Year in review: How Iran’s influence turned into seething discontent

Year in review: How Iran’s influence turned into seething discontent
Divide and rule: Hezbollah supporters rally in southern Beirut to show their support for the group’s combative leader, Hassan Nasrallah. (AFP)
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Updated 30 December 2019

Year in review: How Iran’s influence turned into seething discontent

Year in review: How Iran’s influence turned into seething discontent
  • Iran has projected its power across countries with mixed populations such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain
  • Iran’s attempt to promote its brand of revolutionary Shiism by forging alliances with minorities has sparked a regionwide backlash

BEIRUT: The outbreak of protests in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran has shaken the political establishment in Tehran. For decades, the theocracy has thrived on the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, which aimed to mobilize Shiite support across the Middle East under a single Iranian religious and political leadership.

But exporting the Iranian brand of revolutionary Shiism and expanding the country’s geopolitical influence has proven a persistent, uphill battle, and culminated in a huge backlash.

The explosion of anger and frustration in Iran and Iran-influenced countries is the latest and, perhaps, gravest crisis that Tehran has confronted in recent years.

Brian Hook, the US State Department’s Iran envoy, has described its nationwide protests as “the worst political crisis the regime has faced in its 40 years.”

Hundreds of protesters were reportedly killed and thousands more arrested, while the government imposed nationwide internet blackouts to prevent media coverage, which drew strong international condemnation.

Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has gained an advantage over its geopolitical rivals in projecting power across a number of countries with religiously mixed populations, notably Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

In order to export its ideology and consolidate its strategic gains, Iran has had to forge alliances with non-Sunni minorities, such as the Alawites in Syria, Zaydis in Yemen, Ibadis in Oman, Christians in Lebanon and Ismailis elsewhere in the region.

The objective was not only to disrupt the regional balance of power, but also to swing it in its favor, against the Sunni-majority powers. The realignment of the regional order — in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen — was so sharp that it prompted Ali Riza Zakani, an Iranian member of parliament, to boast that Iran had finally captured their capitals.

But now, after benefiting from four decades of revolutionary fervor, Iran’s rulers are confronting the challenge of governing the “captured territories.” Chief among them is accommodating these countries’ ethnic and sectarian diversities.

This reality check has forced Iran-backed Shiite parties in Iraq and Lebanon to pursue a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic model of governance, allowing Iran to cobble together cross-sectarian coalitions and maintain the regional upper hand.

In 2006, Hezbollah forged an alliance with the Christian Maronite party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Together they comprised the March 8 alliance, which included other sectarian political parties.

Both groups aimed to undermine Sunni and Saudi political influence in Lebanon. Their efforts culminated in the imposition of Michael Aoun, the FPM leader, on the country as its president and securing a parliamentary majority in 2018, an electoral victory that followed the gerrymandering of districts and the adoption of an electoral law that primarily favored the FPM.

Likewise in Iraq, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) changed its name to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a step that coincided with other Iran-sponsored groups dropping their demands for an Islamic theocracy in Baghdad. Former revolutionaries soon became partners in Iraq’s multi-ethnic and confessional power-sharing arrangements.

Tehran’s problems have been compounded by the actions of its local political allies, who have adopted unabashed sectarian rhetoric, maintained their allegiance to the velayat-e faqih and used state resources to advance their political objectives.

In both Iraq and Lebanon, state resources have proven vulnerable to predatory political abuse. Government ministries have been distributed without consideration for merit, while services and contracts have been handed out to party loyalists and politically connected candidates.

The result has been a fragmented and unaccountable elite, members of which have divided the spoils of power generously among themselves.

In 2018, the Fragile State Index measured the stability of more than 178 countries; it placed Lebanon among the “warning states” and Iraq among the “alert states.” Both countries’ elites ranked among the world’s "most fragmented." Transparency International has also ranked the perception of corruption in both countries as among the highest globally.

Despite the reluctance of the Shiite political parties to embrace the Iranian theocratic model wholesale, both Iraq and Lebanon have proven vulnerable to the velayat-e faqih’s strategy of spawning a state within the state.

The success of Hezbollah and Hashd Al-Shaabi is most evident in their ability to replicate the Iranian-style “duality of power” model by penetrating and subduing their home country’s state institutions whose ethnic and sectarian diversity posed an obstacle of sorts.

Consequently, the governments in Iraq and Lebanon have been denied sole monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force, and forced to accept a parallel system of informal, armed and unaccountable Iran-sponsored institutions.

To be sure, the hardening of US sanctions against Iran and its allies as well as the relative decline of oil prices over the past decade has taken a direct toll on Iran’s economy. The sanctions have additionally put a crimp in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) maneuverability in regional battlefields.

Most alarmingly from Tehran’s standpoint, the US moves have opened up a chasm between the economic interests of these countries and the political interests of their Iran-aligned leaders. While the people seek market normalization, integration, and investment, their governments see such measures as the keys to their own demise.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has long overwhelmed Lebanese government institutions. Its success stems from the ability of its informal military and social welfare networks to secure the loyalty of its sectarian constituents. Its security institutions have overcome the challenge posed by the multi-sectarian make-up of Lebanese society through threats of violence and civil war.

Successive governments have been forced to recognize Hezbollah’s right to keep its weapons and stand idly by every time it has chosen to exercise power within the country or entered into a conflict.

In 2008 and 2016, Hezbollah’s political dominance enabled it to impose its own presidential nominees, overruling parliamentary majorities. And in 2018, its decisive electoral victory ensured full control over the government.

But Lebanon’s dollar-dependent economic system runs broadly counter to that established by velayat-e faqih. Its free market remains tied to Arab states and critically linked to Western support and assistance. Arab oil-generated remittances, deposits and investments have traditionally kept the economy ticking.

In late 2019, Lebanon found itself on the edge of an abyss as its entire economic system faced collapse. Protesters took to the streets to demand the government’s resignation and the formation of a government of technocrats.

Hezbollah and its allies went on the defensive as they found the spontaneous public uprising — “Al-Thawra” or revolution — a direct threat to the dual power structure that serves their political objectives so well.

In Iraq, a similar dual power structure encompassing political rivals is to blame for the unraveling of the economy and the administration’s dysfunctional state.

Iran’s outsize influence is seen by large sections of Iraq’s population as preventing Baghdad from forging an independent oil strategy or economic policy founded on national interest.

A case in point is the Iraqi government’s bungling of a $53 billion Exxon deal that aimed to help Iraq boost its oil output in the southern fields. The outcome is seen by ordinary Iraqis as a result of Tehran’s dogged opposition to an economic partnership between Iraq and the US.

Meanwhile, Iraqis are resentful over their dependence on Iran for electricity supplies and other commodities. The full extent of their frustration became evident when protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Najaf, replaced the Iranian flag and set fire to the building.

In retrospect, even as Iran succeeded, through its local proxies, to disrupt the balance of political power and marginalize Sunnis in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, it unwittingly sowed the seeds of sectarian and ethnic discontent in the four predominantly Arab countries. Now it is reaping the whirlwind.


Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes
Updated 23 min 51 sec ago

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes
  • The violence flared outside one of the entrances to the walled Old City, after police had barred access to some areas where Palestinians usually gather
  • Tensions were fueled by the arrival of far-right Jews at the end of a march during which they harassed Palestinians and chanted “death to Arabs”

JERUSALEM: Over 100 Palestinians and 20 Israeli police were wounded in overnight clashes in annexed east Jerusalem, authorities said Friday, as tensions mount over a ban on gatherings and videos of attacks on youths.
The violence flared outside one of the entrances to the walled Old City, after police had barred access to some areas where Palestinians usually gather in large numbers during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Tensions were fueled by the arrival of far-right Jews at the end of a march during which they harassed Palestinians and chanted “death to Arabs.”
There have been nightly disturbances in the area since the start of Ramadan on April 13, with Palestinians outraged over police blocking access to the promenade around the walls, a popular gathering place after the end of the daytime Ramadan fast.
Police said that after night prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City “hundreds of rioters began disrupting the order violently, including throwing stones and objects at forces.”
Stun grenades were fired and water cannon deployed to disperse the “rioters” and force them toward less central areas of east Jerusalem, police said.
Police said officers attempted to “distinguish between them and those who finished prayers” and were not involved in the events.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said on Friday it had treated at least 105 people, with about 20 of them hospitalized.
Israeli police said 20 officers were injured, three of whom were taken to hospital.
“It was like a war zone; it was dangerous,” a Palestinian who was near the clashes outside the Old City told AFP. “That’s why I left the place.”
Tensions have been high in Jerusalem after a series of videos posted online in recent days showing young Arabs attacking ultra-Orthodox Jews and Jewish extremists taking to the street to bully Arabs in nightly confrontations.
On Thursday night, the Israeli extreme right group Lehava organized a march ending opposite the Old City attended by hundreds to protest the anti-Jewish violence.
Police erected barriers to keep them from entering the mainly Arab location.
The Palestinian presidency meanwhile condemned “the growing incitement by extremist far-right Israeli settler groups advocating for the killing of Arabs, which in recent days manifested in a wave of attacks against Palestinian civilians in the Old City.”
A statement late Thursday on the official Palestinian news agency Wafa urged the international community to protect Palestinians from the “settler” attacks, which it alleged were encouraged by the Israeli government.
Videos on social media also showed Palestinians attacking ultra-Orthodox Jews in the early hours of Friday, with reports of Israeli vehicles being stoned in and near east Jerusalem.
Police reported “a number of incidents overnight in which civilians were attacked, some of whom needed medical treatment.”
Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion said he tried to cancel the Lehava march, but police told him it was legal, noting that “dozens” of Jews who attacked Arabs had been arrested in the past two weeks.
Speaking with public broadcaster Kan, Lion said he was in talks with leaders of the Palestinian east Jerusalem neighborhoods “to end this pointless violence.”
More than 50 people detained overnight were taken for a remand hearing on Friday morning, a statement from police said.


Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village
Updated 23 April 2021

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village

ADEN: Houthi "terrorists" have abducted three civilians from the Yemeni village of "Beit Al-Jabr" in the governorate of Dhamar, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Friday.

The Houthis took their victims to a detention center in Jabal Al-Sharq district, in the same governorate controlled by the Iran-backed group, the report said.

The raiders claimed they were taking the victims under the pretext of setting up a funeral council, but the official Yemeni News Agency (Saba) quoted a local source as saying there was no such plan to establish a funeral council, SPA said.

According to the Saba source, the storming of the village was consistent with the "systematic policy of harassment" that the Houthi militia follows in dealing with the population in all areas under their control, SPA added.

Houthis earlier abducted Yemeni model and actress Entesar Al-Hammadi and two of her friends on Feb. 20 as they were traveling to shoot a TV drama series.

On Thursday, the captors reportedly placed Al-Hammadi in solitary confinement as punishment for her protest against her initial incarceration and prison conditions.


Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN
Updated 23 April 2021

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN
  • Envoy Tor Wennesland said the road will not be easy, and called on all sides to protect voting rights
  • Central Elections Commission praised for “professionalism and integrity” and its efforts to ensure safe voting during pandemic.

NEW YORK: The successful staging of credible Palestinian elections on May 22 is a crucial step toward unity and guaranteeing the legitimacy of national institutions, the UN Security Council heard on Thursday.
Tor Wennesland, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told council members that the elections, along with Israeli efforts to form a coalition government, will have a “significant implication for the prospects for advancing peace in the months ahead,” and called on the international community to provide support.
“Expectations for the holding of elections in Palestine are high and come after a long wait of almost 15 years … a growing number of young people are expected to participate in shaping their political future, and have the opportunity to vote for the first time,” Wennesland said.
“These elections should also pave the way to uniting Gaza and the West Bank under a single, legitimate national authority, which would be an important step toward reconciliation and could advance Middle East peace.”
He praised the Palestinian Central Elections Commission for its “professionalism and integrity, enhancing trust in the electoral process,” singling out in particular the committee’s efforts to create a safe voting environment during the pandemic.
He also underscored the importance of the role of election observers in ensuring that the results of “credible and transparent” elections are respected.
“All sides must work toward protecting the right of Palestinians across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, to participate in credible and inclusive Palestinian elections, as well as to stand for election free from intimidation,” said Wennesland.
He urged all those involved in the process “to refrain from any arrest, detention or interrogation based on freedom of opinion, expression or association.”
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose “a formidable threat” throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, further exacerbating an already dire social and economic situation, Wennesland said as he called for vaccination efforts to be stepped up and for more vaccine doses to be made available.
The Biden administration this month announced its plans for resuming US funding for the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which was halted in August 2018 by President Donald Trump. Wennesland welcomed the move by Washington and called on all UN members to recommit to supporting the agency, whose “services are not only a lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees but are also critical for stability throughout the region.”
The envoy repeated his call for Israel to halt the demolition and seizure of Palestinian properties and to allow the Palestinian people “to develop their communities.”
Denouncing the “daily violence” that has resulted in more arrests, injuries and deaths, Wennesland called on all sides “to de-escalate tensions and maintain calm.”
He added: “I underscore that all perpetrators of violence must be held accountable and swiftly brought to justice. I reiterate that Israeli security forces must exercise maximum restraint and may use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
“Particular care should be taken to protect children from any form of violence. In addition, the indiscriminate launching of rockets toward Israeli population centers violates international law and must stop immediately.”


Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport
Updated 23 April 2021

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

BAGHDAD: At least three rockets hit near Baghdad international airport late Thursday, the Iraqi military said.
A total of eight missiles were fired and three landed near the airport complex, the statement said. It did not detail whether the attack caused casualties.
The rockets struck areas known to contain Iraqi security forces. One hit close to a central prison, the second near an academy of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, and a third near the headquarters of the Rapid Response regiment.
No one claimed responsibility for the attacks. US officials have previously blamed Iran-backed militia groups.
It is the latest in a string of rocket attacks that have primarily targeted American installations in Iraq in recent weeks. On Sunday, multiple rockets hit an Iraqi air base just north of Baghdad, wounding two Iraqi security personnel.
Last month, a base in western Iraq housing US-led coalition troops and contractors was hit by 10 rockets. One contractor was killed.
Calls from mainly Shiite leaders have grown to oust US troops from Iraq after a US-directed drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad in January 2020.
Strategic talks between the US and Iraq have focused on the future of US troop presence in the country.


Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general
Updated 23 April 2021

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general
  • Israeli media also described the Syrian missile as an “errant” projectile, not a deliberate attack deep inside Israel
  • Dimona, the Negev desert town where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located, is some 300 km south of Damascus

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM: A senior US general said on Thursday that he believed a Syrian missile exploding in Israel was not intentional, but rather showed a lack of Syrian air defense capability.

“I think it reflects actually incompetence in Syrian air defense ... I do not believe it was an intentional attack,” Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing

Earlier in the day, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile landed in southern Israel, setting off air raid sirens near the country’s top secret nuclear reactor. In response, it attacked the missile launcher and air-defense systems in neighboring Syria.

Israeli media later described the Syrian missile as an “errant” projectile, not a deliberate attack deep inside Israel.

In recent years, Israel has repeatedly launched air strikes at Syria, including at military targets linked to foes Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, both allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Such strikes routinely draw Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Thursday’s exchange was unusual because the Syrian projectile landed deep inside Israel.

A road sign shows the way to Dimona nuclear power plant in Israel's Negev desert. (AFP / Ahmad Gharabali)

Syria’s state news agency SANA said the exchange began with an Israeli air strike on Dumeir, a suburb of the capital of Damascus. Dumeir is believed to house Syrian army installations and batteries as well as bases and weapons depots belonging to Iran-backed militias. SANA said four soldiers were wounded.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group based in Britain that tracks Syria’s civil war, said the Israeli strikes hit an air defense base belonging to the Syrian military and destroyed air defense batteries in the area. It said the Syrian military fired surface-to-air missiles in response.

The Israeli military described the projectile that landed near the nuclear site as a surface-to-air missile, which is usually used for air defense against warplanes or other missiles.

Dimona, the Negev desert town where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located, is some 300 km south of Damascus, a long range for an errantly fired surface-to-air missile.