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Protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon - the Shiite Axis Caught Off-Guard

Protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon - the Shiite Axis Caught Off-Guard
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

An important event occurred in Iran this November. On the 15th, the government announced a cessation of certain subsidies leading to a 50% increase in the price of gasoline. This was followed by a wave of demonstrations, and even riots (numerous attacks on petrol stations and public buildings), affecting the whole country and, as far as can be seen, also affecting many social groups. Unlike the movements of late 2017 and early 2018, the middle classes that support the "reformers", and therefore the government embodied by President Rohani, have this time taken to the streets. While the rise in oil prices triggered the revolt, slogans went well beyond this claim: the Islamic Republic itself was often called into question, as well as in previous episodes, its foreign policy ("look after us, not after the Iraqis").

The Iranian authorities united against the protest

In an unprecedented move, the authorities were able to suspend the Internet for five days, contradicting the widespread bias that only China - which may have provided Tehran with some technology transfers - was capable of such a feat so far. It was therefore in a complete media blackout that a merciless repression took place. When the Internet was restored on 23 November, Iranians and observers were able to begin to appreciate what had happened: dozens of deaths, 161 according to Amnesty International's latest count, often by gunfire; security forces were indeed ordered to shoot into the crowd as shown on numerous videos. The families of the victims have sometimes been asked to pay the price for the projectile that killed a son or brother. Thousands of people have been arrested. The judicial apparatus is now in motion.

The authorities were able to suspend the Internet for five days, contradicting the widespread bias that only China was capable of such a feat so far.

Another point that needs attention is that, unlike the usual modus operandi, the various authorities and factions of the regime had clearly agreed on a scenario this time. Only the head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raissi (the candidate best placed to succeed Khamenei), had initially expressed reservations, but he quickly rallied. President Rohani and the Supreme Leader made speeches that, for once, were perfectly consistent. Parliament has been in unison.

The measure taken on the price of oil was undoubtedly necessary to compensate for the deterioration in the State's revenues as a result of the American sanctions. However, the course of events leads at first glance to a hypothesis: the regime - all components combined - prepared, triggered and managed in cold blood the crisis in such a way as to "break" an all too inescapable popular protest in the face of the collapse of the Iranian economy.

One of the motivations of the Iranian authorities was undoubtedly to send a signal to Washington: "the Islamic Republic is capable of dealing with the consequences of the policy of maximum pressure". The spokespersons of the Iranian government obviously presented the riots as the result of the economic war waged against it by the Trump administration. Rouhani himself referred to a "foreign conspiracy". On 25 November, the inhabitants of Tehran were summoned by a text message to express their support for the regime. The Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guards, General Hossein Salami, told the crowd: "This war is over, we have triumphed".

Iraqi Shiites no longer comply with Tehran's directives

A second factor has most probably determined the Iranian authorities' action towards their population - the unrest that has been going on for weeks in Lebanon and Iraq -, whether to avoid a contagion effect towards Iran and/or to demonstrate in vivo the effective method of controlling rebellion. The leaders of the Islamic Republic find themselves in a paradoxical regional situation: they have managed to reverse the balance of power in their favour towards their Gulf neighbours; but the earth has begun to shake under their feet in the two key countries (besides Syria) of their area of influence, Iraq and Lebanon. In both cases, the youth is the soul of the protest, driven as in the first wave of Arab springs (2011-2012) by social despair aggravated by the rejection of corruption. In both cases, a political system rooted in confessionalism and dominated or remotely controlled by Iran is being challenged.

The Iraqi case is particularly serious for Iran. In Baghdad and in the south of the country, Shiites, since 1 October, have indeed been demonstrating, demanding the departure of the ruling parties and a complete reform of the institutions. Images of the famous General Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Qods force (the external branch of the Revolutionary Guards), are burned in the streets. The number of deaths is in the hundreds, but the movement does not seem to be running out of steam. Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, a leading figure in Iraqi Shiism, cautiously ended up taking sides with the insurgents, leading to the resignation of Iranian-backed Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi on 29 November. Iranian consulates are burning in the south of the country, including the holy city of Najaf. The demonstrators shouted: "the country to the Iraqis, the Iranians out". Qasem Soleimani had intervened in Baghdad from the beginning of the unrest to impose a firm line. This line has so far failed.

It even seems that the various security apparatus of the Iraqi state and the regime's militias are not fully aligned. As in Iran, videos show soldiers shooting at close range at demonstrators. In provincial cities, however, some services are said to have more qualms. Tribal networks are beginning to join the demonstrators. All in all, seen from Tehran, the results are appalling for the moment: the Shia world, which the Islamic Republic is destined to lead, no longer obeys.

Reasons for concern for the future

In Washington, the "hawks" will probably see this as something to celebrate - even if in reality the Americans are not involved in the unrest in Iraq and Lebanon. On the contrary, there are several reasons to fear the consequences of the current difficulties of the Shiite axis.

  • First, of course, the considerable human cost of the ongoing developments, combined with the weakening of governments that are important partners for Europeans: in the case of France, this is particularly true of Iraq, which President Macron was soon to visit, while the fate of the French jihadists in the north-east of Syria is the subject of difficult discussions with the Baghdad authorities
  • Secondly, the risk that the current situation will push Iranian leaders into a rush, whether in their regional actions or their nuclear programme. It seems even more necessary to engage in dialogue with Tehran and all the while more unlikely that this dialogue can be productive, given the American administration in the background that is probably strengthened in its conviction that "the pressures are effective"

In Beirut and Baghdad, a range of opposing, yet united, parties jointly run the state, determined to share the fruits of power.

  • Finally, in the longer term, the low probability of an exit from the crisis, or at least the great difficulty in imagining one.

Here again, there are elements common to Lebanon and Iraq. In Beirut and Baghdad, a range of opposing, yet united, parties jointly run the state, determined to share the fruits of power. These are particularly resilient systems in fact, because they are very difficult to unlock. Moreover, in this type of situation, elections no longer seem to be the natural way to renew the political game. In Algeria, demonstrators want to postpone the elections. In Sudan, revolutionaries considered that elections would be a trap, as was the case in Egypt, playing into the hands of Islamists and then the military. They have chosen the option of a transitional phase of power sharing with the military. If, as seems likely, none of these schemes are applicable in Iraq and Lebanon - not to mention Iran itself - it is to be feared that the option of force alone will prevail. The latest news from Iraq seem to confirm this hypothesis, as pro-Iranian militias have infiltrated the ranks of demonstrators, and with even more violent uses of force by the government in Baghdad. It would lead, in this Levant already mourned by the Syrian tragedy, to a "peace of cemeteries", perhaps the only one capable of preserving the Shiite axis.


Copyright: Haidar HAMDANI / AFP

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