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Iran ‘anxious’ as popular movements threaten its influence in Iraq and Lebanon

Tens of thousands of Iraqis massed in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on November 1 in the biggest demonstrations since anti-government protests erupted a month ago
Tens of thousands of Iraqis massed in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on November 1 in the biggest demonstrations since anti-government protests erupted a month ago Khalid al-Mousily, Reuters

As protests have flared in Iraq and Lebanon amid widespread discontent with the political class in both countries, Iran has showed signs of anxiety about the popular movements, which threaten to weaken its influence abroad.

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Lebanese President Michael Aoun called on Thursday for the abolition of the country’s confessionalist political system – an arrangement in which government posts are allocated by religion, thus ensuring that many of Iran’s Shia allies are placed in positions of power.

The same day, Aoun’s Iraqi counterpart Barham Saleh also attempted to mollify a popular movement, promising demonstrators early elections, while protests continued to rock Baghdad. Significantly, videos have been circulating of protesters hitting their shoes against a poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds force, the (in)famous Qassim Soleimani, in what appears to be Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.

Aoun’s and Saleh’s conciliatory gestures came after Khamenei took a very different stance towards the Lebanese and Iraqi popular movements. “I recommend those who care in #Iraq and #Lebanon remedy the insecurity and turmoil created in their countries by the U.S., the Zionist regime, some western countries, and the money of some reactionary countries,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

“Given its important political role in Iraq and Lebanon, it’s inevitable that Iran is worried; Tehran needs to maintain its power in these two countries after investing a great deal to give itself influence,” an Iran expert told FRANCE 24 under the condition of anonymity. “Invoking the predictable conspiracy theory of Zionist interference to try and discredit these protest movements shows a certain weakness” on Iran’s part, the anonymous analyst continued.

Hezbollah comes under fire in Lebanon

In Lebanon, the wave of protest spread to Shia strongholds in the south of the country, which are dominated by Hezbollah, the political and military group sponsored by Iran and hitherto considered untouchable. Lebanese protesters have been frequently chanting “all means all’, suggesting that no part of the country’s political class, including Hezbollah, is beyond reproach.

In an unprecedented move, protesters vandalised the constituency offices of several Shia MPs, including that of Mohammad Raad, leader of the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc. Supporters of the Iranian-backed armed group have retaliated with attacks on protesters – a sign of Hezbollah’s nervousness.

Hezbollah is not just a Lebanese political party with weapons; it has a bigger arsenal than the country’s military. Analysts say that it’s the country’s real decision-maker, and very much under Iran’s thumb. “There are two Lebanese states: the one that’s presented to the world for show; and that of Hezbollah – an Iranian colony, which structures political life and controls the borders,” said Antoine Basbous, director of the Observatoire des Pays Arabes in Paris.

For his part, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has made similar remarks to those of Khamenei, suggesting last week that the protests were funded by foreign governments. However, this may have backfired for Nasrallah, as online activists responded to his comments by sharing a 2016 video in which he said that Iran pays for his organisation’s “budget” and “wages”.

Nasrallah proffered more emollient words on Friday. "A new government must be formed as soon as possible ... and the new government must listen to the demands of the people who took to the streets," he said in a televised address.

‘Get out, Iran! Free Baghdad!’

Iran has enjoyed a great deal of influence in Iraq – which is approximately 70 percent Shia – ever since it stepped into the power vacuum left by the 2003 US invasion. Tehran backs several political parties and armed groups in the country, including Hachd al-Shaabi, a paramilitary organisation dominated by Shias – the political arm of which is an integral part of the current government's second biggest party.

More than 150 people have been killed in clashes during the wave of protests that has swept Iraq since the start of October. Demonstrators have made their resentment towards Iran clear during these rallies, exemplified by the chant “Get out, Iran! Free Baghdad!”

The Iraqi protesters have “clearly indicated” that they are not just making “socio-economic demands” – they also want to “get rid of a government put in place by Iran and to get Iran out of the country”, Oula Said al-Samrani, a seasoned Iraqi reporter, told FRANCE 24’s Arabic service.

Tehran is also worried about protests spreading to its own territory, at a time when US sanctions have had a crippling effect. The Iranian economy is experiencing a brutal recession, with GDP expected to shrink by 9.5 percent by the end of 2019 after growing by a healthy 4.8 percent last year, according to the IMF.

“There are parallels between the rage directed against political systems dominated by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Lebanon and the anger many feel in Iran about the same socio-economic problems,” noted Bernard Hourcade, an Iran specialist at the CNRS think tank in Paris.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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