When Iran’s rulers behave like Saddam Hussein

It is no longer taboo in Iraq to object to Iranian hegemony. Anyone who has travelled to Baghdad recently detected it.
Sunday 24/02/2019
Mood shift. An Iraqi protester holds up an upside-down portrait depicting Iran’s former and current Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei alongside a partially burned Iranian flag in Basra, last September.(AFP)
Mood shift. An Iraqi protester holds up an upside-down portrait depicting Iran’s former and current Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei alongside a partially burned Iranian flag in Basra, last September.(AFP)

What is happening in Iraq is not a normal development by any standard. This important Arab country, one of the pillars of the region since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago, is experiencing a change in its internal mood that will influence the balance of power in the region and beyond.

At the heart of this change lies a shift in the Shia mood obvious to visitors to Baghdad. This shift is reflected in the popular rejection, especially in Shia circles, that Iraq becomes a satellite country to Iran.

Quite simply, an Iraqi national spirit is emerging again. In the recent past, the best expression of that spirit was the role played by Iraqi Shias in preventing Iran from winning the 1980-88 war, a war that ended with a near victory for Iraq that Saddam Hussein wasted when he thought he could invade Kuwait.

Saddam had not thought twice before committing his foolish adventure and had no idea of its consequences. Instead of capitalising on the opportunity that appeared when his people blocked Iran’s ambitions, he, for all practical purposes, signed his own death warrant and shoved Iraq in a dark tunnel.

Thanks to both its Shia and Sunni components, Iraq had for eight years of conflict frustrated Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s desire to “export his revolution” that had brought down the shah’s regime.

Iran is repeating the mistake that Saddam made in 1990 when he thought he could do whatever he wanted because Iraq had become an unstoppable regional power.

Saddam did not correctly read the map of regional and international balances. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 led Iran to believe that it could play the role of the dominant power in the region. Tehran’s political and economic rulers — especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — became obsessed with that idea because of their erroneous belief that Persia was presented with an irreplaceable opportunity to export its revolution across the region.

Khamenei was oblivious to the fact that Iran had failed at all levels internally, especially that the Islamic Republic was relying more than at any other time on oil and gas revenues instead of focusing on developing its economy, raising the standard of living and opening itself to the world rather than blackmailing it with its nuclear programme.

Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen were among the victims of the new phase of exporting revolution after the George W. Bush administration handed Iraq on a silver plate to Iran. It turned out that gift was poisoned.

The gift was poisoned to the extent that Iran had begun to perceive itself as the most important player in the region and that nothing could stand in its way, especially in Iraq, where US President Barack Obama accepted in 2010 to let Iran have its way in the country.

The deal the Islamic Republic struck with the Obama administration inebriated Iranian officials so much that they did not pay attention to Iraqi public opinion or care one iota about Iraqi national pride.

Information from Iraq shows that among the most prominent opponents of the Iranian role in Iraq are people such as Haider al-Abadi, whom Teheran prevented from serving another term as prime minister following the May 2018 elections; Ammar al-Hakim; and Muqtada al-Sadr.

The new prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, could not appoint a minister of Interior even after Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani had despaired from bringing a leader from Al-Hashed al-Shaabi (the People’s Mobilisation Forces) to fill the position. The objective of Soleimani’s move was to show that that group had become an integral element of the Iraqi institutions, in the same way as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran.

How will Iran deal with the new developments in Iraq? Does it realise that changes it made on the ground, including sectarian cleansing, did not make Iraqi cities, such as Baghdad and Basra, look and feel like a suburb of Tehran?

The Basra summer is quite near. Summer in this city, with a Shia majority, begins in April. It is going to be difficult for Basra inhabitants to accept the misery of their lives, without electricity or drinking water and amid endemic epidemics, especially when each of them is aware of the role played by Iran in killing every development project aimed at restoring the infrastructure of the city.

Basra is literally floating on oil. Where have the billions of dollars of oil revenues gone? They’ve vanished since Iran and its proxy militias imposed a new pattern of life in the city 15 years ago.

It is no longer taboo in Iraq to object to Iranian hegemony. Anyone who has travelled to Baghdad recently detected it. Sooner or later, there will be major changes in Iraq, where the average citizen knows that the choice is clear between two lines. Either choose to have real institutions of a truly Iraqi state or have a state that serves as a cover for the Tehran-controlled militias of Al-Hashed al-Shaabi.

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