Protests in Iraq could pose problems for Tehran

“Many Iraqi Shias look at the paramilitaries, the Shia political parties and Iran as complicit in the country’s governance failure and corruption,” says Maria Fantappie, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group.
Saturday 12/10/2019
Wherever you turn your eyes. Iranian rial banknotes on display at a market in the city of Najaf in Iraq. (Reuters)
Wherever you turn your eyes. Iranian rial banknotes on display at a market in the city of Najaf in Iraq. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - The wave of deadly protests against corruption and foreign influence in Iraq could pose problems for neighbouring Iran.

Iraq descended into violence when protests that began with demands for an end to rampant corruption and chronic unemployment escalated to calls for a complete overhaul of the political system. Official figures stated that violence in Baghdad and across southern Iraq killed more than 100 people, mostly protesters but also several police, with more than 6,000 others wounded.

A tentative calm returned to the country ahead of Arbaeen, a massive pilgrimage that sees millions of Shia Muslims walk to the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad. Nearly 2 million Iranians took part last year. Tehran, this year, urged citizens to delay travel into Iraq because of the protest violence. Arbaeen begins October 19.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said the Iraqi protests were partly directed against the role Iran plays in the country.

“This might complicate the continuation or expansion of Iran’s influence in Iraq,” Fathollah-Nejad said by telephone. Iran, a predominantly Shia country of 81 million people, pursues its interests in much smaller Iraq, which also has a Shia majority, via political proxies and support for paramilitary groups.

“What is certain is that the current protest against systemic corruption and other grievances in Iraq cannot be separated from Iran. Iran is part and parcel of the post-2003 regime in Baghdad,” Fathollah-Nejad said in reference to the political system put in place after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein 16 years ago.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “enemies” were trying to drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad, an apparent allusion to the protests. Writing on Twitter, he described the two countries as “two nations whose hearts & souls are tied together.”

Iranian Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raeisi said the reason behind the Iraqi protests was “US-Saudi sedition.” The state news agency IRNA added to the conspiracy theories by commenting that “some forces inside and outside of the region are seriously concerned about the closeness and cooperation” between Iraq, Iran and Syria.

A top military adviser to Khamenei said those behind the unrest would be unable to deter the faithful at Arbaeen, however. “They want to scare people into not going to Arbaeen but, even if it rains arrows and stones, Hussein’s lovers will not be afraid,” Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi was quoted as saying by Tasnim News Agency.

Iran’s influence over Iraq has been placed under the spotlight by the unrest, however.

“The fact that some protesters may be motivated by anti-Iranian animus — several have chanted anti-Iranian slogans — is of further concern to Tehran, whose influence in Iraq could be at stake,” Maria Fantappie, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, wrote in an analysis posted on the group’s website.

“Many Iraqi Shias look at the paramilitaries, the Shia political parties and Iran as complicit in the country’s governance failure and corruption.”

Anti-Iran placards were seen at demonstrations. Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi triggered criticism by saying that Iran could target US forces in Iraq in case the ongoing conflict between Tehran and Washington escalated. Masjedi was summoned by Iraq’s Foreign Ministry because of the remarks.

Reports said Mohammed Reza al-Sistani, the son of Iran-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia religious authority in Iraq, issued a warning to Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s al-Quds Force. The reported message from Sistani was that the Iraqi “street would rise up” if Iran did not stop interfering in Iraqi domestic politics.

Fantappie said one of the sparks for the Iraqi protest came from a decision by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to demote a popular senior commander of the war with the Islamic State, General Abdel-Wahab al-Saadi of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS).

“The CTS is in competition with Al-Hashed al-Shaabi, an array of paramilitary groups, the most powerful of which are linked to Iran,” Fantappie wrote. “Those critical of Iran’s role in Iraq additionally saw the prime minister as giving in to the Hashed by demoting the general.”

Fantappie said that “Iran may prefer a weak and dependable government in Baghdad, but it has no interest in Iraq descending into chaos.” Tehran needed a stable Iraq because bilateral trade provided a “lifeline in the face of US economic sanctions” launched against Iran.

Unrest in Iraq also might have reminded Iranian leaders in Tehran of the dissatisfaction expressed by some of their own citizens in mass protests.

Fathollah-Nejad drew attention to the fact that many of the problems that demonstrators in Iraq cited were like those that drew people onto the streets in Iranian cities in recent years.

“The communalities are very strong. If you look at earlier protests in Basra, where people complained about corruption, mismanagement and ecological problems, those issues were quite similar to problems felt by people across the border in south-western Iran,” he said.