Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi stepped down on November 30 amid mass protests in the country’s capital Baghdad and majority-Shia provinces in the south. The protesters initially called for the government’s resignation, but as the protests escalated, they moved to demanding sweeping changes to the country’s political system.

The demonstrations have been met with the government’s violent response – according to the country’s High Commission for Human Rights, at least 460 Iraqis have been killed (many of them shot dead by security forces) and 17,000 injured since the protests broke out early October.

The demonstrations are directed against the ruling elite who are accused of pillaging the country’s wealth while ignoring the dire poverty of the common people.

More than 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussain’s regime, the country grows poorer and poorer despite having the fourth-largest oil reserves in the world, while Baghdad and other cities still see frequent power cuts, the tap water is undrinkable and public infrastructure is crumbling.

Iraqis blame the consecutive governments for failing to improve the living conditions and economic opportunity as well as for rampaging corruption, poor governance, and ineffectiveness of public service delivery.

The protesters have also directed their rage at neighboring Iran which is widely perceived to be meddling in Iraqi domestic affairs. The protesters have often raised slogans, expressing their rejection for their country to be subordinate to Iran.

Once, a photo of Qasem Soleimani – the commander of the Quds Forces, an arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operating throughout Iraq – was burnt.

In early November, dozens of demonstrators attacked the Iranian consulate in the Shia holy city of Karbala, bringing down an Iranian flag and hanging Iraqi flags with spray-painted “Karbala is free, Iran out, out!” on them.

The protesters are angered with Iran’s support for Abdul-Mahdi’s government – the prime minister was actually about to quit a month earlier but Iranian authorities intervened to keep him in power.

In the meantime, the powerful Iraqi Shia militias controlled by Iran have aided the government in suppressing the protests. At least 15 people were stabbed in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the focal point of the anti-government demonstrations, after large groups of men arrived in the square flying the insignia of an Iranian-backed militia.

Iran’s interference in Iraqi internal affairs, however, goes deeper. It is estimated that Iran has approximately 100,000 armed militiamen based in Iraq, who have consistently undermined the sovereignty of the Baghdad government over the years, exacerbating sectarian tensions across the society.

Recently published leaked Iranian intelligence cables have, for the first time, documented Iran’s perspective on its deep influence in Iraq. The leaked reports revealed that many of Iraq’s top political, military, and security officials have been closely linked with Tehran for years, including Abdul-Mahdi, said to have maintained a “special relationship” with Iran.

Iran’s grip on Iraq has been tightening since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. Iran is now increasingly exploiting the influence over Iraq it has built ever since.

Some observers, including Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, believes that the increased presence of Iranian both soft and hard power in Iraq is a response to the increased economic pressure, particularly the US sanctions, on Iran. Iraq is a valuable economic outlet, “critical to Iran for things like currency manipulation and smuggling, dealing with the sanctions”, said Pollack.

Similar tendencies are being noted in other neighboring countries. Lebanon, just like Iraq, has been increasingly prone to Iranian influence, as it is used as a corridor to the Mediterranean for Iranian trade and smuggling. There too people took to the street chanting “here is Lebanon, not Iran”.

As a result, it seems that this wave of anti-Iran sentiment is spreading across the Middle East. The recent Arab Youth Survey suggests that two-thirds of young Arabs consider Iran an enemy of their country.

The current situation is yet another deadlock in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Iran’s destabilizing effect on Iraq (and Lebanon) is one of the key barriers to progressive change and therefore, the Iraqi protest is unlikely to cease until both the Iran-dependent political parties and Iran-backed militia groups are gone.

However, any change to the current balance of power is likely to negatively affect Iranian influence in Iraq, and possibly trigger an economic collapse as the sanctions become impossible to bypass. Therefore, Iran will not easily allow for any major institutional changes that could potentially create a more inclusive political system in Iraq.

It is clear that the Western powers should support pro-democratic movements in Iraq. However, there might be a need for more sophisticated methods than just increasing pressure on Iran.

Until now, this strategy has only caused more instability and unrest, and if it continues, it might push Iran towards even more radical moves with unforeseen, but surely dire, consequences for the already troubled region.

Source » thearabweekly