For a month now, Iraqis have been protesting widespread corruption, the incompetence of Iraqi government officials, the lack of economic opportunities and jobs, and the deterioration of their living conditions. Although Iraq is one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, the country is inefficient and dysfunctional. The wealth of the country has been siphoned off into the pockets of the corrupt politicians at the expense of the people. The government has failed to pay people adequate salaries, provide basic services, or repair the country’s ruined infrastructure.
It is estimated that since 2004 around $450 billion in public funds in Iraq have vanished due to corruption. According to Transparency International, Iraq ranks 12 in the list of the most corrupt countries in the world. With corruption and graft rank in the consecutive pro-Iran Shi’ite-led governments in Iraq, young Iraqis are fed up and are calling for change. One surprising factor though is the level of anti-Iran sentiment among the protesters.
How are the anti-Iranian mood and the protesters’ calls for reform related?
Anti-Iran Sentiments on the Rise in Iraq
Violent protests emerged in Baghdad and Basra last year, as protesters burned Iranian flags and pictures of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. They also set the headquarters of the Badr Organization—a Shi’ite militia affiliated with Iran—on fire. Thirty Iraqis were killed and Iran’s consulate in the city was torched.
Not only were the protests much bigger, spreading to several Shi’ite-majority provinces in southern Iraq, but they were also more hostile towards the Iranian regime including in religiously significant Shi’a provinces such as Karbala. Protesters chanted against Iran and its Supreme Leader. They tore down banners that displayed his photo, spoke out against Iranian activities in Iraq, and torched several headquarters and offices for the pro-Iran militias—the popular mobilization forces.
Over the last few years, more Iraqis have been linking the dysfunctional systems of their consecutive governments and the deteriorating situation in Iraq to Iran’s influence in the country.
Over the last few years, more Iraqis have been linking the dysfunctional systems of their consecutive governments and the deteriorating situation in Iraq to Iran’s influence in the country. The Iraqi economy is being used by Iran as a tool to evade Western sanctions and to provide the Iranian regime with hard currencies. Billions of dollars of Iraq’s wealth are going to the Iranian regime and its local politicians and militias in Iraq. The country has become deeply dependent on Tehran in several critical and sensitive sectors. This is one reason why the angry Iraqi protesters are targeting Iran and the pro-Iran Shi’ite militias.
Another reason is the government’s recent and unjustified decision to decommission Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi who had served as the deputy head of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service. Unlike the leaders of the pro-Iran popular mobilization units that are deeply connected to the IRGC, al-Saadi is seen by many Iraqis—including Sunnis—as a national hero. This decision was widely considered in Iraq as further proof of Iran’s direct interference in the country. Some Iraqi officials believe that the decision came from outside and that pro-Iran PMU factions have lobbied for his dismissal.
The Iranian move is interpreted inside Iraq through a wider lens that is based on two things. First is Tehran’s aim to take control of the CTS as it is one of the few Iran-free Iraqi institutions. Second, and more importantly, is Iran’s effort to eliminate strong and popular national Iraqi figures from the public scene to prevent the re-emergence of a national Iraq that is anti-Iran.
Iran’s influence inside Iraq over political, economic, and security matters has been increasing since the US’s invasion in 2003.
Iran’s influence inside Iraq over political, economic, and security matters has been increasing since the US’s invasion in 2003. As a result, Baghdad has emerged as an Iranian playground in its regional battles against the US. Today, Iraq is an indispensable part of Iran’s expansive regional agenda.
It is also a fundamental component of Iran’s Shi’ite crescent project which dates back to the Khomeini era. King Abdulla of Jordan was the first leader to warn against this project in 2004. Many western officials, think tanks, and media outlets dismissed the concern then as being either an exaggeration by Arab governments or a manifestation of sectarian behavior.
Ten years later or so, the project turned out to be more than real. In their quest to dominate the Arab fertile crescent and Gulf region, Iranian officials boasted that they control four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Aden. Thus, the Iranian government is very sensitive to whatever might affect its influence and interests in Iraq, and the Iraqis are carrying the load.
Iran Behind the Brutal Suppression of Iraqis?
Iranian officials have been harshly criticizing the protests in Iraq since they began in October. Tehran has been trying to divert attention away from the anti-Iranian messages of the protesters and blame it on a foreign conspiracy among the US, Israel, Zionists, and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the Iranian regime has been launching a sophisticated psychological, propaganda, and disinformation campaign inside Iran to support this claim. The Iranian political and clerical establishments have been engaging also in an intensive effort to de-legitimize the protesters to pave the way for bloodier crackdown on them.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted that Iran’s “enemies” seek to divide Iran and Iraq and emphasized the close religious connection between the two countries. His representative in the IRGC, Abdullah Haji Sadeghi, described the protests as an “American attempt to prevent the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia from defending Iraq and to totally eliminate it,” calling for plans to be drafted to “foil the plots of the enemies” in Iraq.
The Kayhan newspaper—both radically conservative and close to the Supreme Leader—dubbed the Iraqi protests the “Saudi-Zionist conspiracy.” Moreover, Amirabdollahian, an aide to the President of the Iranian Parliament and former Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab Affairs said: “Zionists & sponsors of takfiri terrorists—anti-Iran Sunnis in the Iranian political dictionary—are behind the latest events in Iraq”!
Iran’s hostile official position and attitude towards the Iraqi protests reflect the quagmire of the Iranian regime. Normally, Tehran would easily dismiss the protesters and de-legitimize the protests by inciting sectarianism. The Iranian regime would use the terms such as “Salafists, Wahhabis, Takfiris, radicals, terrorists, Baathist”—all anti-Iran Sunnis in the political lexicon of the Iranian regime—to convince the Shi’ites that these protests are orchestrated by outside powers to topple their government.
However, unlike previous times, the protesters now are largely Shi’ite. They typically form the popular base of the Shi’ite establishment in Iraq. They are protesting a Shi’ite-led government, they are tearing up photos of Shi’ite clerics, and confronting Shi’ite militias. This has created a dilemma for Iran.
The response of the Iraqi security forces to the protesters has been extremely violent. They used excessive force and live ammunition resulting in killing more than 100 and injuring more than one thousand.
The response of the Iraqi security forces to the protesters has been extremely violent. They used excessive force and live ammunition resulting in killing more than 100 protesters and injuring more than one thousand. Suppressing the young Iraqis with brutal force has reinforced the widespread belief within the protesters that pro-Iranian militias and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are involved in the crackdown. Some observers find that impossible, however, given that the Iraqi government has no shortage of security forces to have to rely on Shi’ite militias or IRGC members.
Nevertheless, given previous cases where members of Hezbollah and the IRGC participated in cracking down on the Syrian protesters in 2011, not to mention the deployment of Shi’ite militias from Iraq and Lebanon to Iran earlier this year, it is highly likely that the Shi’ite militias and/or Iran’s IRGC members are involved in suppressing the latest protests in Iraq. It is not a matter of having a shortage in manpower, but more about showing commitment under the IRGC leadership to solidarity and unity.
Even if this is mere speculation, the fact that Iran’s official position, like the media outlets and many analysts, is very hostile to the Iraqi protests reinforces this assumption.
The Iraq Protests Might be Contagious
The protesters in Iraq share many grievances with previous protesters in Iran, who have also demonstrated against their government and the regime complaining of serious corruption and the deteriorating economic situation in the country. Officials and analysts in Iran are already drawing a link between the Iraqi protests and previous protests of the Iranian people against their government.
The Persian service of the “semi-official” news agency “Farsnews” published an article for Sayyid Abdullah Motawaliyan warning against “kicking the ball of fire towards the Iranian playground.” He said that “just like the 2018 protests in Iran, these protests are orchestrated via social media,” adding that “their goal is to stir up differences between Iraq and Iran and portray Tehran as a threat.”
Moreover, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), published an interview with Sayyid Hamid Husayni, secretary-general of the Iran-Iraq chamber of commerce, during which he said any reforms to be taken by the Iraqi government would hurt Iran, before claiming that this would be only in the short term because of the vast presence of Iran in the Iraqi market.
Officials in Tehran fear that the protests in Iraq could ignite similar protests against the regime in Iran since they come against the backdrop of the deteriorating situation and living standards inside Iran itself.
Obviously, the Iranian regime has a good reason to believe that the situation in Iraq is highly contagious; it bears a lot of similarities to Iran. Officials in Tehran fear that the protests in Iraq could ignite similar protests against the regime in Iran since they come against the backdrop of the deteriorating situation and living standards inside Iran itself. Just like Iraq, Iran is a very rich country in terms of hydrocarbons and is considered one of the top 15 major mineral-rich countries in the world. Yet, statistics show that Iranians today are 30% poorer since the four decades of the mullah’s rule.
According to the head of the workers’ group in the Iranian Shura Council, Ali Ridha Mahjoub, the rate of extreme poverty in Iran rose from 17 percent in 2017 to 34 percent in 2018. This means Iranians who receive less than two dollars a day constitute more than one-third of the population today.
International Monetary Fund reports show that the Iranian economy shrank in 2018. A recent Gallup poll shows that a record 57% of Iranians saw their economic conditions worsening. According to the latest report by the World Bank, Iran’s economy is expected to contract further by 8.7% in 2019/20.
Officials in Iran usually blame all this on the US sanctions. However, poor management, deep corruption, and the expansive regional agenda of the IRGC and Iranian regime have all contributed to depriving the Iranians of the high income they deserve and to a vast waste of the country’s financial resources.
Transparency International puts Iran among the most corrupt countries in the world. Iran ranks 42 out of 180. Occasionally, the Iranian regime announces that it will crack down on corruption, but experts think that this is just an attempt to buy legitimacy.
In July, for example, Mahmoud Vaezi, the chief of staff of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, said in an official letter to several Iranian ministers that one billion euros ($1.12 billion) in hard currency allocated for importing medicines and essential goods for the Iranian people had just “disappeared”!
Moreover, the IRGC which controls at least 30% of the Iranian economy is spending billions of dollars on its expansive agenda, supporting dictators such as Assad, proliferating sectarian militias, and executing regional malign activities. Earlier this year, Alireza Zakani, a former member of parliament who is considered to be a hardliner conservative, confessed that “there is no single case of corruption unless a power stands behind it.”
Shahir Shahidsaless, an Iranian writer and analyst believes that the corruption in Iran is deeply rooted and is strongly linked to the regime and the country’s power structure.
Clearly, the present uncertainty surrounding the Iraqi situation makes it hard to predict how things will evolve. However, whatever happens next will certainly leave its impact on Iran’s interest and influence in Iraq first. If the protests continue, the Iranian regime’s anxiety will rise to a new level. Undoubtedly, the Iranian government and its affiliated Shi’ite militias will remain determined to contain the possible implications of that unrest within the borders of Iraq.