Protesters in Iraq are fighting against government corruption and Iran’s malign influence, which is built on hard power, not public good will. Tehran has a lot to lose.
“Iran and Iraq are two nations whose hearts & souls are tied together,” tweeted Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Sunday, as protests raged in neighboring Iraq. Alleging that the protests are a foreign plot, Khamenei continued, “Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed & their conspiracy won’t be effective.”
Khamenei’s response is proof of panic. Iraq is a pivotal part of Iran’s political project in the Middle East, and a friendly government in Baghdad cannot afford to be lost.
The protests, which began over a week ago, aimed at government corruption and mismanagement, have quickly morphed into what The Washington Post termed “a revolt against the entire system.” The system in question is the post-Saddam political order, which has endured oscillations in America’s military footprint, the rise and fall of ISIS, and renewed aspirations for Kurdish autonomy. But it has also been subject to – and fared far poorer against – one constant for the past 16 years: Iranian encroachment.
Today, Iraq is home to countless pro-Iran politicians, as well pro-Iran Shia militias, many of whom profess loyalty to Iran over Iraq and have fought and bled on Iran’s behalf in Syria. Some of these militias constitute a pro-Iran bloc in the Iraqi parliament. This bloc has been at the forefront of carrying out Iranian interests, most recently, seeking to use Israeli strikes as a reason to evict American forces. Iran pays close attention to Iraqi factional politics, and retains a key interest in government formation efforts. And strategically, Iraq constitutes the first country in Iran’s “land corridor” to the Mediterranean, a contiguous strip of geography connecting a constellation of groups termed the “Axis of Resistance” that Iran supports.
The quest for a pro-Iranian government in Iraq is not new. It is inherently linked to the philosophy of “exporting” the Islamic Revolution – a line of thinking as old as the Islamic Republic itself. This worldview is what predisposes Tehran to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors. It is also what got Iran into trouble during its revolutionary heyday and sustained the regime ideologically during the bloody 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
With the toppling of the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad in 2003, Tehran’s hands were freed. Iran began to aggressively intervene in Iraqi politics, society, economy, and even religious affairs, all with the dual-aim of exporting its revolution and weakening the Iraqi state so that Baghdad could never again pose a threat. For the past 16 years, Iran has ensured this by doing everything from fighting its proxy wars in Iraq to paying-off politicians there. These investments have outsized returns for Iran, entrenching the norm of deference to pro-Iran interests because of fear, money, or devotion.
It’s no surprise then that the most recent protests in Iraq – where over 100 civilians have already been killed – contains a significant anti-Iran dimension. Several things add fuel to this fire. One is a statement reportedly made by pro-Iran militias in the Popular Mobilization Units, who claim they are prepared to further support a crackdown. The second is the braggadocio of the head of the Iranian Police’s Special Units, who asserted his men are present in both Iran and Iraq for the Shia religious holiday of Arbaeen. Already, Iraqi President Barham Salih hinted that some “interests” seek to take advantage of current crisis. Therefore, any future interplay between Iraqi protesters and Iranian riot police and Iran-backed militias matters greatly.
The latest demonstrations build on grievances expressed during the last major outburst – in the summer and fall of 2018 – where protests in the port-city of Basra as well as in Baghdad took on an anti-Iranian as well as anti-central government tone. “Iran, out, out!” was one memorable slogan from these protests, which began over electricity and water shortages.
Coupled with the new wave of public outcry against Iran, the 2018-2019 protests could be a harbinger of a renewed (and decidedly non-sectarian) brand of Iraqi nationalism. Indeed, some reports even cite the demotion – featuring Iran’s alleged hand – of a prominent Iraqi Shia and nationalist military figure who helped liberate Mosul as a potential catalyst for the protests.
As the public seeks jobs, services, justice, and accountability, it is also going to want an explanation as to why Iran has such a free hand in their country. The more Iran uses and abuses Iraq as a carve-out for its dirty work, such as to support sanctions busting, the greater the potential for Iraqis to put aside their differences and focus on the source of their malaise. This has the potential to put pressure on Baghdad to reprimand Tehran for its excesses on Iraqi soil. Even if there is no change at the top in Iraq, the protests are already helping shine a light. Earlier in October, Iran’s Ambassador in Iraq – who by no accident is a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds-Force – was issued a démarche by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry for comments related to Iran’s willingness to target US forces in Iraq as a response to Washington’s pressure campaign on Tehran.
It is exactly this sort of indignation that the regime in Tehran has a hard time contesting. Much of Iran’s narrative underwriting its entrenchment in Iraq and Syria revolves around it being there at the behest of the central government. Especially in Iraq, Iran also tries to play up religious ties, insisting that it is a welcome presence. But public pushback against Tehran has put the regime in a corner, exposing that Iranian hard power, rather than Iraqi good-will, is what paved the way for Iranian encroachment on Iraqi public life.
Now playing defense, the Islamic Republic is counting on invective, incitement, and conspiracy. Already, the Iranian media space is filled with conspiracies from officials claiming that the protests are not organic, but foreign sponsored. One Iranian analyst told a semi-official hardline news outlet that an “axis of evil control room” operating out of Anbar province seeking to alter Iraq’s political system was the force behind the protests. Even a reformist newspaper claimed to hear “foreign footsteps” in the Iraqi protests.
Worse, Kayhan newspaper, whose editor-in-chief is close with Iran’s Supreme Leader, recently called on Iraqis to seize the US embassy in Baghdad, much like Iranian university students did in 1979 in Tehran. While that has fortunately not happened, other agencies have been ransacked, such as this outlet's Baghdad office. While Tehran or its militias have not taken credit for the attack, the masked gunmen who stormed the office of Al Arabiya engaged in a move that would detract attention from the central government’s failings and benefit Iran.
In the final analysis, Iran’s reaction to the protests in Iraq shows how fragile the Islamic Republic’s gains in that country really are. Tehran is counting on keeping Baghdad weak and staffed with pro-Iran or corrupt officials that don’t contest the Islamic Republic’s regional hegemonic aspirations. While those who covet power in Baghdad at any cost may have, until now, sat silently, the Iraqi people have spoken up, and are risking life and limb to do so. The question is, who is listening?
Behnam Ben Taleblu is Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) based in Washington DC.