By Track Persia
November 15, 2019
Iraq has been rocked by weeks of protests with demonstrators, who initially demanded more jobs and better services, now are calling for a complete overhaul of the political system. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran has built up an extensive network of politicians and militias in the country and acted as a power broker in Iraqi politics. Protesters, who are angry with the corruption of the political elite and the lack of jobs have directed some of their anger against Iran and its proxies who are accused of killing and kidnapping the protesters.
The Iraqi protestors have voiced dismay with Iran’s influence in their country and earlier this month they attacked Iran’s consulate in Karbala. The attack on Iran’s consulate on November 4 which led to the killing of three protesters by security forces seemed to have taken the Iranians by surprise, given, the incident happened in the city that represents the symbol of the Shia in the world.
Baghdad and nine southern provinces in Iraq have been witnessing anti-government mass protests since October 1. More than 300 protesters have been killed by Iraqi security and Shiite militiamen allied with Tehran, mostly in Baghdad. In addition to 15000 protesters have been wounded so far by tear gas and projectiles of which significant portion was manufactured by Iran’s Defense Industries Organisation (DIO), according to Amnesty International.
In fear of the impacts of the ongoing uprising in Iraq on its Shiite proxy-led government under the embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in Baghdad, Iran is faking the news on the protests in Iraq heavily using its propaganda machine that is claiming that the protests are fading. The pro-Iran propaganda machines in Iraq and the region also belittle the ongoing protests, claiming that they are being held with fewer and smaller crowds and that the protesters are trying to keep people on stage by dancing and singing.
Exploiting the cutting off the internet by the Iraqi government, Iran is trying to inject its own news to weaken the morale of the Iraqi protesters and it is claiming that the situation in Iraq is under control and the circumstances environs of its consulate are back to normal.
However, Iran issued on the same day of the attack against its consulate a travel warning to Iranian pilgrims to Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, advising them not to travel to Iraq. In the meantime, Iran has suspended pilgrimage to neighbouring Iraq “until stability has been restored”, according the director of the planning department of the Haj and Pilgrimage Organisation, Sohbatollah Rahmani, who was quoted by Iran’s IRNA state news agency on 13 November, in a clear indication that the situation in Iraq was not normal.
Rahmani’s comments came as reports have been revealed that Iran is planning to send pilgrims to Iraq from next week while the Iranian aviation industry said that Iranian flights to Baghdad and Iraq’s Shiite city of Najaf had stopped because of the widespread protests against the government in Baghdad and did not mention that it was also because of its fears of the anti-Iran sentiments among the protestors, given the Iran’s aggressive reaction towards the popular protests.
Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei attacked the demands of protesters in Iraq and Lebanon, accusing the US and its allies of being behind the unrest. He blamed the West, particularly, the US and its regional allies, for stoking unrest in Iraq and maintained that Washington seeks to cultivate anti-Iranian sentiment in the Shia-majority country.
Khamenei claimed, without giving evidence, that the Americans and Western intelligence services “backed by the money” of some countries in the region “are causing turmoil… to destroy security”. In an apparent warning, he praised Iran’s crackdown against street protests at home that started in December 2017 and lasted till mid-January 2018.
In the meantime, Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)’s Quds Force and field commander in charge of Iran’s operations in Iraq has been regularly visiting Baghdad to manage the crisis there and to provide direct supports to Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and his associates.
Suleimani has attended a number of meetings between political groups and government figures to form a new strategy in an attempt to survive the mass anti-government uprising. Iraq’s ruling parties appear to have rallied behind the Iranian strategy which offers a package of political reforms and promises. However, the resignation of Abdul Mahdi, which has become one of the most important demands of the protesters, is not put forward as one of the solutions by Suleimani. Keeping Abdul Mahdi and the corrupt ruling elite in power is unlikely to placate protesters who are insisting on sweeping the entire caste of corrupt politicians.
According to Reuters, Soleimani has approved a reform plan which keeps Abdul Mahdi in power until new elections next year to give Iran time to recalculate how to retain influence. The Iranian strategy enjoys the backing of all Iraq’s ruling parties, even the faction of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who used to denounce Iran’s interference in Iraq and has previously called for Abdul Mahdi to resign.
Why is Iran anxious about Iraq’s protests?
The ongoing protests in Iraq, and even in Lebanon, have come after the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal, or JCPOA, which also had come before the US withdrawal from the agreement. Iraq’s protests have taken a surprising turn for Iran, given they are weakening the Iranian influence, not only in both countries but also in the entire region.
These protests can affect Iran’s efforts in formulating the 2003 US-led invasion political system in Iraq that the United States has also played a key role in setting it up on sectarian basis and which pro-Iran Shiite Islamists have dominated. The scenario of a collapse of this sectarian system in Iraq is hard for Iran to swallow.
Consequently, IRGC’s Solaimani flew into Baghdad when the protests broke out in early October in order to attend meetings with Iraqi leaders during which he offered help with how to deal with the protests. The help Soleimani could offer was probably a reference to the crackdown by the Iranian regime of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement and 20017-18 nationwide protests. This explains why the death toll of the Iraqi protesters exceeded 100 and there were snipers targeting them in the next few days. Iran’s IRGC also ordered Iraqi Shiite militias to execute the mass killings of the Iraqi protesters. However, Iran seems to have miscalculated the outcome of its bloody involvement in suppressing the protests in Iraq, given that its action has triggered resentment against it and its proxies in Iraq among the Iraqi Shia.