The nationwide protests taking place in Lebanon and Iraq are driven by endemic government corruption and a burning desire to end Iran’s blatant attempts to turn them into de facto fiefdoms of Tehran. Pictured: Anti-government demonstrators in Beirut, Lebanon, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)
Iran’s attempts to expand its malign influence throughout the Middle East have suffered a severe setback as a result of the unprecedented anti-government protests that have erupted in Lebanon and Iraq in recent weeks.
The most obvious source of discontent in these two key Arab states has been the endemic corruption that has taken hold in both Beirut and Baghdad; in both countries, it has been the prime motivation in persuading tens of thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets.
The desire to end corrupt practices and force the governments in Beirut and Baghdad to undertake a radical overhaul of their respective countries’ governments is, though, only part of the story.
The nationwide protests taking place in both Arab states are also driven by a burning desire to end Iran’s blatant attempts to turn them into de facto fiefdoms of Tehran.
Iran’s attempts to seize control of the political agenda in Lebanon dates back to the early 1980s, when Iran established its Hezbollah militia in the southern part of the country to launch a series of terrorist attacks against Israeli forces operating in the area. Since then, Hezbollah — with Iran’s backing — has gradually extended its influence in the country to the point where Hezbollah is now widely recognised as Lebanon’s most influential political organisation.
Iranian interference in Iraq’s affairs, by contrast, is of more recent provenance, and can be traced back to the sectarian violence that erupted throughout the country following the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. More recently, Iran has been able to expand its influence in Baghdad by taking advantage of the recent campaign to defeat ISIS, where Iranian-backed Shia militias — the so-called Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) — fought against the predominantly Sunni militants who supported ISIS.
After defeating ISIS, the PMF militias have remained active in Iraq, thereby enabling Tehran to expand its influence in Baghdad.
Now, thanks to the determination and bravery of anti-government protesters, Iran’s designs of regional domination in the Middle East are rapidly unravelling.
The most obvious sign that Iran is coming under intense pressure to protect its Middle East assets has been the appearance in Baghdad of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). As the man who is personally responsible for exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution throughout the Arab world, Mr Soleimani travelled to Iraq in a desperate bid to prevent the country’s pro-Iran prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, from resigning.
Since anti-government protesters took to the streets last month, Mr Soleimani has been a frequent visitor to Baghdad. The day after the protests began, Mr Soleimani is reported to have chaired a meeting with top Iraqi security officials in Baghdad, a role that is normally fulfilled by the country’s prime minister. The following day, more than 100 people were killed at the hands of unidentified snipers and members of Iran-backed militias such as the PMF.
Unfortunately for Iran, its strong-arm tactics have made little impression on the protesters, despite the fact that the death toll from the protests in Iraq now stands at around 250. Last Friday saw the biggest protests in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with thousands gathering in central Baghdad. Elsewhere, protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, where they scaled the concrete barriers surrounding the building before removing the Iranian flag and replacing it with an Iraqi one.
There have also been attacks on PMF militia bases in Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah, where 12 demonstrators were killed when the headquarters of the Iranian-backed Badr Organisation was set alight.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, there have been reports of Hezbollah fighters attacking peaceful protesters as Iran tries desperately to prevent its most important proxy in the Middle East from falling out of its orbit.
The protests, moreover, could not have come at a worse time for Iran, where the economy is in freefall as a result of the wide-ranging sanctions that have been introduced by Washington.
The sanctions mean that the ayatollahs have already had to cut back on their funding of proxy militias around the Arab world. Local protesters are now making plain that their dislike for Iranian meddling in their affairs could soon spell the end for Tehran’s ambition to become the region’s dominant power.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph‘s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.