In Iraq, Iran tastes its own medicine

Iran’s propaganda machinery has difficulty tackling the protests in Lebanon and Iraq.
Wednesday 06/11/2019
Anti-government protesters gather for a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, October 26. (AP)
Anti-government protesters gather for a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, October 26. (AP)

Same procedure as last year, same procedure as every year: Meticulously choreographed “spontaneous rallies,” schoolchildren and public servants herded into the streets to chant “Death to America,” ritual burning of the US flag. Iran commemorates the November 4, 1979, seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran and hostage taking of American diplomats.

This year, however, commemoration of what Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called “the second revolution” coincided with violent attacks against the Iranian Consulate in Karbala: On November 4, three protesters were killed by security forces as they tried to bring down the flag of Iran from the consulate.

Consul General Mir-Masoud Hosseinian, in an interview with Iran’s Arabic language Al-Alam television, claimed the “security forces have the situation under their control and the circumstances in the environs of the consulate are back to normal.”

However, the fact that the consulate, on the same day, issued a travel warning to Iranian pilgrims advising against visiting the holy city, clearly shows circumstances are not back to normal.

Iran’s propaganda machinery has difficulty tackling the protests in Lebanon and Iraq. Enraged by widespread corruption, high unemployment rates and poor public services, tens of thousands of Iraqis have demonstrated in Baghdad and across Shia-majority southern Iraq. Some communities were patronised by Tehran, the self-proclaimed patron of the global Shia community but, increasingly, protesters directed their anger at Iran, which they accuse of interfering in internal Iraqi affairs.

Sabah Zangeneh, Middle East analyst and former representative to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, accused a lengthy list of puppetmasters, who allegedly are trying to divide the Shia community. Zangeneh’s list includes followers of Ayatollah Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, followers of the late Ayatollah Mohammad al-Husayni al-Shirazi and “remains of the Ba’ath party,” Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Israel.

Other explanations circulating in Iranian media claim the attack followed the Iraqi government authorities’ arrest of members of an “Emirati spy ring” in Baghdad and other cities.

Instead of chasing puppetmasters and spy rings, both real and imagined, Iran should learn from its own experiences. The Iranian public interpreted the close alliance between the United States and the shah’s regime as a patron-client relationship, with US presidents in the role of the patron and Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi as an American stooge.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth: Different US presidents had different relationships with the shah, who himself was a nationalist leader.

The logic of the Cold War brought them together, which made the Iranian opposition blame the patron, the United States, for shortcomings of the shah’s regime, in particular concerning limits on political freedom and human rights violations.

Today, many Iraqis perceive their elected politicians as stooges and Tehran their patron. The protesters may be right in their assessment of certain groups among their ruling elites as Tehran’s allies, proxies or clients but not every Iraqi politician is under Tehran’s command. The protesters, however, may not have an eye for the finer nuances and attribute all shortcomings of the Iraqi government to the one state they perceive as their patron: Iran.

The regime in Tehran has been spared seizure of its diplomatic representations in Iraq but, four decades after seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran and hostage taking of American diplomats, Iran is almost getting to taste its own medicine.