Iran's proxies have allowed corruption to fester in Lebanon and Iraq. The protesters haven't forgotten

Iran's proxies have allowed corruption to fester in Lebanon and Iraq. The protesters haven't forgotten
Comment: Iran is eyeing inter-sect anti-government protests in Iraq and Lebanon with alarm, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
07 Nov, 2019
Some protesters equate Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah with the country's corrupt politicians [Getty]
In 2011, when Egyptians toppled Hosni Mubarak, it wasn't just the Egyptian ruling elites who were shaken. With a democratic revolution in what was ostensibly the largest Sunni-majority Arabic-speaking country in the region, other neighbouring tyrannies faced existential crises.  

Yet nobody would claim that Egyptians who toppled Mubarak were primarily motivated by his close relationship with Saudi or UAE; they were motivated by the fact they lived under brutal and stifling authoritarianism.

But the ramifications of change in these countries went far beyond their own borders. This is why, when the counter-revolution came in Egypt, its principal funders could be found in the halls of power of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.  

Iran now faces a similar situation, as Lebanese and Iraqi protesters take to the streets to demand lives free of the corruption and stagnation that has been enforced upon them by successive governments in their respective countries. 

This is not to say that one ought to look at these protests solely through the lens of its effects on Iranian hegemony.  We've seen how destructive this mode of thinking can be in Syria, where too often commentators, analysts and observers would define the Syrian struggle according to their own privileged and blinkered ideological biases.

This inverted chauvinism, and will to place 'geopolitics' and dubious notions of realpolitik over popular revolution allowed a brutal genocide to prosper.

Those in Lebanon and Iraq who have been forced onto the streets for democratic change, risking their lives and liberty by doing so, ought to be supported regardless of the ramifications on external forces.

In both Lebanon and Iraq we're witnessing uprisings that directly challenge the hegemony Iran has built over both countries

But this doesn't mean we can simply ignore the fact that in both Lebanon and Iraq we're witnessing uprisings that directly challenge the hegemony Iran has built over both countries.

Moreover, these aspects of the uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq are not mutually exclusive. In both countries, Iranian-backed and/or Iran-supporting forces are part of the corrupt and authoritarian systems and status quos that have engendered these nascent revolutions.  

Hezbollah has a significant base among Shia Lebanese, who are as economically worse off as anyone in Lebanon. But the group has demonstrated its capacity as a proxy for the Iranian regime against the interests of those it claims to represent, as it proved with its murderous intervention against Syrians on behalf of Assad at the behest of Tehran.

The ruling elites of Lebanon, whether Shia, Sunni or Christian, have mercilessly exploited the country's sectarian system for their own ends. But it must be with particular fear that Hezbollah and Iran look upon the cross-confessional, anti-sectarian nature of the protests in Lebanon, as well as the fact that it now faces discontent in its own southern heartlands.

The protesters are drawn from across Lebanon's religious divides, and the slogans condemning President Aoun and the erstwhile Prime Minister Hariri have not spared Hezbollah's chief Hassan Nasrallah. These protesters want a complete overturning of the political establishment; and that includes Hezbollah.

By proxy, this includes Iran, given they have dedicated so many resources to building up the group as not simply an armed force that could rival Lebanon's national army, but as a socioeconomic powerhouse and political powerbroker. It is by far Iran's greatest success in its tactic of carving out a sphere of influence through proxy groups. Hezbollah is the standard.   

It must be with particular fear that Hezbollah and Iran look upon the cross-confessional, anti-sectarian nature of the protests in Lebanon

This power is both a blessing and a curse to Hezbollah domestically. Though it could bring down governments any time it likes, its role in Lebanon's "old corruption" means it is further implicated in the system of corruption and inequality that the protesters want to completely upend.

The current Lebanese government was essentially shaped by Hezbollah, its influence is so great that it has the power to make or break governments in Lebanon.  

And though it'd be wrong to say Hezbollah doesn't have relative autonomy, its leadership remains entirely beholden to the Supreme Leader of Iran. Thus Iran, through its practice of cultivating different forms of proxy forces, is easily the most powerful external actor in Lebanon.  

This is why on 29 October, black-clad loyalists of Hezbollah and its ally Amal, armed with sticks, violently dismantled a large camp of peaceful anti-government protesters in Beirut. It's why Nasrallah has denounced the protests, accusing them unironically of receiving funding from foreign powers.  

If you're wondering what embassies Nasrallah meant, his spiritual boss Ayatollah Khamenei was quick to provide an answer. In a recent speech, he claimed the protesters in Lebanon and Iraq were tools of the "Zionist regime".

Read more: Hezbollah chief Nasrallah hunkers down, moves to thwart Lebanon protests

Similar to Lebanon, while the political system in Iraq is ostensibly democratic, the reality is an unchangeable political status quo. Unemployment remains unfathomably high and those who are fortunate enough to be employed are paid a pittance. Corruption among the political elites is endemic, while public services crumble.  

The protests in Iraq have been more openly anti-Iranian than those in Lebanon, which reflects the fact that Iran has been much less circumspect in its domination there. Tehran has built its influence in Iraq through a cluster of armed proxy groups that found a new level of political prominence due to the rise of IS.

The current prime minister of Iraq, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, is a former member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a group whose aim it was to export the Iranian Islamic revolution to Iraq.   

Iraqis are aware of the Iranian hegemony that underwrites their own corrupt elites

As protests have rocked every part of the country, Qassem Suleimani, the blight of Syria, has been in Baghdad helping to "stabilise" the prime minister against protesters. The result has been 250 protesters killed, but Iraqis are aware of the Iranian hegemony that underwrites their own corrupt elites.

Protesters have burned Iranian flags, chanting "Iran out" and "Free Iraq", while the headquarters of militias loyal to Tehran have been attacked and burned. Most recently, protesters gathered and were promptly murdered in front of the Iranian consulate in Karbala. 

At the same time, high profile Shia clerics, from Muqtada al-Sadr to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, have backed the protesters on the understanding that Iran is an occupying and hegemonic force that has divergent interests to Iraqis.

The reaction among pro-regime media in Iran has been desperate, with a senior advisor to Khamenei calling for Iraqis and Lebanese to counter the popular protests by burning the US and Saudi flags.

This rhetoric might have been effective in Syria, with its overwhelming Sunni-majority population, but with cross-confessional protests in Lebanon and Shia comprising the huge majority of protesters in Iraq, this rhetoric reeks of fear from Iran. 

It fears that its regional projects in Lebanon and Iraq could be swept away or severely weakened, with billions of pounds of resources lost. It fears that protests in these countries, especially Iraq, could lead to a contagion effect, with the galvanisation of protests within its own borders.  

The terrifying reality is that should the moment come, Iran will not simply surrender its interests in the region, while the rest of the world has proven it will side with regional order, over those who seek progressive change - the hundreds of thousands dead in Syria and millions more cleansed serve here as proof of this grisly fact.  


Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.