The recent uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq are an important development in an already troubled and politically fragile region. Although a new geopolitical order is emerging, many of the region’s legacy problems endure and most notably, the uneasy relationship between states and their citizens. This underlying tension, known as ‘the Arab Simmer’ which triggered the 2011 Arab Spring protests, remains unresolved. Effective governance continues to decline across most of the region and there is general pessimism about the region’s future as a result of high unemployment rates and high cost of living in non–oil producing countries (especially among youth), and sluggish region-wide economic growth. Citizens — regardless of ethnicity, faith, wealth, education, or status — continue to demand basic elements of governance. However, states are often unable or unwilling to acquiesce to appeals for free speech and freedom of assembly, access to decision making, effective service provision, and efforts to combat corruption.
Poor governance by corrupt political elites has led to the current uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq where the population, youth in the vast majority but not only, has taken to the streets to call for structural changes in their country’s governance system. And this situation is creating a new, and unexpected front for Iran, already strangled by US sanctions, entrenched in the long Syria war, and under threat from its Gulf neighbors.
In Iraq, demonstrations broke out in October to protest perceived government corruption, inadequate provision of public services, and a lack of job opportunities. As of 31 October, at least 220 people have been killed and more than 3,500 injured in the following weeks of unrest. Massive protests continue in Baghdad and demonstrations were also held in Najaf, Karbala Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, and Basra; curfews were imposed in some cities and internet services cut regularly to try and limit exposure on social media of violent repression.
In Beirut, after days of protests across the country (protests which started to oppose a taxation of WhatsApp communications!) clashes erupted after a mob of Hezbollah supporters attacked a protest camp set up by anti-government demonstrators in the capital. On 29 October, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation. Words on the streets are that he was using the threat of resignation as leverage against the other political parties. In this unsteady coalition government, Hariri is considered the only acceptable face of Lebanon toward the international community and his resignation has thrown the country in further political instability adding to a critical economic situation.
In both countries Iran has worked for decades to build pro-Iranian Shi’a militias into significant political forces that now sit in key positions in their respective power structures. In Iraq, factions that Iran sponsored as anti-Saddam oppositionists in the 1980s and 1990s now occupy large blocs in Iraq’s elected National Assembly and field Iran-backed militias that remain largely outside Iraq’s national military command. In Lebanon, Iran has built Lebanese Hezbollah into a major force in Lebanese politics, with three cabinet seats and, with its allies, a significant proportion of seats in Lebanon’s parliament.
If the protests in Iraq and Lebanon didn’t start out specifically opposing Iran this is how they are now turning, creating a new political front for Iran in countries which are critical to its regional and international strategy.
In Lebanon, Shi’a protesters in Hezbollah strongholds have demonstrated against Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, as entrenched in the governmental corruption and mismanagement. In Iraq, protesters have more directly cited the need to reduce Iranian influence and set fire to Iran’s consulate in Karbala while tearing down banners depicting Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i and other Iranian political figures.
Iran’s leaders now recognize that the unrest poses a threat to Iran’s significant investment to continue spreading its influence throughout the region and after an initial period of uncertainty in its reactions, Iran decisively moved into action to try to ensure that its allies agree to minimize change in the political structure and leadership of both countries, thus fueling the protests to continue and amplify.
Such tension between the populations of Lebanon and Iraq and the Iranian power is generating a threat to this social and popular movement and potential governance reforms. In Iraq, where confessional fragmentation of the population is already high, there is a significant risk of violence involving pro-Iranian militias. The main Popular Mobilization Forces have expressed a level of understanding for the protester’s claims but also warned that they would interfere in case the situation would further deteriorate; a clear threat to the protesters. In Lebanon, Hezbollah will have to carefully navigate the on-going political negotiations and try to limit popular dissatisfaction within its own electoral base.
But more instability could come from international powers outside the region. The United States might see a new opportunity in these protests to further destabilize and try to weaken the Iranian position in the region. The US embassy in Iraq has already expressed a certain level of support to popular claims and called upon the government to answer such claims. Political recuperation of this movement by the United States, or any outside power, will only deprive the Lebanese and Iraqi population of their movement for political reform and governance change in the region and make a geopolitical card in the wider Middle East Great Game; this would just be the end of popular aspirations.