Stars not yet aligned for meaningful change in Iraq
It’s time to talk Iraq again, I’m afraid. The protests that began in early October and paused for the great commemoration of the Arbaeen have only redoubled since then throughout the majority-Shiite parts of the country, with their symbolic epicenter in Tahrir Square in the heart of the capital, Baghdad.
There has been further massive violence perpetrated by the Iraqi security forces (ISF) and their partners from some of the main Iran-linked militias of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). In a new tactic, they have been using tear gas canisters aimed at heads as lethal weapons (with brutally graphic consequences, judging by scores of clips posted on social media). As a result, the death count is in the hundreds, with thousands wounded. The relatives of those killed are reportedly being pressed to sign statements that their loved ones were killed accidentally. Snipers have been targeting doctors as they treat the injured. Together with journalists and lawyers, many have received death threats. Unsurprisingly, some have fled the city. Over the weekend, the ISF sought to clear Baghdad’s squares and bridges by force, burning some of the protest camps erected there, as well as in Najaf and other parts of the south. The ISF has been arresting those posting on social media in support of the uprising. There have been repeated internet suspensions.
It hasn’t worked so far. About 60 percent of Iraq’s population is under the age of 24. They have no real memory of the agonies of the Saddam Hussein years, though they will have grown up with expectations of a new Iraq in the making, especially after the defeat of Daesh around Mosul. But this hasn’t happened. Instead, the sectarian division of power that the US promoted after 2003 — and Najaf subsequently backed — remains in place. As in Lebanon, it has created a corrupt, self-replicating elite. Again as in Lebanon — for obvious demographic and political reasons — this elite is largely Shiite, with complex ties to Iran. They and Iran benefit by being able to rig the electoral system and loot resources to the detriment of the public interest.
Iraq is energy-rich. There are now some 3 million people on the public payroll, but productivity is dismal as most of these jobs are the result of patronage. Youth unemployment has reached nearly 30 percent. Basra is run by criminal rackets and national infrastructure remains a disgrace. In all the talk over the last year or so of the removal of T-walls from the Green Zone, the opening of bridges, the revival of Mutanabbi Street and new life in the cafes of Baghdad, what has really changed structurally? In the circumstances, is it any wonder that Iraq’s Generation Z and Millennials feel so fed up that they will risk their lives to change the system?
The problem is how they actually do this. Over the last month-and-a-half, their demands have ranged from the provision of jobs and housing, the resignation of the entire government, a new, more representative and accountable political system, and investigations into corruption and violence. Religious leaders across Iraq have expressed support for their protests. The Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief Adel Abdul Mahdi, who owes his position to a deal struck between two of the major Shiite blocs with Iranian mediation, has alternated between dismay, expressing ignorance of the ISF’s rules of engagement (ROE for policing demonstrations? A commander-in-chief who doesn’t have a clue?), blustering threats, unrealistic promises of massive new spending (which Iraq can’t afford because the money has been stolen) and attempts to show that he’s down with the kids. There was a priceless moment a week or so ago, when he announced that he understood the anger on the streets because he himself had demonstrated in Baghdad in 1956 against the Tripartite Aggression at Suez. That’s ancient history to anyone on the streets. And, in any case, he was a Baathist back then.
As in Lebanon again, the protesters want no compromise or empty promises from people they don’t trust. The anti-Hezbollah slogan of those in Beirut — “kellun yaani kellun” (everyone means everyone) — applies in Baghdad too.
But, for a popular protest movement to succeed, you need to find a way to make the protests politically meaningful. And, for this to happen, you have to control at least some of the levers of power. In this case, those levers are in the hands of the protesters’ enemies, who have every incentive to maintain their grip. And behind the main Iraqi actors in all this stands Iran. The demonstrators clearly know this. That’s why they have resurrected patriotic Iraqi songs from the 1980s, chanted so many anti-Iran slogans, posted clips of themselves beating images of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani with their shoes, and targeted the Iranian consulate in Karbala.
But Iran has much experience in dealing with this sort of thing. After all, there have been repeated mass protests in Iran over the last 20 years, all of which have been suppressed by massive and lethal force delivered through the Islamic Republic’s own ideological militias, the Basij and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These groups provided the template for the Lebanese Hezbollah, Badr, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AaH) and the rest of the Iran-aligned PMU. Khamenei himself has pointedly commended the “special mission” of the Iranian armed forces in countering domestic sedition.
And listen to other things that these people are saying. Khamenei, senior IRGC commanders and IRGC-linked officials have repeatedly claimed that the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel are behind the demonstrations and that their demands can only be met through existing legal structures (as if any of them care about legality or that meant anything anyway in the state of lawlessness that Iraq was allowed to become under Nouri Al-Maliki and his complicit Chief Justice Midhat Al-Mahmoud). They have compared what is happening in Iraq with the prelude to the civil war in Yemen and accused the US and Saudi Arabia of engaging in “political terrorism.” Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon has echoed this. Inside Iraq, AaH’s Qais Al-Khazali and the PMU’s Falih Al-Fayadh in particular have repeatedly used the same talking points. At one point, Al-Khazali even shamelessly suggested that the snipers doing such lethal damage to ordinary Iraqis actually belonged to the notorious US security company Blackwater. Other IRGC figures have warned of conspiracies against the broader “axis of resistance” and claimed that “the hands of the elements of the Baath regime and Shiite movements dependent on the American Embassy are completely visible in recent demonstrations and gatherings in Iraq.”
This is Joseph Goebbels’ “big lie” with a Persian accent. Perhaps most ominously, Khamenei has also commented on Iran’s own experience with political protests: “The enemies had similar designs for dear Iran, but luckily the vigilant nation entered the arena in time. The armed forces, too, were prepared and the conspiracy was neutralized.”
Meanwhile, Soleimani has been performing his secret ministry with his usual sinister efficiency, successfully pressing Hadi Al-Amiri not to make common cause with Muqtada Al-Sadr in demanding the resignation of Abdul Mahdi, making Al-Sadr himself back down (and maybe return to Iran), and seeking to persuade Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani to moderate his criticisms of the government and support for the demonstrators. Al-Sistani alone has resisted this pressure. But it is not clear what direct influence he can now bring to bear on his own in the face of such single-minded intent from Tehran. In the end, Iraq is the single most important arena for the exercise and resourcing of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Neither Khamenei nor Soleimani will surrender it easily. And, unless someone forces them to do so, why would they?
In any case, no one is doing so. The system in Iraq that is under attack from angry young demonstrators is one that Iran and its allies built, but in which the US and its allies — as well as Najaf — were complicit. The US has issued only a statement of support for the demonstrators. But, against this, Al-Fayadh was received warmly in Washington in early October, and there have been other statements supporting a continuation of Iraqi politics as usual. The Western press is covering events only patchily and every statement from Washington — or indeed from the UN, which has genuinely sought to be constructive — is willfully interpreted as part of the satanic conspiracy against Shiite Islamist virtue.
My guess is that the government, with Iranian backing, intends to sit these troubles out, offering meaningless concessions from time to time, speaking the language of compromise and understanding, but using coercion and lethal force where necessary. After all, this has been the pattern in Iran and elsewhere in the region for two decades. And it works.
Or it has done so far. But the discontents that have given rise to these events in Iraq — and indeed in Lebanon, Sudan and Algeria — have not vanished and will not do so. They are consistent with those that drove the first wave of unrest in 2011. The main difference lies in the underlying economic conditions. Eight years ago, oil prices were at a peak and regional economies growing at their fastest pace in decades. Since 2014, oil prices have collapsed while population growth has continued and the economic situation has become more difficult. Growth has slowed, public debt has risen, environmental degradation has increased and unemployment is higher. Ruling regimes now have fewer resources to finance their clientelism. That applies to Iran and Iraq as much as it applies anywhere else.
The second generation of demonstrators has also learned lessons from the first: They see the enemy not as a single ruler but as a system; a deep state that holds in thrall the superstructures of Potemkin democracy. They see the dangers of sectarian and other identity divisions: A trap their opponents have set for them but they have so far avoided.
I still don’t think we are anywhere near a proper, peaceful transition to something better. That depends, at least in part, on those on the street who want change organizing themselves properly, showing great discipline over a sustained period, developing realistic programs of change, and attracting effective support from the population as a whole and from the international community. That won’t happen as long as those who have power prevent exactly that happening. And, internationally, the stars are out of alignment. But the aspiration, the fierce desire for something better, will not disappear.
Is it any wonder that Iraq’s Generation Z and Millennials feel so fed up that they will risk their lives to change the system?
Sir John Jenkins
Meanwhile, Iran’s project in the region has been exposed for what it is: A form of the very neocolonialism it claims to stand against. When President Hassan Rouhani makes a big thing out of overtures he claims to have made to his Arab neighbors; Nasrallah makes conciliatory gestures to Lebanese Shiite protesting about Hezbollah’s own involvement in corruption; some journalists at Al-Akhbar in Beirut resign because they can no longer sustain the lies; and Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites make common cause with their fellow citizens against political systems made in Tehran, you suspect that the tide may be turning. If it is, it will be a slow and painful process, as it was in Eastern Europe from the first stirrings of dissent in Berlin and Budapest in the 1950s to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But at least — after Syria and now Iraq and Lebanon — the mask is off.
There are many in the West who still make excuses for the Islamic Republic, even as it takes more hostages, commits more acts of violence and helps suppress more dissent. Like those who thought the Soviet Union was Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Les Ballets Russes, they think Iran is the Shahnameh, the wondrous architecture and art of Mashhad and Tabriz, the tobacco concession and other imperialist impositions of the late 19th century, the aborted Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century, the 1953 counter-coup against Mohammed Mossadegh and the rest of the distorted martyrology that forms one particular version of Iranian history.
Others just think Iran is an ally in the global anti-imperialist popular front. But Iran is an imperial project itself — and not just of the mind. I hope these people will learn to distinguish between fact and fiction, between a people and its government, between a culture and the politics that are imposed upon it. If Iran wants to be accepted as a normal country and a good neighbor, it should probably start behaving like one.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.