US President Donald Trump has long decried the effects of Iran’s influence operations beyond its borders.
On the campaign trail, he embraced the rhetoric of Washington’s hawks, casting his domestic rivals as timorous enablers of an Iranian project for Middle East hegemony.
His decision to end American commitments to the nuclear deal forged between Tehran and world powers in 2015 was in part premised on the belief that the accord did not do enough to curb Iran’s support for proxy militias in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
Since then, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sweeping sanctions has strangled Iran’s oil exports and enfeebled its economy. But it’s hardly put a dent in Iran’s “malign” regional behaviour. On the contrary, as a summer of explosive stealth attacks showed, the current confrontation has only emboldened elements within the Iranian regime to up the ante and defy Washington’s challenge.
Even as ordinary Iranians endure the hardships that followed Trump’s measures, the sanctions have not compelled Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Maj. Gen. Qasem Sulaimani, leader of the powerful paramilitary organisation’s overseas arm, to scale back their activities.
But Sulaimani’s agenda is nonetheless facing a serious threat — not via American confrontation, but popular unrest. Weeks of mass protests in Lebanon and Iraq have pitted an infuriated populace against an establishment they see as feckless and corrupt.
The uprisings have also seen demonstrators openly reject the Iranian hand in their countries’ politics, which in both cases have democracies built around power-sharing agreements within diverse, multi-confessional societies.
And they’ve already scored significant victories: On Tuesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation, though he will stay on in a caretaker role as the government struggles to find a way out of a crisis it first sparked when it tried to levy a tax on WhatsApp phone calls.
On Thursday, Iraqi President Barham Salih said that the government would overhaul the country’s electoral commission and draft a new electoral law — one of the demands of the protests — ahead of possible new elections. He indicated that Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a target of popular ire, would stay on in his post only until a successor was identified.
But these steps did not mollify the rage on the streets. Mass protests took place in both countries over the weekend. Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square on Saturday and in cities elsewhere, clamouring for more sweeping change.
Clashes with security forces in the capital led to at least one death and dozens of injuries, adding to a death toll of around 250 people since the protests first flared last month. The violence is largely blamed on pro-Iranian militias that have operated alongside the Iraqi military in recent years and appeared to have gunned down demonstrators with impunity.
Hariri’s resignation has not dimmed the protests in Lebanon.
In the northern city of Tripoli, a major hotbed of dissent, a huge rally took place yet again on Saturday, with protesters echoing the widespread demand that the entire political class go. “Everyone means everyone,” read one poster, according to Agence France-Presse.
On Sunday, large crowds blocked roads once more in the capital, Beirut, dwarfing a rally earlier in the day that attempted to show support for some of the beleaguered government’s leaders.
Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite faction backed by Iran and allied with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Christian, has provoked the protesters’ ire. An organised mob of apparent Hezbollah supporters violently attempted to dismantle a protest site in Beirut midweek, but their show of force only galvanised outrage at the organisation.
“If the Lebanese and Iraqi protesters succeed in toppling their governments and weakening established political parties with deep ties to Iran’s leaders,” noted the New York Times, “Iran stands to lose decades of financial, political and military investments that have turned it into one of the Middle East’s biggest powers.”
The protests have underscored a new reality for Iran and its proxies. No matter the self-styled revolutionary politics of the Iranian regime, it’s turning into a counterrevolutionary power in the region. “Iran finds itself in a position where the narrative of resistance that had been central to its activity for so long is now directed against the Islamic Republic,” Simon Mabon, an expert on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry at Lancaster University in Britain, told Today’s Worldview.
In remarks made on Friday, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah warned of the protests creating “a vacuum [that] will lead to chaos, to collapse.” Last week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted warnings in English to authorities in Baghdad and Beirut to bring the “turmoil” under check and blamed the unrest on foreign meddling.
“The US and Western intelligence agencies, with the help of money from regional countries, are instigating unrest in the region,” Khamenei said in a speech. “I advise Lebanon and Iraq to make it a priority to stabilise these security threats.”
According to a report in the Associated Press, Sulaimani chaired a meeting with senior Iraqi politicians in Baghdad a month ago, urging them to follow his lead to get things under control. But the brutal violence unleashed by government-allied militias linked to Iran has spurred nationalist outrage at Tehran’s proxies in Iraq, including among Iraqi Shiites in the country’s south, where the protests have been particularly restive.
Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite faction backed by Iran and allied with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Christian, has provoked the protesters’ ire. An organised mob of apparent Hezbollah supporters violently attempted to dismantle a protest site in Beirut midweek, but their show of force only galvanised outrage at the organisation
“All the parties and factions are corrupt, and this is connected to Iran, because it’s using them to try and export its system of clerical rule to Iraq,” Ali Al Araqi, a 35-year-old protester from the southern town of Nasiriyah, told the AP. “The people are against this, and that is why you are seeing an uprising against Iran.”
The uprisings in both Iraq and Lebanon — in their expressions of rage, joy, and solidarity — point to a startling, alternative set of politics in the Middle East. In both countries, the protests have transcended sectarian divisions, anchored by a young generation desperate for change. Just as governments are floundering in trying to face the protesters’ demands, the cohesion and unity of these movements may be tested in the coming weeks.
The Trump administration, for now, has offered rhetorical sympathy for the protesters but not much more. That may be the wisest path to take, given Tehran’s eagerness to dismiss these seemingly indigenous, nonsectarian movements as the product of American malfeasance.
“We don’t want the US to push Lebanon any harder,” Robert Fadel, a former Lebanese parliamentarian who backs the protesters, told The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, pointing to another part of the world where Trump has loudly — but ineffectually — backed the opposition. “We don’t want another Venezuela here.”
— Washington Post
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post