In southern Iraq, Iran’s manoeuvres backfire

The protesters’ messages indicate they are targeting the pillars of Iraq's political process to distance it from Iranian influence.
Sunday 19/08/2018
A woman holds an oil lamp while protesting against the state of public services in Basra, on August 10. (AP)
At the breaking point. A woman holds an oil lamp while protesting against the state of public services in Basra, on August 10. (AP)

Iraqi media report that the Basra protests, which have spread to Wasit, Maysan, Dhi Qar and Karbala provinces, resulted solely from the energy crisis and rising unemployment. The truth is that these major economic and political crises emerged because of the increase of Iranian influence in Iraq and protesters recognise this.

Though contributing about 80% of Iraqi oil exports, Basra has been neglected for decades by Saddam Hussein and successive governments. Reports have noted that residents of the south have been forced by severe poverty and unemployment to move to Anbar governorate in search of agricultural work. The protests also reflect Iraq’s struggle to rebuild following the war against Islamist militants that destroyed the country’s infrastructure.

Although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced investments worth $3 billion for Basra and pledged additional spending on housing, schools and services in response to the protests, they have continued and spread to Baghdad. The persistence of the demonstrations poses important questions: Who benefits from the expansion of these protests? And who benefits from faltering Iraqi oil supplies?

Because of the southern region’s financial and administrative corruption, Basra province imports its energy from Iran rather than establishing its own power plants. It was Iran’s choice to stop electricity exports just after the US decision to resume sanctions, causing the electricity shortage and a cut-off of potable water that sparked the protests. With a lack of available drinking water or cooling devices during a summer, during which temperatures have reached more than 49 degrees Celsius, the response to Iran’s actions was predictable.

In contrast to domestic reporting, many analysts say Iran intentionally pushed Basra to the breaking point to destabilise the country, threatening oil companies with the prospect of heavy losses and potentially pushing them to pressure the Trump administration to lessen sanctions through Washington and London oil lobbies.

A decline in Iraqi oil production would raise the global price of oil — a welcome reprieve for the Iranian economy considering the first wave of reimposed sanctions. Iran may have also intended to pressure southern Iraq’s residents to secure a sectarian government coalition that would further Iran’s influence in Iraq after its allies’ disappointing results in the elections.

As the protests in Iraq enter their second month, it appears Iran has fallen into a trap of its own making. Tehran ignited a flame in the south that could burn its allies and the militia’s commanders loyal to it.

The protests toppled the barrier of fear that had kept citizens from openly criticising Tehran’s militias in Iraq. Those citizens, who had been held captive by the actions of these groups, are seeking vengeance. More impressively, the pressures are proving effective: pro-Iranian groups in headquarters and barracks are searching for havens and calling on government forces to protect them and their bases, especially since they have been identified as the main actors accused in the killing of demonstrators.

Protesters are directly tackling the issue of Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. Slogans in Arabic and Persian declare: “We submit our request to the Iranian government — sorry, to the Iraqi government,” conveying contempt for an Iraqi government they accuse of being a subordinate to Tehran.

Ironically, the course of the protests has shifted from oil firms — presumably Iran’s intended targets — to the headquarters of Islamist parties and factions loyal to Iran, including the Hakim movement, the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Badr militias and even the Dawa Party in various provinces.

Dawa Party and Iranian militia bases have been burned. Protesters calling themselves the youth of the Great Popular Revolution also burned images of religious figures associated with loyalty to Tehran, including Hadi al-Amiri, Nuri al-Maliki and Qais Khazali, as well as images of republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The protesters’ messages indicate they are targeting the pillars of the political process in Iraq to affect the formation of the government and to distance it from Iranian influence as much as possible.

Politicians in Iraq are listening. Even Amiri, the hawkish head of the Badr Organisation, has apologised to the Iraqi people stating that “we must admit that we have failed our people and were unable to provide them with a decent life — whether intentionally or unintentionally — and we let our people suffer while we were preoccupied with our internal conflict.”

Nevertheless, Amiri has faced much criticism due to his initial refusal to accept responsibility.

Given this unique window of opportunity, the Trump administration should seize the moment presented by Shia Iraqis’ growing popular rejection of Iranian influence in Iraq to reformulate its strategic relationship with the country based on weakening Iranian influence.

The US administration can encourage the formation of an independent government to rework the constitution and transform Iraq from a parliamentary to a presidential system, with a president and a parliament elected by the people.

The Iraqi government should be encouraged to increase its focus on investments in the southern provinces to limit unemployment, especially among young Iraqis, and deter corruption.