Iranian hands behind Iraq’s protests
Over the last few days, Iraq’s southern provinces have witnessed widespread protests, with some turning violent. Protesters voiced legitimate demands, but also attacked vital public facilities, such as Najaf International Airport, leading to the suspension of its operations. Offices of political parties were also attacked in what appeared to be a continuation of the political violence taking place elsewhere in Iraq following the May 12 parliamentary elections.
There are two key actors that have an interest in destabilizing Iraq: Daesh and Iran. They feed on each other’s presence and maintain a distant marriage of convenience as they seek to maintain their influence in Iraq.
In last week’s column, I discussed Daesh’s attempts at regrouping in Iraq and elsewhere. The post-election uncertainty has delayed stabilization, feeding popular discontent. More than $30 billion was promised by allies at the international reconstruction conference held in Kuwait in February, but only a limited amount has been delivered due to that uncertainty.
Today, I will address Iran’s direct destabilizing role in Iraq and its interest in stoking the current chaos.
Keeping Iraq under its control would be Tehran’s first option but, if that does not happen, the second best option would be to keep it ungovernable.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Iran’s interests are multifold. Keeping Iraq under its control would be Tehran’s first option but, if that does not happen, the second best option would be to keep it ungovernable. An independent Iraq would gravitate toward its Arab neighbors and the West, while a chaotic Iraq would keep it dependent on Iran and its proxies.
The most immediate concern for Iran is how to deal with US sanctions. Iraq could help blunt the sanctions’ bite by providing a surreptitious loophole in sanction implementation that Iran could use. As happened in the past, a chaotic Iraq would make it easier to smuggle in banned material and send out exports, including oil.
In addition, a pro-Iranian government could help Tehran deal with its restive western provinces, which have been a main center for anti-regime disturbances.
Iraq’s elections on May 12 did not give any political party a majority to form a new government, but they did produce some hopeful indications that Iraqis wanted a new, independent direction for their country, free of corruption and divisive politics. Voters gave the lead to groups and politicians who advocated such a direction.
The biggest number of parliamentary seats (54) went to a coalition headed by the cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who is fiercely opposed to Iran and outside meddling in general. A pro-Iranian coalition came in second (47 seats), while incumbent Prime Minister Haider Abadi came in third with 42 seats for his coalition. The remainder of the 329 seats were divided among many smaller political, tribal, ethnic and religious lists and individual candidates.
Any future government will have to govern through a coalition, but analysts quickly concluded that the results meant Iran would lose its favored political position in Iraq. That was Tehran’s conclusion as well, it appears. As the election results started coming out and Iran feared it might lose some of its influence in Baghdad, it dispatched officials to try and influence the choice of prime minister and the shape of the future government.
Iran’s moves, combined with recent violence directed against anti-Iranian groups — including the offices of a member of Al-Sadr’s bloc in Baghdad — have complicated the formation of the new government. The longer that impasse continues, the greater the chances that Iran will succeed in derailing the process or producing an unfavorable outcome for Iraq. Dispatching Gen. Qassem Soleimani to Iraq to shore up Iranian support is a bad sign. He is no ordinary political adviser, but the head of the Quds Force, the most notorious wing of Iran’s military that has spread chaos and mayhem throughout the region.
A key demand of the protesters is the restoration of electricity in southern provinces. That electricity used to be supplied by Iran, but was cut off last week. Iran claims it did so because bills had not been paid, but the timing is curious.
Last Friday, Iraq’s electricity ministry said the portion of the national power supplied by Iran had been cut off and that the decision would exacerbate the yearly shortages experienced in the hot summer months. The ministry said the Iranian move had “directly and negatively affected the number of hours” of available electricity in the southern cities of Basra, Nasiriyah and Amara.
In addition to Soleimani’s meddling in the process of forming a coalition government, pro-Iranian militias have also stepped up to the plate in an attempt to poison the atmosphere. The Kata’ib Sayyid Al-Shuhada militia, one of the most notorious groups operating under the Popular Mobilization Forces banner, declared its support for the Houthis in Yemen. The group has been fighting in Iraq and in Syria and has adopted a violent sectarian approach. Abu Walaa Al-Walai, the group’s leader, said in a widely circulated video that he and his militia were ready to fight alongside the Houthis.
At the same time, protesters in the southern provinces have anti-Kuwait and anti-Saudi sentiments, threatening to attack Kuwait first and Saudi Arabia second. Kuwait has already announced that it is taking precautions to protect its borders after protesters attacked border facilities on the Iraqi side. Kuwaiti analysts are also sounding the alarm lest the conflict in southern Iraq spill over the border or, worse, lead to a repeat of previous Iraqi attacks against Kuwait, most recently in 1990.
It is important to take the threats against Kuwait seriously to avoid a repeat of previous mistakes. In 1990, Kuwaiti authorities and others underestimated the danger signs coming from Iraq, leading to disastrous miscalculations, a war costing thousands of lives, and the reshaping of the regional political landscape.
Iraq has a clear choice: Either to become an independent, stable and prosperous nation at peace with its neighbors and free of terrorism and sectarian violence; or to remain at the service of Iranian regional ambitions. Iraq has a long and glorious history and should not be reduced to serving as a pawn for Iran in its confrontation with the US.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @abuhamad1