By Neda Bolourchi
More than a month after protestors first took to the streets across Iraq, Adil Abdul Mahdi surprisingly remains the country’s prime minister. In what has been a movement against high unemployment, poor basic services, and state corruption, demonstrators insist on the removal of factions and political elites that came to power in the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Protestors see these Iraqis as corrupt and subservient to other powers, namely the United States and Iran. But media coverage has thus far focused on the anti-Iran sentiment.
The protests themselves and their anti-Iran slogans ostensibly started because Mahdi inexplicably fired Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi from his post as a counter-terrorism leader. Iraqis generally view General al-Saadi as critical to the fight against ISIS and a pivotal figure in the liberation of Mosul. He is a national hero. U.S. forces trained al-Saadi as well as his counter-terrorism group. Many Iraqis explain his demotion to the Ministry of Defense as a concession given to Iran, which supports Mahdi. Iranian officials may have asked for the demotion of al-Saadi because of his relationship with the U.S., his popularity, and his refusal to accept Iranian help, particularly in a heroic 2015 battle. Without any explanation to the contrary, the treatment of al-Saadi symbolizes in stark terms how foreign interests and the competition between external powers takes precedence over those of Iraq and Iraqis.
So what does the Iranian government think about and how should it be handling the protests?
What Tehran Sees
First, because the protests in Iraq coincide with those in Lebanon, Tehran sees the influence and support of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and/or Israel. This is not to say that all protestors across Iraq have been influenced or paid by these countries or groups working with one or more of these countries. But rather, in the view from Tehran, it’s that one or more of these countries or an actor operating on their behalf has in fact catalyzed or in some way fomented the protests we see. Then, rightfully frustrated Iraqis have joined and participated—given their experience of having lived through an imposed sanctions regime that starved the population, an American invasion that destroyed all infrastructure and security mechanisms, multiple insurgencies that decimated society and the newly built industrial base, and the horrors of ISIS. Tehran sees these protests not necessarily as a direct manifestation of Iraqi anger and frustration at Iran per se, but rather as a mechanism capitalizing on and magnifying decades worth of emotion.
Second, Iranian leaders see the lack of anger towards the U.S. in Iraq right now as suspect, which reinforces their belief the U.S. and/or one of its regional allies catalyzed the protests. While the firing of a national hero, al-Saadi, may in fact have been accomplished as a “favor” or “suggestion” from Tehran, the political system against which protestors are demonstrating is the very political system established by the U.S. after its invasion. Tehran does not see itself as responsible for current, negative conditions because it thinks of itself as merely having taken advantage of the mistakes made by the U.S. Moreover, and more to their point, Iran’s leaders believe they “saved” Iraq numerous times. Its efforts to establish a stable Iraq include providing health services, food, electricity, and more recently, the resources to defeat ISIS. And, because the “defeat” of ISIS is relatively new, Tehran does not understand how it is, from their vantage point, the sole receiver of Iraqi wrath now. Thus, because Tehran views its role in Iraq as ranging from mutually beneficial to benevolent, it continues to believe that the protests “started” or were spurred through the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, and/or an agent acting on their behalf.
Third, Tehran sees the representation of these protests as largely anti-Iranian because it believes the media is largely exaggerating or skewing the presentation of these protests. Tehran sees international media largely dominated or controlled by its adversaries in the West as well as in the Middle East. And, because of this control or domination, according to Tehran, video and reporting of protests is selective and biased against Iran.
Four, compounding why Iran believes the above to be the case now is the history of U.S intervention, its psychological-operations, its manipulation of media, the American media’s complacency in such operations, and, of course, the Secretary of State, America’s chief diplomat, admitting to a variety of such activities when he led the CIA, among many others. And, none of this includes the lobbying or efforts made by other countries and groups to do the same.
What Tehran Should See
Last year, when Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon (On the Move) Alliance party narrowly won more parliamentary seats than any other party in Iraq’s elections, I wrote that Iran would likely take certain measures to reduce Iraqi anger and resentment against it. In the recent past, the Islamic Republic tends to be precise with its foreign operations; it does not often miscalculate or overstep; it generally adheres to a certain set of rules of engagement. Thus, Tehran was neither panicking then nor scrambling. Yet, because Tehran insists on its viewpoint (briefly outlined above) and has not taken demonstrable steps to remedy the dysfunction that it has produced, or to which it has contributed, Tehran is now concerned about what it sees in Iraq.
Throughout the 40 years of its existence, the Islamic Republic has professed to be a revolutionary, radical force whose aims included upending static, repressive governments across the Middle East. From before its inception as a government, individuals and institutions supporting velayet-e fiqh (rule of the religious jurist) have used the language of leftist liberation movements, anti-colonial discourse, and traditional Shi’i social justice arguments to further its goals.
Central to the Islamic Republic’s own forward defense and its goal of defending Shi’as worldwide has been the ability to deliver on its platform of social justice. In tangible terms, this has meant providing health care, education, food staple items, and construction supplies and equipment to communities abroad. More recently, this has also meant providing armaments, funding, and logistics and operational support to transnational Shi’a soldiers fighting in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Because of its social service deliveries to neglected areas, as well as bearing the brunt of on-the-ground military responsibilities in the region, Tehran has been immensely successful abroad. Until the past year.
Rather than taking last year’s Iraqi election as a warning to augment its behavior towards its “friends and allies,” as Tehran refers to “proxies,” the Islamic Republic appears to have doubled down. Instead of looking at Iran’s own past filled with “foreigners,” neo-colonialists, and “spheres of influence,” the Islamic Republic increasingly appears to be making demands and imposing its will against the wants and desires of those it espouses to help. The alleged “request” regarding al-Saadi being a simple but poignant example.
Elsewhere, recent comments by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are neither commensurate with Iran’s experience, knowledge, and understanding of Iraq nor reflect the Islamic Republic’s history on these issues. On October 30, Khamenei tweeted that the Iraqi people’s “demands can only be fulfilled within the legal structure and framework of their country. When the legal structure is disrupted , no action can be carried out.” Thirty years as the head of state makes it appear that Khamenei has forgotten that protests and civil disobedience are how a people can change the laws and social norms of a society. It is these very actions when they go ignored, unheeded, or repressed that can bring about revolutions—the very type of political event that brought an end to the Pahlavi monarchy and the rise of the Islamic Republic. People’s actions, their disobedience, their protests, and, ultimately their revolutions, can indeed fulfill a demand for change, even temporarily. Revolutions can and do fulfill people’s wants and desires by, at a minimum, removing the existing political and legal system of a country.
In addition to making Iran appear inexperienced on Iraq as well as the history of political movements in the Middle East, the tweet publicly states that no change will occur within the political system drafted by Paul Bremer after the 2003 invasion. And, this is bigger than al-Mahdi remaining the premier. The statement does not imply that the Islamic Republic is taking advantage of U.S. strategic and tactical errors, which has been occurring since the decision to invade. Rather, the tweet suggests that Iran is doubling-down on the U.S.’s original imposition of a political, sectarian (and thus economic) system on Iraq. That places the Islamic Republic on footing with the “Great Satan.” (How is that for contrarian deconstruction?)
If there were any doubts about the interpretation of Khamenei’s tweet, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who attained his marja position in accord with Shi’i tradition and requirements, released a number of statements through representatives. Sistani stressed that the “protests are a right of every willing adult” and “no one person or group or side with an agenda, or any regional or international party, can infringe upon the will of Iraqis or force an opinion upon them.” The position of the marja-e taqlid (source of emulation) appears clear: he will continue to resist attempts to co-opt him into daily political machinations, Iraqis should govern Iraq, and the demands of protestors should be met expeditiously, without further bloodshed.
It’s clear that the violence in Iraq must end. There is no reason for civil disobedience to result in hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of injured, regardless of the protests’ costs. The demonstrations are costing Iraq money it does not have and can’t afford to lose. But, the most efficacious and ethical manner to save money is to address the cause of the protests.
Tehran, on the one hand, could mobilize its supporters in Iraq. These are civilian supporters—not members of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)—but rather the equivalent of most protestors in the street who feel that Iran has done much for the country. Iran has not called on these supporters, and they have, thus far, stayed home. Such mobilization should not occur. At best, the protests would continue. At worst, and in reality, Iraq would descend into a full-fledged, bloody civil war.
The sooner the protests are peaceably under control, the better. The longer the protests last, the more likely they will produce another vacuum into which a resurgent ISIS, strong man, or other extremists can flow. This is what happened when then-U.S. President Obama made another poor foreign policy decision by removing American soldiers prematurely. Protests in Ramadi and Fallujah predictably allowed the entry of ISIS and its growth into Mosul, then Ninewa province, and then a large swath of Iraq.
On the other hand, the protests could calm if Tehran backs away from its position in Iraq. Iran does not believe this to be the case because it wonders what the Iraqi government can do that would satisfy, at best, or appease, at minimum, the protestors. Two minority points stand out against the status quo narrative that dominates Tehran’s position on the situation. One side wonders whether upending the entire political system will help the situation. The other side argues that if the majority of the country—which is Shi’a—vote to dismantle Bremer’s sectarian political system in favor of some version of republicanism, this likely means a weak Iraq for the medium-term future. It neither means that Tehran loses its ability to recoup years of political investment, connections, and networks nor financial assistance. Instead, it means Iran would retain a mechanism to ensure the U.S. does not use Iraq against Tehran. That has been the motivating factor for its presence in Iraq since 2003. And, so, this minority school of thought in Tehran wonders, what’s the problem? The overwhelming response is that too much remains in the air and unanswered, and too much could change.
Questions remain as to whether Iran will take tangible steps to mollify the current Iraqi protests or whether it will let these protests run their course. The voices for increased involvement are not convincing. Yet Tehran is in agreement that it is not to blame for all of Iraq’s problems. It also insists that Iraqis are not protesting against Iran nearly as much as Arab and Western media portray. But nearly 18 months have passed since the 2018 elections, and Iran is being blamed for Iraqi problems as well as the deaths and injuries of its citizens. Even if what Tehran sees as vastly exaggerated reporting by Arab and Western media is true, this will continue and become the common adage with the decline of American soldiers in Iraq. Its regime and axis of resistance will continue to face problems in the short-term.
The Islamic Republic has long insisted on its righteousness. In September, Tehran had a few things to say the world. Maybe it’s time Tehran listened.