in Iran worth 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion).

Read also: OPINION - Europe’s unseemly haste to embrace Tehran

Theoretically, in the event of Tehran’s pivot away from the region, the likes of Maliki, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Hezbollah “will collapse” without Iranian backing, says Kéchichian. But has Iranian hegemony already become too far embedded through the countries’ political, sectarian and militant veins?

“The real debate today is in Tehran,” says Kéchichian. “Is Iran ready to become a normal country once again or will it persist in its unsuccessful adventurism?”