Across the Middle East, from Baghdad to Beirut, the citizens of countries thought to be part of Iran’s axis of influence have begun to revolt against Tehran. In the face of brutal crackdowns, millions of Iraqi and Lebanese protesters, in movements led by Shiite Muslims that defy reductive sectarian narratives, have erupted in revolt against the corruption and failure of their governments and Iran’s domination over their national politics.
In early October, predominantly Shiite youth took to the streets in Iraq calling for their government’s resignation, and chanting slogans like: “Out, out Iran, Baghdad remains free!” Iraqi protests have a long list of grievances over the Baghdad government’s failure to deliver a “peace dividend” of stability and prosperity given the country’s oil wealth, that was finally supposed to arrive after the major campaigns to defeat ISIS ended last year. But as demonstrations have spread across Iraq and led to violent confrontations with government security forces, the protests have also become more pointed in their anger at Iran and its domination of Iraqi politics leading to the public burning of portraits of Iran’s supreme leader and the torching of offices linked to Iran-aligned paramilitary groups.
Iraqis have good reason to hold Tehran responsible for their problems at home. In Iraq’s last elections, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—a consortium of Iran-aligned militias institutionalized in 2016 by the Iraqi parliament—emerged as kingmakers, while Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, negotiated the arrangement that put the current parliament speaker, president, and prime minister in power. The day after the recent protests in Iraq began, Suleimani flew to Baghdad to head a meeting with security officials. Soon after Suleimani’s visit, the PMF deployed snipers in a brutal crackdown against Iraqi protestors.
While the majority of Iraqis share the same Shiite religious faith practiced in Iran, it is precisely in Iraq’s Shiite strongholds where the revolt against Iranian rule has taken root. Motivated more by national self-interest than, religious ideology, Iraq’s protesters hold the Iranian-dominated political establishment accountable for their country’s decay. These feelings have not developed overnight. Protests erupted last year in the oil rich city of Basra, when Iran turned off a power line in the region. Basra residents repeated “Iran out!” as they burned Iranian flags, the Iranian consulate, and headquarters of Iran-linked militias.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis flooded Baghdad’s Tahrir square, waving Iraqi flags in the largest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In Karbala, on the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy siege in Tehran, a crowd stormed the Iranian consulate, raising an Iraqi flag in place of the Islamic Republic’s and fire bombing the building. Three protesters were shot dead by security forces. In the south, disgruntled Iraqis set ablaze dozens of PMF buildings including those belonging to Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Badr factions. Iraqis renamed Khomeini Street in the holy city of Najaf as “Martyrs of the October Revolution.” Demonstrators are spitting on, and beating bloodied pictures of Iran’s supreme leader and Gen. Suleimani with their shoes. Protests show no sign of abatement as Iraqis from all backgrounds throng the streets of the capital despite the brutal security crackdown which has left at least 250 dead and over 6,000 injured. Gen. Suleimani has interfered once more, this time to prevent the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi.
Last summer, PMF forces refused to heed the Iraqi prime minister’s orders for them to integrate into the national army. Instead, they continue to levy illegal taxes at checkpoints, reaping, according to one report, an estimated $300,000 a day from illegal taxation. They’ve also been smuggling fuel from Basra and making millions selling scrap metal, meddling in ports, and seizing state assets. Encouraged by Tehran, Iran-backed Shiite proxies have taken a page from Hezbollah’s playbook, dominating government service departments such as health and education ministries to build allegiance through patronage, neglecting those not dedicated to Iran’s political-theological aims. Sunnis have died in Baghdad for example, because Shiites controlling hospitals and clinics refused to treat members of the opposite sect.
Speaking of Hezbollah, a similar revolt is taking place in Lebanon where Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned last week amid mass anti-government protests that have been rocking the country since Oct. 17. Citizens of all ages and faiths have called for a revolution citing widespread corruption and economic mismanagement. Lebanon’s debt is expected to swell to over 150% of GDP by year-end.
Even some in Hezbollah’s Shiite base have joined the call for an overhaul of the entire political system. Shiite protesters torched Hezbollah offices in the group’s heartland of Nabatieh, in a sign that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, has weakened Iranian clients like Hezbollah. As funding from the Islamic Republic—which accounts for around 70% of Hezbollah’s income—has fallen, the group has been forced to reduce wages for its fighters and social services for its constituents.
Two million demonstrators flooded the streets in Lebanon, a country of only 4.5 million. Tens of thousands of protesters formed a 170-kilometer human chain last week, connecting north and south in a sign of unity. This is the stuff of Iran’s worst nightmare. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has dispatched hundreds of his supporters, armed with sticks, to terrorize protesters in the streets of downtown Beirut and in the group’s traditional strongholds of Tyre and Nabatieh. Even some members of the Lebanese Armed Forces—which are ordinarily little more than an extension of the joint Hezbollah-state apparatus—have deployed to protect demonstrators defying Nasrallah’s threats and chanting, “All of them means all of them. Nasrallah is one of them.”
As Hezbollah has become the only real player in Lebanese politics today, penetrating both the formal state and security services, its leaders have become publicly accountable for the country’s rampant corruption. In addition to their monopoly of violence, Hezbollah and its allies won at least 70 of parliament’s 128 seats in the last elections. The results were hailed as “a victory” for the “the resistance” referring to the Iran-controlled anti-Western power bloc that includes Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Houthis—proof, if any more was still necessary, that Hezbollah’s true allegiance is to Iran’s clerical kingdom, not Lebanon.
Unsurprisingly, Iran and its allies in Iraq and Lebanon are blaming recent unrest on the usual suspects: a conspiracy of foreign actors that includes the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the Zionists.
How will this end? In 2008, civil unrest led to Hezbollah’s armed seizure of Beirut. Hezbollah and Iran have poured thousands of fighters and billions of dollars into neighboring Syria to help crush the rebellion against their Syrian ally. In 2009, Iran’s green movement protests over stolen elections finally ebbed in the face of torture, beatings, and detentions meted out by the regime. “We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” Iran’s second-most powerful man assured Iraqi officials this month. “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”
Ten years ago, when Iran saw its largest uprising since the 1979 revolution, Obama was not only reluctant to express solidarity with Iranians, he also refused to acknowledge the rigged elections, dismissed advisers who urged active assistance, and blocked CIA resources earmarked for supporting democratic uprisings. In The Iran Wars, former Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon reveals how Obama’s peculiar reticence was largely motivated by his worry that American involvement would ruin his secret overtures to Tehran in hopes of brokering an agreement. While President Trump has also expressed a desire to strike a deal with Iran, he has already retweeted two videos of Iraqi demonstrators storming the Iranian consulate in Karbala. Whether this administration is able to leverage these protests into successful policy beyond tweets remains to be seen. And perhaps more importantly, it is too early to tell whether the nascent political revolts in Lebanon and Iraq can survive the backlash from Iranian-backed militias and snipers long enough to evolve into a meaningful, organized political opposition.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Eliora Katz is a a Middle East analyst based in Washington, DC where she focuses on Iran and Political Islam. She studied philosophy, political science and Persian at the University of Chicago. After graduating, Eliora was a Bartley fellow on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and then a fellow at United Nations Watch in Geneva.