Iranian policymakers are facing uncalculated challenges in implementing Iran’s regional expansionist project, in particular, in the vital arena countries which are geographically close to Iran. Iran’s sectarian displacement policies and the poor segments on which Iran has long depended on for sectarian mobilization to support its transboundary expansionist project have become a source of disturbance for Iran’s political and religious leaders. They are watching as protests are getting out of control in two of the most important Arab countries where Iran’s regional project is being implemented.
Only a few weeks have passed since the outbreak of new protests in Iraq (early October 2019) against mounting corruption in all its forms due to an increase in what the protesters call Iranian control over the Iraqi equation. Since October 17, 2019, massive and unprecedented protests also broke out across Lebanon, for nearly the same reasons which led to protests being triggered in Iraq, with the increasing influence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese equation being a key source of anger among Lebanese protesters. This led the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to submit his resignation on October 29, 2019. The Iraqi president announced on October 31 that Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi agreed to resign. The two Arab nations are experiencing the same challenges related to Iran’s regional project which aims to undermine the nation-state with the aim of creating a parallel state which works mainly for Iran. This raises a host of questions: What are the manifestations of the growing Arab anger against the Iranian project? What are the consequences for the future of the Iranian project, and how can this anger be used to curb Iranian clout in the region?
1- Manifestations of the Growing Popular Arab Anger Against Iran
The two most important Arab countries in the so-called Shiite Crescent – Lebanon and Iraq – are witnessing mounting popular protests not only due to the policies of the Iraqi and Lebanese governments in addressing economic crises, but also due to what the protesters have described as Iranian domination represented by Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq. This is in addition to the ruling elites in both countries securing their own interests and the interests of the country supportive of them – in reference to Iran – at the expense of the living conditions of the people in Lebanon and Iraq.
The anger in both countries against Iran’s regional project is clearly reflective through the slogans and demands of protesters as well as the spread of protests in Lebanon and Iraq.
- Demands of the Iraqi and Lebanese Protesters
The demands of the protesters in the two countries have gone beyond the usual demands for reform raised in the past period. They focused on toppling the government in Lebanon (Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8 Alliance) which is supported by Iran and ending the control of the Shiite faction loyal to Iran in Iraq. They called for toppling the political class in Lebanon: Michel Aoun, Nabih Berri, Hassan Nasrallah, Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea, and the rest of the figures representative of the political class in the country. The protesters called for expelling Iranian militias from Lebanon and Iraq, which, however, was expressed in a bigger way in Iraq. This was clear in the unambiguous slogans and chants launched by protesters in the two countries and the hashtags launched on social media against the Iranian presence, such as ‘Expelling Iran is an Iraqi Demand.’
In addition, the protesters called for reforming the ruling government all over again based on a new constitutional framework which ensures countering corruption, tackling poverty, addressing unemployment, and improving basic services such as the provision of water and electricity. Also, any reforms must deprive sectarian politicians of the ability to exploit state resources for their own advantage and promote the building of a nation-state which keeps the same distance from all factions and political currents and combats sectarianism, which ensures Iran and its militias are kept away from the Iraqi and Lebanese equations.
- Chants and Slogans of the Protesters in Iraq and Lebanon
Iraqi and Lebanese protesters, from all factions, spectrums, affiliations, and areas, raised slogans denouncing Iran and its proxies in the two countries. The Lebanese protests, involving all regions and factions, have targeted all political figures regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations. Since October 17, protesters have chanted sectarianism-transcending slogans, rejecting the threats made in a speech by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on October 19, 2019. Hezbollah and its allies enjoy the majority in the Lebanese Parliament and cabinet. In his speech, Nasrallah rejected the resignation of the government and threatened to order Hezbollah supporters to take to the streets to face the protesters.
The protesters rejected the 24 reform-oriented decisions announced by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 20, 2019. The majority of his cabinet was made up of ministers and officials affiliated with Hezbollah. The protesters chanted “All means all…Nasrallah is one of them” in reference to the necessity of toppling the political class ruling the country entirely, in particular the ministers and lawmakers affiliated with Hezbollah. Two weeks before the Lebanese protests, Iraqi protesters, from different religious, political and ethnic affiliations and factions chanted anti-Iran slogans such as “Basra is free…Iran is out” and “Iraq is free…Iran is out.”
- The Map of the Protests in the Two Countries
The spillover map of the protests reveals that the protests are spreading across Lebanon’s territory (Sidon, Tripoli, Jbeil, Baalbek, Nabatieh, Chtaura), on top of these areas comes the Southern Suburb, the hotspot of Hezbollah and the Amal movement. The protests spilled over in Iraq to extend from the capital Baghdad to most of the Shiite-majority southern provinces and cities (Shiite incubators of the Iranian project), bringing the number of Iraqi provinces that have witnessed protests to nine (Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, Nasiriyah, Najaf, Samawa, Diyala, Wasset, Hillah). The spillover map of the protests and the chants of the protesters indicate that they have transcended – though temporarily – many of the sectarian and political divisions that have gripped Iraqi and Lebanese political landscapes since the beginning of the first decade of the third millennium.
- The Groups Targeted by the Protesters in Lebanon and Iraq
In a quasi-identical manner in both countries, the sentiments of popular anger and rage were directed against pro-Iran militias. Iraqi and Lebanese protesters focused on expelling Iran and its proxies from Lebanon and Iraq, especially after the threats made by Nasrallah which fueled and strengthened the protests. Nasrallah hinted at the possibility of ordering his supporters, estimated to be in their thousands, to take to the streets to support the government as Hezbollah and its supporters make up the biggest part of it. He said, “The time where the party and its supporters shall take to the street has not come yet.” This opened the door for the possibility of thousands of protesters on both sides facing each other on the streets. The sentiments of rage and anger among protesters against Iranian proxies were demonstrated as follows:
- In Lebanon: protesters burned pictures of the leaders of Iran including its political and religious leaders as well as pictures of Hezbollah leaders. The former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora blamed Hezbollah and President Michel Aoun of the March 8 Alliance, to which Hezbollah belongs, and Iran, for aggravating the crises in the country, pointing out that the main reason for the protests is “Hezbollah’s full control over the affairs of the country.”
- In Iraq: the outposts of pro-Iran militias were a prime target for protesters. They set fire to the headquarters of the Dawa party in Nasiriyah and Dhi Qar which is affiliated with Nouri Al-Maliki known for his loyalty to Iran. They also destroyed armored vehicles owned by the PMU. The protesters did not spare any Iranian landmarks in the city. They set fire to the offices belonging to the Khorasani Brigade and the Badr Organization, both of whom are close to Iran. In Basra, protesters set fire to pictures of the Iranian supreme leader that had been put up on walls and lamp posts in the city and burned the Iranian flag in several provinces. The protesters also accused Iran and its militias of being behind the use of excessive force in killing and wounding This is consistent with the accusations leveled by what the Iraqi authorities described as unidentified snipers targeting protesters and the police. These snipers are suspected of having links with Iran-backed Shiite militias which left 260 protesters dead and injured more than 12,000 others according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.
In 2018, the Shiite alliance consisting of Hezbollah and the Amal movement affiliated with the March 8 alliance won the parliamentary elections. This led to Iran strengthening its influence in Lebanon. The coalition won more than half of the seats in the 128-seat Parliament. This is in addition to the overwhelming and profound influence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese equation and it taking control of most of the Hariri cabinet ministries. In Iraq, Shiite factions control more than half of the Parliament’s seats and seized control of the ministerial positions in Adel Abdel-Mahdi’s cabinet. Furthermore, these factions facilitated the deployment of pro-Iran militias across Iraq in general and the oil-rich provinces in particular.
In order to maintain these gains and fearing that its political arms would be politically exposed, it seems that Iran has ordered its proxies to take up arms to intimidate protesters and end the uprising quickly. In Lebanon, for example, media outlets revealed that supporters of the Amal movement intimidated protesters by opening fire on them and blocking main roads. The same thing happened in Lebanon’s southern cities. Social media users circulated videos showing security personnel carrying weapons and patrolling the streets. Other elements appeared to be threatening protesters with death. Hezbollah, according to media witnesses, deployed at the entrances of Beirut where protestors were gathered burning tires to block roads.
The remarks of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on October 30, 2019 in which he described the protests in Iraq and Lebanon as acts of sabotage dictated by the United States, Israel, and some regional countries are sufficient proof of Iran’s concerns as the protests are challenging its influence in the region. He added that those keen to protect Lebanon and Iraq should address the rioting being orchestrated by the United States, Israel and some regional countries. This was an Iranian attempt to label the protesters as saboteurs in order to undermine the protesters and their legitimate demands [especially the demand of Iraqi protesters to remove the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government backed by Iran], and to convince the Iraqi government to use security solutions against ‘saboteurs’ [Iraqi protesters] as well as to encourage militias to intervene and protect Iranian political, military, cultural and commercial gains in Iraq.
2- Motives Behind the Growing Arab Protests Against Iranian Influence
The decision of the Lebanese government in October 2019 to impose a tax as part of a series of taxes levied on WhatsApp calls, withdrawn later on, sparked the protests. The protests intensified after Nasrallah’s threatening speech, with protestors moving from merely calling for living conditions to be improved to demanding political change. They called for ousting the government and expelling the proxies of Iran. The decision of the Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel-Mahdi on October 1, 2019, to exclude the Commander of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, who played a major role in countering terrorist organizations, sparked the Iraqi protests. Protesters said that this decision came to serve Iran and its project by appointing a commander loyal to the pro-Iran PMU. This is in addition to the failure of the government during its one-year tenure in office to fulfill its obligations such as tackling poverty and corruption, as well as its failure in providing services such as water, electricity and creating jobs. These crises are the same crises that prevented the former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from winning another term in office as prime minister in Iraq.
In general, protests do not arise in a vacuum but are the result of negative economic and political outcomes that have accumulated over time. They are caused by consecutive governments, which work to protect their own interests and ensure longevity in power at the expense of public interests. Such governments ignore addressing crises early, leaving them to reach a chronic situation, with them ultimately turning into a ticking time bomb as society becomes full of rage and anger.
The experiences of Lebanon and Iraq are similar to the aforementioned. As stated earlier, Hezbollah, backed by Iran, had been partially holding a grip on power in Lebanon from 2006 to 2018 and assumed complete power after winning the parliamentary elections of May 2018. Since 2003, the Shiite faction has been wresting control over power in Iraq. The governments in Iraq and Lebanon are two strategic allies of Iran. They have been spinning in the orbit of the Iranian government since the Shiites came to power in both nations.
Iran’s meddling in Iraq and Lebanon is considered as a prime cause of rampant corruption in their state apparatuses and government institutions. To ensure the continued extension of its clout in Iraq and Lebanon as well as to implement its plans, Iran excluded patriotic Lebanese and Iraqi figures from decision-making circles in Beirut and Baghdad. In their place, Tehran installed loyalist puppets who take orders from Iran and it is well known that they devour and siphon off the resources of the country. This has been done to ensure Iran’s agenda is implemented entirely in order to accomplish Tehran’s plan of linking Iran to Iraq, Damascus, Beirut and the Mediterranean. Hence, due to Shiite factions loyal to Iran, Lebanon and Iraq have become fragmented, weak and shrinking states, which suffer from the following crises:
- Rampant Corruption
At a time when Iran’s agenda is being enforced through Hezbollah in Lebanon, the country ranks 136 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2018 report, while Iraq ranks 12th among the world’s most corrupt countries (168 in Transparency International’s 2018 report). The amount of public funds squandered in the post-Saddam Hussein era is estimated at $450 billion, roughly fourfold the state budget. The era of al-Maliki is considered the most corrupt in the modern history of Iraq. The era saw the formation of militias loyal to Iran under the pretext of fighting terrorism.
To fight economic corruption in Lebanon, Iraq and other countries that have been harmed by Iran, it is imperative to eliminate political corruption in these countries. This entails addressing financial and administrative corruption. Fighting political corruption starts with curbing the influence of pro-Iranian armed militias in Iraq, shackling Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon, halting its foreign activities in Syria and elsewhere, as well as putting an end to it delivering weapons to its fighters.
- Economic Downturn
Nearly a decade and a half after Hezbollah’s participation in ruling over Lebanon, economic figures paint a tragic economic reality that is pushing the country towards total collapse.
Economic policies implemented by consecutive governments have failed to create a productive economy and heavy borrowing from abroad (Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, where total debts due in 2018 were about $86 billion according to the statistics of the Association of Banks in Lebanon) has led to a decline in revenues and a slowdown in growth (0.2 percent in 2018 according to the IMF).
Poverty rates have risen in the war-torn Arab country, with 28 percent of Lebanese living under the poverty line as well as a 36 percent unemployment rate. Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, which adds other economic burdens. Also, Lebanon suffered from a significant decline in usable cash reserves in 2018 and 2019. This was estimated at around $19 billion in 2019, compared to about $25.5 billion in 2018. Some 22.6 percent of Iraqi youth are unemployed, and more than a quarter of Iraq’s population is living in extreme poverty, although Iraq owns the fourth-largest oil reserves in the world.
- Inadequate Services
Lebanon suffers from a power shortage crisis that has pushed its citizens to rely on expensive generators. In the capital, power outages continue for up to three hours per day. In other regions, the outages may drag on for 20 hours per day. Iraq too has been suffering from power outages and water shortages for years, which sparked protests twice in the southern provinces in July and September 2018. This is in addition to the 1.8 million Iraqi displaced persons who are unsheltered. Some 6.7 million Iraqis are in need of some form of humanitarian aid, according to UN figures. The cost of rebuilding Iraq, including cities liberated from ISIS, is estimated at $88.2 billion.
- Popular Awareness of the Dangers Posed by Iranian Domination
The control of armed Shiite militias close to Iran (Fatah Alliance, State of Law, militias of the PMU such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al Haq, Nujaba Movement and Hezbollah Brigades) over the Iraqi political scene directly after the end of the war against ISIS not only caused popular discontent to surge, but also angered several factions within the Shiite community itself, who felt that they had lost their position within the Iraqi equation.
Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8 Alliance control the Lebanese government through a large number of ministers who are loyal to Iran, such as the Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil who works to make Lebanon entirely connected to Iran’s regional project. Bassil’s activities abroad at the expense of the Lebanese state, his control of vital sectors in Lebanon such as some ports and parts of the country’s communications sector have led to a parallel economy, with the Lebanese people paying a heavy price.
Some Arab countries and institutions have refused to provide aid (grants, loans) to a government dominated by a party that is classified in many countries such as the United States, Britain, Argentina and Paraguay as a terrorist group. Tourists and investors have fled the country in fear of Hezbollah’s policies, all of which have created a tragic economic and living situation and fueled the protests that the country is witnessing.
3- Characteristics and Repercussions of the Protests in Iraq and Lebanon on Iran’s Clout
- Awareness of Lebanese and Iraqi Citizens of the Dangers Posed by Iranian Ideology:
It seems that there is a growing popular awareness in Lebanon and Iraq about the dangers posed by the armed militias loyal to Iran as they are fueling sectarianism for Iran’s interests and ruining living and economic conditions. These militias siphon off economic resources and embroil children in their sectarian conflicts, which only serves Iran’s agenda. This growing public awareness is reflected by two indicators:
First: participation of citizens in Iraq and Lebanon from all races, and sects in the protests. Second: the outbreak of protests in all provinces, especially the Shiite-majority provinces in the south of Iraq and Lebanon (the decentralization of the protests, especially in Lebanon). These two indicators deprive Iran of the ability to instigate sectarian rifts which have been the hallmark of protests in Lebanon and Iraq in the past decades, which were used by Iran for its expansionism in the region. These broad protests pose a threat to Iran and its armed militias, which have sought to equate the protests with violence in order to crack down on them in both countries, especially as the protesters in the two countries have raised slogans against Iran, its clout and militias as well as set fire to its headquarters and the Iranian flag.
- The Absence of Partisan Leaders in the Protests who Could be Wooed by Iran
The popular protests in Iraq and Lebanon are characterized by their non-partisan nature and cannot be easily polarized. Even those who are partisan have had to leave their partisan slogans and chants when they arrive at the places where the protesters gather. The protests are collective involving everyone with no clear religious and partisan leader. In other words, the protestors are from outside the mainstream political and sectarian parties in Iraq and Lebanon that have been building up their clout for years to serve Iranian interests. This is one of the strengths of the protest, which makes it difficult for Iran and its proxies to curb the protests in a way that serves Iran’s agenda, in particular, making it impossible to hide the failure of Shiite factions ruling in Iraq and Lebanon.
- The Protests Consist of Youth Who Are Hostile to Sectarian Projects
The biggest portion of the protests in Iraq and Lebanon is made up of youth who are under 20. They belong to the post-2003 generation in Iraq and the post-8 and 14 March generation in Lebanon. It is a modernist generation of youth who spend most of their time on social media. The youth are disconnected from faction and sectarian-based politics. The youth are not fond of turbaned clerics and religious leaders due to their acquaintance with the world and its modernist and contemporary values. Their main focus is on day-to-day living conditions, social justice, public and private freedoms, combating corruption and expelling political individuals and clans, under whose rule they were born and raised, in light of their failure, lack of efficiency and political and sectarian scandals. This is an abundantly important element in society that should be used to confront Iranian schemes in the Arab region. This new generation is not in favor of Iran’s meddling in the region.
- Iran Losing the Support of the Poor
The growing impoverished class and the middle class are preponderant participants in the Iraqi and Lebanese protests. These classes believe that the political system which shares power on sectarian and factional lines is working in favor of each sect and faction as well as the rich at the expense of low-income classes. The political system has helped the rich class amass or inherit massive fortunes through corruption, political profiteering or via imposing new taxes such as in Lebanon. This class has worsened the situation of the poor and have benefited officials in the ruling political parties. These low-income classes are fed up with the policies of the sectarian governments in both countries. The poor segments get no economic benefits which could improve their economic conditions. However, economic benefits go towards sectarian agendas to serve Iran’s political projects overseas. This is depriving Iran of the support of marginalized classes in Lebanon and Iraq.
- Temporary Government Solutions Have Agitated the Protests Further Instead of Calming Them
The government’s way of addressing the protests in both Iraq and Lebanon by announcing reformist decisions can be described as a temporary move aimed to reduce the momentum of the protests, which are posing a serious threat to the pillars of the governments in both countries, an approach which is no different to the ones adopted by the governments which were eventually deposed in some Arab countries. The new thing in the Iraqi and Lebanese protests is that these reformist decisions are no longer able to deceive the protesters as they have become well aware of the fact that these governments care for nobody but their outside supporters and serve their projects by maintaining a grip on power at the expense of public interests. Therefore, a crackdown against the popular protests in Iraq and Lebanon is likely in order to maintain the pillars of the governments in both countries, given the fact that the mindset condoning repression is embraced by senior figures of the governments in Lebanon and Iraq as well as their backers in Iran.
- The Iranian Project Is Losing Legitimacy
This is related to the aforementioned items. The protests staged by the youth and the poor reveal a national majority transcending sectarianism rallying against Iranian clout which runs across state apparatuses in Lebanon and Iraq. This majority wants to deprive Iran’s project of its legitimacy overseas as it aims to prevent the transformation of states within the Iranian project in accordance with Iran’s state model. They have worked to disclose and expose the Iranian scheme at home and overseas and make it difficult for Iran to prevent its plans from being exposed regionally. If we look at the recent popular and factional protests in Iran against the domestic and foreign policies of the government, which are the main reason behind the deteriorating economic and living conditions in Iran, we will find an ignominious failure by the government at home. This has led to Iran’s failure in establishing a model country, according to the Iranian constitution, which makes Tehran’s efforts in establishing a globalist Iranian republic nothing but an Iranian fantasy which cannot be materialized at several levels, especially when there is a new generation which does not adhere to the Iranian sectarian project. Iran, which claims to support the oppressed around the world, has, in fact, made them more vulnerable, resulting in the marginalized rising against it in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as in other countries.
4- The Future of Iraqi and Lebanese Protests and Iranian Regional Clout
The repeated outbreak of protests in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Lebanon, is an indication of the rejection by the Iraqi and Lebanese people of sectarian and factional affiliations. This poses a new challenge to the regional project of Iran coming from within the countries targeted by its project, not caused by rival countries, which increases the cost that will have to be paid by Iran if it wants to go ahead with its regional project.
The protests in Iraq led the Iraqi President Barham Saleh to announce that Iraq’s prime minister agreed to submit his resignation on October 31. In light of the Iraqi status quo, the Iraqi people denounced Adel Abdel-Mahdi for delaying his resignation officially to keep in place the Iraqi Parliament dominated by Shiite factions loyal to Iran, and they rejected the possibility of forming a new government similar to that of Abdel-Mahdi or letting the existing government stay in power with some changes to circumvent the protests. The Iraqi people will no longer accept solutions that are only aimed to allay their anger. The Iraqi people have suggested that the protests will be triggered again as the deep roots of the crisis have not been tackled.
Hence, the recurrence of protests is likely in Iraq whether the government resigns or remains in office in light of complicated calculations as Iran is still seeking to enforce its schemes to connect Tehran with the Mediterranean via Iraq.
As for the Lebanese arena, things have become different after Hariri resigned as prime minister. It seems that before his resignation, Hariri managed to convince Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8 Alliance to carry out some reforms in order to contain public anger. Hezbollah recanted its rejection of the government’s resignation given the impossibility of forming a new government different from the incumbent one, which encompasses the partisan balances and the rules of the current political system in Lebanon. Moreover, it would be difficult for any new government to perform its duties without the domination of Hezbollah over it. Forming a technocratic government is a difficult undertaking in Lebanon. However, this scenario could take Lebanon to a different political reality, which is open to all likelihoods.
The most important and significant issue in the Iraqi and Lebanese cases is that the Arab people have become fed up with sectarian rule which works in favor of Iran and its proxies. They are intent on exposing sectarian currents, militias, and parties one after the other. Yesterday, the Iraqi people exposed the sectarian parties loyal to Iran. The same scene is witnessed in Lebanon by exposing the two main Shiite factions (Hezbollah-Amal movement) and their role in the deteriorating economic conditions and the political divisions. This is a historic and appropriate opportunity and a reliable lever which should be used against the Iranian project in the Arab countries from two aspects:
First: taking advantage of it at the Arab level in exposing the dangers of the Iranian project on the economic, political and cultural conditions in the Arab countries as well as the dangers posed to their security and stability. This is aimed to render the battle to bring back Iraq, Lebanon, and the other countries to the Arab sphere. This is in addition to showing the extent of harm that could be inflicted on the people by Iran if they accept Shi’ism to spread, politicize or militarize in any country. Inevitably, politically stable and economically powerful countries will turn into fragmented countries gripped with sectarian divisions. Iraq, which possesses a quarter of the global oil reserves is now suffering after one and a half-decades of Shiite rule aligned with Iran and serious economic crises due to Iranian meddling.
The second: at the level of the United States: the US administration should reconsider its strategy of maximum pressure aimed to change the behavior of the Iranian government by considering new developments in the Arab countries that are suffering from intense Iranian meddling if it actually seeks to curb Iranian regional influence. This could happen through taking advantage of Arab popular anger at Iran’s sectarian project and using this anger as a strong lever against the Iranian government, which could force it to change its tools and alter its strategies in a way that helps curb Iranian regional clout.