New York Times | By Farnaz Fassihi | Oct. 31, 2019
Enormous antigovernment demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, some tinged with hostility towards Iran, have suddenly put Iran’s interests at risk.
Iran’s hierarchy often rails against the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia as direct threats to its security and regional influence. But lately the authorities in Tehran have turned their attention to two new sources of worry: Lebanon and Iraq.
Enormous antigovernment demonstrations in both countries, some tinged with hostility and resentment toward Iran, have suddenly put Iran’s interests at risk. They have also raised the possibility of inspiring protests inside Iran itself.
If the Lebanese and Iraqi protesters succeed in toppling their governments and weakening established political parties with deep ties to Iran’s leaders, Iran stands to lose decades of financial, political and military investments that have turned it into one of the Middle East’s biggest powers.
On Wednesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is revered by some Lebanese and Iraqi Shiites as a spiritual leader, inveighed against the protests — a signal of the danger he sees lurking in them. Iran also closed several border crossings with Iraq to both travelers and trade, Iranian state media reported.
“The U.S. and Western intelligence agencies, with the help of money from regional countries, are instigating unrest in the region,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech. “I advise Lebanon and Iraq to make it a priority to stabilize these security threats.”
The events in both countries have been portrayed negatively in Iranian media. Officials and conservative commentators in Iran have branded the uprisings as “sedition” — a term they used for domestic antigovernment demonstrations in 2009 and 2017. Some suggested that American, Israeli and Saudi provocateurs had stoked the unrest in order to weaken Iran and create divisions with its key regional allies.
But Iranian officials also are wary of the infectious power of popular protests in their neighboring countries and the common grievances that Lebanese and Iraqis share with ordinary Iranians. The last wave of nationwide protests in Iran in 2017, much like those in its Arab counterparts today, are rooted in the economy, unemployment and frustration at government corruption.
Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, raised the possibility on Thursday that he would resign. Two days earlier, Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, announced his resignation. There is no sign that protests in either Iraq or Lebanon will abate anytime soon.
“The perception of Iranian leadership is that these movements are an existential threat,” said Joseph Bahoud, a Middle East expert with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Still, he said, “they still have a lot of cards to play before resorting to open violence to crush this.”
Ayatollah Khamenei said in his speech that he had ordered security forces to be on alert to counter the uprisings. His comments suggested he may have wanted Iran’s Shiite proxies in Iraq and Lebanon to battle the crowds. The Hezbollah organization in Lebanon and many pro-Iranian militias in Iraq operate under the guidance of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Analysts said Iran would try different tactics to counter the protests. In Lebanon, the aim is to divide the movement and distance Shiites — including the two dominant Shiite political and militant groups, Hezbollah and Amal — from the call to overthrow the entire political establishment.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has already asked supporters to stay off the streets. Like Ayatollah Khamenei, he has suggested that the protests were instigated by foreign countries.
Iran is also counting on intimidation to disperse the Lebanese protesters. On Tuesday a group of plainclothes militia wearing black, described by others as Hezbollah loyalists, raided the main protest site in downtown Beirut, beating protesters and dismantling their tents. Since then, the crowds have thinned.
With Mr. Hariri’s resignation, the prospect of a political vacuum in Lebanon looms if a new government cannot be formed.
Iraq presents a more complicated challenge for Iran. Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of an elite force of the Revolutionary Guards, who has visited Iraq many times in recent years, went to Baghdad recently to help the government manage the uprising. In Shiite populated cities where Iran-backed militias have a strong base, like the holy city of Karbala, clashes are reported to have been fierce.
Unlike the Lebanese, Iraqis have been more openly critical of Iran — burning its flag, chanting for the country to leave, defacing posters of Ayatollah Khamenei and attacking the headquarters of Shiite militias supported by the Revolutionary Guards.
An influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and politician, Moktada al-Sadr, has defied Iran and sided with the protesters. Mr. al-Sadr attended a protest in the city of Najaf on Tuesday with an Iraqi flag wrapped around his shoulders. Mr. al-Sadr has called for the government of Iraq to resign.
Prominent hard-line Iranian politicians and commentators have openly tried to stoke an inter-Shiite conflict in the region. They have called protesters stooges of the West and criticized Mr. al-Sadr as unpredictable, unprincipled and a Shiite “parasite.”
Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor in chief of the conservative Kayhan newspaper and a senior adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, wrote a column calling for Iraqis and Lebanese to seize the American and Saudi embassies. Hamid Reza Zandi, a commentator, called for people to burn American and Saudi flags as a “big no” to the uprisings.
Analysts said Iran had a precedent of selectively supporting uprisings in the region if they are in line with its ideology and objectives. During the Arab Spring, for example, Iran backed the demonstrators against the governments of Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. In Syria, it sided with the government against the protesters and was instrumental in helping President Bashar al-Assad gain the upper hand against rebels in Syria’s eight-year civil war.
“Khamenei, who has invested so much in the region both financially and in manpower, is not going to allow protesters to compromise Iran’s regional dominance,” said Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. “No matter what it takes.”