When tribal chieftains met last week in a small town north of Baghdad to see what they should do with the protests that have gripped the country’s south and capital city, one key question emerged: how will Iran respond if the uprising fails?
“They will tear all of us to shreds,” one sheikh reportedly told the gathering of influential tribal leaders who belong to Iraq’s Shia majority community. “Just imagine what they could do to others,” he added amid a stunned silence.
As the anti-government protests escalate and turn against the interference of Iran in Iraq’s domestic politics, many Iraqis have started voicing concerns about the prospect of Iran getting its way in sabotaging the uprising and even plotting revenge against its supporters.
Tens of thousands of protesters have been gathering in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and across southern Iraq in recent days, calling for an overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 US-led invasion.
But as the government has cracked down harshly on the protesters, many Iraqis have begun challenging Iran’s entrenched influence in their country and raised concerns about the role Iran has been playing in promoting the dysfunction and corruption by political factions and militias loyal to Iran.
Fearful that its influence in the neighbouring country could erode, Iran has stepped in to marshal a vigorous campaign of smears, intimidation and threats against the protesters and their supporters.
Iranian leaders and the country’s media have been quick to suggest that the uprising is a foreign conspiracy and to label the protesters as stooges of Iran’s main foes, the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In remarks widely seen as giving the green light to Iran-backed militias in Iraq to smash the protests, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged the Iraqi authorities to give “priority to dealing with the riots and instability”.
Iran has also turned to online campaigning in response to the widespread support for the protest movement in Iraq on social networks. The aim is to discredit the protesters or to paint them as disruptive.
On Friday, Iran launched a massive campaign on Twitter and Instagram promoting the Iranian discourse about the uprising with hashtags such as “we will not leave Iraq,” “Iraq and Iran won’t be separated” and “Iraq won’t be burned.”
Iran’s Mehr News Agency, which is owned by the country’s powerful religious establishment, said the campaign, run in Arabic, English and Farsi, was in support of the “Iraqi-Iranian alliance.”
Most significantly, Iran has stepped in to prevent the ouster of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and replace him with another Shia figure, and it has even sent its point man to Iraq, commander of the Quds Force, a unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Qassem Suleimani, to Baghdad to pressure Tehran’s allies to end the uprising by force.
Suleimani is reportedly running an operations room from Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone with leaders of pro-Iran militias to deal with the protests. He has also been chairing backstairs meetings of Shia politicians to ensure their support for Abdul-Mahdi and prevent his government’s downfall.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi uprising is also posing an alarming threat to Tehran’s influence in the Arab country. Protesters blaming Iran for its malign role in Iraq’s domestic politics attacked the Iranian consulate in the Shia holy city of Karbala, torching its walls and ripping down the national flag.
Protesters in Baghdad, Basra and Karbala also burned effigies of Khamenei and used their shoes to beat photographs of Suleimani and Tehran-backed militia leaders.
In other signs of declining Iranian influence in Iraq, Tehran slammed a freeze on sending Iranians to Iraq to perform the pilgrimage to Shia holy sites. Many Iraqis have also started a nationwide campaign to boycott Iranian goods.
A low-water mark of Iranian political and economic influence in the post-Saddam Hussein era has already been reached, and 16 years of Iranian attempts to impose Tehran’s hegemony over its neighbour appear to be going down the drain.
Moreover, the Iraqi uprising is expected to have a serious impact on the Islamic Republic’s regional influence and on Tehran’s bid to exploit instability and geopolitical chaos in the region to build a long-aspired Middle Eastern empire.
While the United States and its regional allies have been pushing hard for years to confront Iran, Tehran seems more worried that the uprising in Iraq will weaken its influence and undermine its regional expansionist strategy.
By all calculations, the anti-Iran uprising in Iraq and the mass anti-sectarianism protests in Lebanon have posed more serious threats to Iran’s plans than all the efforts made by Washington and its allies so far to combat Iran’s regional influence.
Indeed, Tehran’s ability to dig in in Iraq and to expand through the region has now become vulnerable and less effective in giving Iran a strategic advantage in the region.
Many experts believe that the popular protest movement in Iraq bodes ill for Iran and that the fallout may be felt most inside Iran itself where the regime brutally crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 2009.
Hopes for liberalisation and opening up under the Islamic regime have evaporated in Iran, and Tehran fears that the protests in Iraq will spread to Iran at a time when the US sanctions against the country have had a crippling effect.
As we recall when Iranians took to the streets last year to protest against the regime, they chanted slogans against Tehran’s involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza.
Iran’s tactics in Iraq to maintain its leverage as the country slides deeper into a political crisis are difficult to pin down. Tehran categorically denies interfering in Iraq’s domestic affairs and also denies supplying the Iraqi security forces with lethal weapons to crackdown on the uprising.
In fact, there’s mounting evidence that it has been doing both.
Iran has significant political, security, economic and cultural assets in Iraq that it is mobilising to sabotage the uprising and ensure its Iraqi allies’ survival if it thinks the uprising will threaten its ambitions in the region.
The international rights group Amnesty International reported on Friday that Iranian-made grenades had been used by the Iraqi security forces to kill protesters during the recent violence in Baghdad.
“A significant portion of the deadly projectiles are in fact M651 tear-gas grenades and M713 smoke grenades manufactured by the Defence Industries Organisation (DIO) of Iran,” the group said.
By all accounts, Iran is deeply immersed in efforts to crush the Iraqi uprising, but the question is to what extent it will flaunt its muscles in Iraq.
In addition to the geostrategic factors that make Iraq an important country to Iran, Iraq is also a major consumer of Iranian goods as trade between the two countries reached $13 billion in 2018.
Iran also plans to increase its exports to Iraq to $20 billion next year, making it a top destination for Iran’s non-oil exports and a major trade partner.
Moreover, Iran has been using Iraq as a conduit to circumvent the economic sanctions that have been imposed by US President Donald Trump on Tehran since Washington withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran in May 2018.
There are valid concerns that Iran may be pushing Abdul-Mahdi to taper down the uprising or even to use the Iraqi security forces to crush it brutally if the protesters refuse to leave the country’s streets and squares.
One worrying scenario is that Shia militias may roll into Baghdad and other cities backed by Iranian troops to try to put an end to the revolt in a move reminiscent of the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 or of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that were staged in order to smash revolutions against the then Communist regimes.
While an Iranian military intervention in Iraq would be crossing a red line, Iran might resort to a scenario similar to the one it has used in Syria, where the Islamic Republic has been backing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad by sending in military experts and militias to beef up the regime’s defences along with deliveries of munitions and equipment.
Yet, the volume of anti-Iranian sentiment displayed by the Iraqi protesters, who are also largely Shia, has showed how difficult it is for Iran to cling onto its imperialist ambitions in the region, such as its grandiose plans to create a Shia Crescent that will join Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Like in Syria, the Iraqi Shias fear that a terrifying onslaught by Islamic State (IS) militants similar to the one that took place in 2014 could help Iran to expand its influence in the Arab country but could also be the undoing of it.
As a matter of fact, the popular protests in Iraq have disclosed that Iran has no blank cheque in Iraq anymore, and it is now at a crucial disadvantage as the uprising becomes a wake-up call to reject its interference in Iraq’s domestic politics.
As has become obvious, claims of “Iran’s unity with Iraq” as drummed up by Tehran’s anti-protests online campaign are seriously contested by most Iraqis. One of the outstanding outcomes of the uprising is that Iraqi nationalism has been rising and Iran’s hegemony has been crumbling.
Of course, Iran may not give up easily, but it would be a great mistake for the Iranian leaders to think that their attempts to impose their will on the Iraqis will go unchallenged.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.