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What Protests in Iraq and Lebanon Mean for Iran? by Struan Stevenson

What Protests in Iraq and Lebanon Mean for Iran?  by Struan Stevenson
Struan Stevenson the Coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change (CiC). The former member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA).

Developments in Iraq and Lebanon, two Arab states where the Iranian regime boasted of controlling their capitals, are becoming very worrying for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Long considering the Middle East as its fiefdom the mullahs regime regards a decrease in influence in these areas as a prelude to sparking new protests and even a nationwide uprising back home. 

This turn of events gained a broader perspective as protesters in the city of Karbala, a major Shiite stronghold considered vital for the Ayatollahs in Iran, stormed the Iranian consulate on Sunday night. The site was torched and the significance of the development gained further global attention when the news was retweeted by U.S. President Donald Trump.

President Trump had generally remained silent on the Iraqi protests, so his first intervention, where he re-tweeted a video of Tehran’s consulate being torched, sent a crystal-clear message to the mullahs on the eve of November 4th, when the Iranian regime marked the anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis of 40 years ago. 

In Lebanon, more than a week of demonstrations triggered the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. Iran-backed Hezbollah held a number of seats in Hariri’s cabinet, providing even further influence to Iran in Lebanese affairs. His resignation, however, leaves the future in murky waters and Tehran can no longer rely on Obama’s appeasement policy to escalate its influence in Beirut. 

Realizing the dangers of allowing the protests to escalate, Iran ordered Hezbollah to launch an attack targeting anti-government protesters seen smashing chairs and torching tents in Beirut on October 29th. The protesters, who are demanding an end to corruption and Iranian meddling could be heard chanting slogans against Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah. 

Rising tensions from the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Lebanese who are sick of Hezbollah and Iranian meddling in their internal affairs, have sent a disturbing signal to Tehran. The steady escalation of such protests across the Middle East has turned the focus on the mullah’s policy of aggressive expansionism. The Iranian regime knows that after four decades of deep investment in the region to establish a meaningful influence, demonstrators in Iraq and Lebanon are posing a major threat to Iran’s interests by challenging the political status quo. Groups with any affiliation to the Islamic Republic are under heavy pressure and condemned generally by the people of Iraq and Lebanon. Of even more significance is the fact that the current uprising is rooted in the Shiite communities where Iran has long boasted to enjoy vast support. 

Iran is facing a strategic loss as allies, such as the Shiite government in Baghdad and Hezbollah in Beirut, are being jeered by locals protesting against poverty, unemployment, government corruption and Iran’s malign influence in their countries. In Iraq, especially, people are asking why they live in poverty while Iran-backed individuals and entities are establishing vast economic powerhouses? 

In Lebanon, Iranian controlled Hezbollah-backed factions have a stranglehold on the government. Hezbollah has established a large swath of influence in southern Lebanon, primarily through cash handouts provided by the Iranian mullahs at the expense of their own people, 80 percent of whom are already struggling with poverty. 

Despite these measures, Hezbollah is feeling the heat from the Lebanese people who are demanding major changes and refuse to accept mere reforms initially presented by their government. Desperate to respond, Iran is, as always, blaming the West for sparking and fueling the current unrest. With typical hypocrisy, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has accused foreign governments of meddling in Iraq and Lebanon. In recent remarks, Khamenei accused “U.S. and western intelligence services, with the financial backing of evil countries” of “fanning the flames of chaos.” 

There is no doubt that the current uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon are particularly difficult for the mullahs to handle. Iran is attempting to distance itself from the already out of control tensions in both countries. However, local allies and armed groups being targeted by Iraqi and Lebanese demonstrators are making it quite challenging for Tehran to remain in the shadows. 

There are a new awakening and realization among these Arab nations about the devastating impact of Iran’s belligerence in their countries. And these protests are a sign of regional nations slamming their fists down hard and saying enough is enough. Online videos from Iraq show demonstrators, despite the violent crackdown that has leftover 250 dead and several thousand injured, bravely chanting “Iran out, out! Iraq will remain free.” Demonstrators are also stamping on and vividly insulting images of Khamenei and the IRGC Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, who was behind the massacre of peaceful protesters in Karbala, where black-clad and masked Quds Force gunmen killed 18 and injured 865. The Iranian regime’s flag has been burned in several Iraqi cities. 

At the end of the day, the regime in Iran understands very well that such protests in Iraq and Lebanon can portray a weak Tehran apparatus and a good target for a new round of protests and a nationwide uprising by the Iranian people. 

Struan Stevenson is the Coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change (CIC). He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA)

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