Although the protests began as peaceful demonstrations, the government’s response quickly turned violent, leading to clashes that killed more than 100 civilians in the course of a week.
As the situation has become increasingly uncontrolled and bloody, more information has steadily emerged which highlights the role Iran has likely played in setting the stage for the public revolt. For one thing, it has been reported that the inciting incident for the protests appeared to be the firing of General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, who had played a major role in the Iraqi military’s campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIL).
His firing at the hands of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was arguably one of the most significant recent signs of overreaching Iranian influence on its neighbor to the west. Saadi was reportedly very popular, in part because of his status as a nationalist hero with little to no connections to the Iran-backed militias that also fought against ISIL. But this was also the main reason for his removal, which came in the wake of long-term pressure from Tehran.
By caving to that pressure, the Abdul-Mahdi government signaled its fundamental unwillingness to push for greater autonomy. This constitutes a reversal of tentative steps that the Iraqi PM had taken earlier in response to growing criticism over Iranian influence.
The aforementioned militias, organized under the umbrella of the “Popular Mobilization Units,” had been ordered to either disband or integrate into Iraq’s standing military, with a deadline of July 31. But this date passed without compliance by PMU leaders, some of whom ignored it outright while others suggested that it would take more time to generate support for integration. But even among those who took the latter position, no alternative deadline was given, and the PMUs suffered no consequences for their defiance of an Iraqi government order.
Now, those Iran-backed militant groups have been accused of attacking Iraqi protesters over the past week. On Monday, a Fox News report noted that some participants in these protests believed the attacks to stem from orders by the militants’ Iranian handlers. And given Tehran’s own reputation for ongoing crackdowns on dissent, this would certainly not be surprising. Far from merely taking issue with the symbolic significance of a foreign-led force taking precedence over the Iraqi militant, the public demonstrations also blamed PMUs for protecting corrupt politicians and contributing to the theft of public resources.
Fox News quoted one unemployed resident of Sadr City as saying that the money from Iraqi oil sales is largely channeled to Iran, leaving virtually nothing for vital maintenance and repairs of the electrical grid, water infrastructure, and so on. “We want clean water, food. But, the militias from Iran are killing us, and the world is silent,” he said in summary of the current situation.
Such statements point to a perceived Iranian obsession with strengthening its footprint on the broader region, even if this generates resentment from a significant portion of the population. Tehran has similarly exploited fundamentalist sentiment in other places like Lebanon, where the Shiite militant group Hezbollah has come to wield considerable political power while also functioning as a proxy for Iran’s foreign policy goals.
Among those goals are the replication of the Hezbollah model in other parts of the Middle East, including among the PMUs in Iraq. But that project has likely been impeded by the effects of unprecedented US sanctions, which have cut off Iranian financing to Hezbollah and other groups. In that context, the Iraqi protests serve to emphasize that Iranian influence represents a financial loss, as well as a loss of autonomy.
The Iranian regime’s officials and state media outlets were quick to blame the US and its allies for the unrest. These figures have sought to further exploit religious sentiment by saying that Americans were in some way controlling or directing the protests in order to distract from an upcoming pilgrimage for the Shiite religious celebration of Arbaeen.
Meanwhile, the Iranian government has advised its citizens to delay their plans for that pilgrimage, and multiple crossings between the two countries have been closed at some point in recent days. Yet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continued to promote the conspiracy theory, saying “Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed & their conspiracy won’t be effective.”
Of course, neither the supreme leader nor any other critic of the protests has presented any evidence to suggest the existence of such a conspiracy. And for those who are well familiar with the tactics and public statements of the Iranian regime, the accusation is weakened by the fact that it has been levied against a wide range of clearly home-grown protest movements. At the beginning of 2018, for instance, while Iran was in the midst of a nationwide uprising, Khamenei blamed the unrest on a “triangle of enemies” consisting of the US, Iran’s Gulf Arab adversaries and leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK). Khamenei had stated that the MEK had “planned for months” to organize demonstrations and popularize anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator.”
No doubt recognizing similarities among protests within the neighboring countries, that same organization released a report on Monday which provided additional context for the escalating struggle between the Iraqi people and the sources of Iranian influence. Drawing upon intelligence assets both in Iran and in Iraq, where thousands of Iranian Resistance activists lived prior to their relocation in 2016, the PMOI/MEK determined that numerous members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are present in Iraq under diplomatic cover, where they effectively control the PMUs, as well as various “departments and groups affiliated to the regime.”
The report also placed these mechanisms of influence in context with Tehran’s broader regional goals. It quoted an official representative of the supreme leader as saying, “Today Iran is not limited by its borders. Today Iraq’s Hashd Al-Shaabi [PMU] is Iran. Lebanese Hezbollah is Iran. Yemen’s Ansarollah [Houthi militia] is Iran. The Vatani Front in Syria is Iran. Palestine’s Islamic Jihad is Iran. Palestine’s Hamas is Iran.”
Meanwhile, reporting in Western media highlights the fact that Iran’s push for regional hegemony is motivated in large part by a desire to use proxies as a bulwark against American forces and their allies. That motive is surely apparent to the Iraqi protesters. And despite Baghdad’s own recent moves to embrace or tolerate higher levels of Iranian influence, it is apparent to the Iraqi government as well.
It was reported on Thursday that Iraq’s Foreign Ministry had summoned the Iranian ambassador in order to protest public statements that seemed to position Iraq as a potential battleground in a proxy war between Iran and the US. The ambassador, Iraj Masjedi, specifically said that if Iran was attacked by the US, then Iranian forces and their allies would “strike back anywhere, including Iraq.”
The Foreign Ministry’s summons led to a statement affirming that Iraq would not allow itself to become an international battleground. This arguably suggests that the Iranians are beginning to test the limits of Baghdad’s patience with creeping foreign dominance. But since the meeting with Masjedi, there has been no indication that the Iraqi government is seriously pushing back against that influence, much less submitting to the demands of the nationwide protests.
On the other hand, a possible sign of reconciliation emerged on Monday when Iraq’s military admitted to the use of “excessive force” in response to the protests. This statement came in the wake of several days’ excuses and denials, with the government blaming “saboteurs” and nameless snipers for the rising death toll. “We have begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts,” the military now claims.
But for many protesters, and many other critics of Iran’s foreign policy, questions will remain about whether those commanding officers were acting on behalf of the Iranian regime, and whether “accountability” will entail removal of the underlying Iranian influence.